The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

If you work in the oil industry and are tired of the environmentalists trying to make you feel guilty, it will do your heart and soul good to read The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein. And if you are not in the industry, this book will provide some fascinating insights.

This book is not merely a refutation of the various arguments and data models used by environmentalists, but rather it is a celebration of how the oil and coal industries have vastly enriched our lives. Epstein’s background is philosophy, not geology or petroleum engineering. His book is replete with facts and data in easy-to-read graphs that support his positions. And his informal style and personal stories of reaching his conclusions through reason and research are enjoyable.

As a philosopher, he starts by making clear that the rational standard for moral evaluation is the flourishing of humans, not the sanctity of earth apart from mankind. And he explains the importance of looking at what he calls “the big picture,” considering the full context of an issue, which includes assessing all known risks and benefits.

Epstein argues that the use of fossil fuels is morally good and should not only be continued but should even be expanded. This is because energy improves the human environment dramatically, as he concludes:

just as energy dramatically improves our ability to deal with any aspect of life by using machines— increasing our mental capacities with computers, our medical capabilities with MRI machines, and our agricultural capabilities with high-powered farming equipment— so it dramatically improves our ability to make our environment healthier and safer from natural and man-made threats. (page 34)

To achieve those benefits for the 7 billion people on earth, an energy source must be cheap, reliable, plentiful, and scalable.

But should that energy source be fossil fuels? Epstein explains why solar and wind sources are diluted and intermittent. Biomass cannot be scaled, requires too much energy to produce, and competes with food production. For hydroelectric power, there are not enough suitable sites and environmental activists are preventing the use of many of those sites. Uranium contains much more energy than coal or oil, but is very expensive to produce.

From there, he demonstrates why producing energy from fossil fuels is the greatest technology of all time because it does provide energy that is cheap, plentiful, reliable and scalable. And, as those of you in the industry know, the technology is continuing to expand.

Epstein then elaborates on how energy from fossil fuels has improved the human environment: providing clean water, eradicating diseases, providing sanitation, cleaning and controlling air in our homes, and generally enabling us to fight the otherwise overwhelming hazards of nature.

And constant technological improvements allow us to manage any by-products and risks that result from their use. He also provides evidence of the startling point that, as CO2 emissions have increased, climate-related deaths have plunged.

Regarding the sustainability touted by environmentalists in defense of renewable energy, Epstein demonstrates that

fossil fuel use is not “unsustainable” but progressive— by using the best energy technology today and in the coming decades, we pave the way for fossil fuel technologies not only to harness the copious amounts of fossil fuels remaining in the ground, of which we have just scratched the surface, but also to create the resources and time necessary to develop the next great energy technology. (pages 34-35)

Finally he explains why the oil and coal industries are hated. There have been decades of under-appreciation of fossil fuels’ benefits and massive misrepresentations of fossil fuels’ risks. He calls for the industries to defend themselves morally, not just from an economic or job creation standpoint. As Epstein says:

I believe that we owe the fossil fuel industry an apology. While the industry has been producing the energy to make our climate more livable, we have treated it as a villain. We owe it the kind of gratitude that we owe anyone who makes our lives much, much better. (page 136)

As you celebrate Thanksgiving today, give a thought to the many ways that fossil fuel energy is allowing you to enjoy not only this day, but also every day of your life. And if you are in the industry, feel proud of your contribution to this.

2 comments to The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

  • Jeri

    Thank you. I look forward to hearing what you think about the book.

  • JoMarie Di Iorio

    Great article . I will now try to read the book for the enjoyment of learning something new to me and to give me the understanding to defend it.