Friday, October 6, 2017

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels – by Alex Epstein (Portfolio/Penguin, 2014) 

Epstein makes a good argument for the utility of fossil fuels. He also makes a good argument that human well-being is a more valuable standard by which to measure their utility than environmental non-impact. However, while his arguments are successful against a standard of non-impact, they do not hold up if the standard simply becomes a more pragmatic reduction of impact. Thus the book is useful pitted against more radical or extremist environmentalists and weak pitted against moderate pragmatic environmentalists. Epstein is a fellow at the right wing think tank Ayn Rand Institute. He is also a founder at the Center for Industrial Progress. While Epstein acknowledges that fossil fuels are a primary cause of climate change he thinks we can effectively use technology to adapt and mitigate it.

He notes that at the time of writing 87% of global energy use was fossil fuels. He invokes the past specters of unfounded fossil fuel depletion, although at times in the U.S. anyway, there have been temporary shortages. He invokes Amory Lovins’ incorrect predictions about the capabilities of renewable energy. He invokes the wrong assumptions of The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth and biologist Paul Ehrlich’s predictions of mass starvation in light of population increase. He invokes the vastly incorrect predictions of Ehrlich’s protégé, Obama science advisor John Holdren, anti-fossil fuel advocate Bill McKibben, and climate scientist James Hansen about climate effects – all predicted to be worse by now than has occurred – although there is no doubt some significant climate change effects are occurring. Epstein debated Bill McKibben at Duke University in 2012.

One of his main data sources is the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, which comes out annually. Here it is clear that increased fossil fuel use (mainly coal and oil) correlates to increased GDP per capita and to increased life expectancy. However, with the overload of particulate matter in China over the last few years the life expectancy correlation may take a hit. There is little doubt that access to affordable energy in developing countries leads to increased human well-being. Most fossil fuel reduction proposals take that into account and exempt developing countries from growth reduction requirements. He correctly notes that in many cases the benefits of fossil fuels outweigh the risks. 

Human ingenuity, says Epstein, has increased fossil fuel reserves when most experts predicted depletion. This is true due to technological innovations like hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, 3D and 4D seismic, and other imaging and extraction techniques for mining. 

He favors optimism rather than pessimism about fossil fuels. He shows EPA data that air pollutant emissions dropped significantly from 1990 to 2014. What he doesn’t say is that such drops were due in large part to lobbying efforts that the fossil fuel industries opposed such as requirements for scrubbers at coal-burning power plants and replacing of coal plants by natural gas plants which emit far less pollutants. He invokes climate cooling concerns in the early 1970’s as an argument against pessimistic catastrophism. He correctly shows that Jim Hansen’s temperature predictions in the mid-1980’s were off the mark. Temps have increased significantly but far less than Hansen predicted then. However, Epstein also shows temperature data and quite incorrectly concludes that “CO2 is not a particularly powerful driver.”

He gives data that show that climate-related deaths have decreased significantly over time when catastrophists predicted they would increase. This is not surprising since we have better technology, warning systems, and disaster planning than in the past, partly due to prosperity and fossil fuel used to power our technologies.

Based on the past incorrect predictions of experts he suggests that experts should be advisors rather than authorities. I would agree to a certain extent. Knowledge of science does not necessarily translate to knowledge of policy. Policy requires ‘big picture’ assessments. Regarding past fossil fuel use utilizing the standard of human well-being Epstein sees it as a moral victory:

“I think that our fossil fuel use so far has been a moral choice because it has enabled billions of people to live longer and more fulfilling lives,…”

In contrast, people like Bill McKibben have advocated that minimizing impact on the environment should be the standard, presumably at the cost of human well-being. His austerity scenarios back this up. McKibben values preservation of nature at the expense of human well-being. Again, I think Epstein’s arguments work great against extremist views like those of McKibben and his ilk but are rather inconsequential against sensible and pragmatic arguments for reasonable reductions in fossil fuel use and environmental impacts. Cheap, plentiful, scalable, and reliable energy in the form of fossil fuels will continue to be used where applicable until renewable energy becomes cheaper, more plentiful (more efficient), and more reliable so that it can economically and logistically compete and gradually replace fossil fuels. 

His arguments for energy access – real energy access via power plants and grids not just a few solar panels – for developing countries are ‘no-brainers.’ Energy is food for our machines, he says, and those machines make the products we need and such manufacturing gives people jobs. About a billion people in the world have no electricity and up to 3 billion have inadequate electricity. 

Solar and wind energy suffer from efficiency problems. He notes that per unit of energy produced wind requires well over 10 times the steel and iron than coal and about 100 times that of natural gas. Of course, the intermittency problems of both solar and wind are a big issue limiting their economics and feasibility. He rightly calls out the nonsensical hype of wind and solar. Germany, regardless of their very strong push still relies increasingly on coal in light of phasing out nuclear. Wind and solar have limitations on the grid as well as significant temporary over-generation needs to be exported or stored, or else is lost. He goes through the problems with biomass (wood, solid waste, and biofuels like ethanol) as well. Processing and scalability are the two main issues and in the case of wood and waste they produce CO2 and as much pollutants as coal. Corn ethanol can compete with food corn and inflate food prices. Hydroelectric power is limited by lack of available suitable sites and political/environmental opposition. Nuclear energy is reliable and scalable but is not cheap. Safety is important but the dangers of nuclear are likely over-hyped. Only newer, cheaper, and safer forms of nuclear have a chance of dominating the energy landscape pretty far into the future but that is assuming real technological breakthroughs with fusion or perhaps thorium reactors.

Among the fossil fuels, or hydrocarbons, coal is the most plentiful and in many places the cheapest. While Epstein cheers coal many throughout the world predict its use will decline as it has where natural gas is cheaper and renewables have feasibility. Natural gas is ideal for home heating, base load electricity in most cases, and peak load electricity. Its biggest problem is that it must be pipelined in most cases which keeps it more local, although liquefied natural gas (LNG) that can move via truck and mainly tanker is gaining market share throughout the world. Natural gas is the lightest hydrocarbon and produces the least pollutants and CO2. Oil is highly concentrated (energy dense) and its portability is unrivaled. Thus it and its refined products like gasoline have long been the transport fuel of choice. A vast array of products like plastic and rubber are derived from oil and natural gas liquids (ethane, propane, butanes, natural gasoline, and condensates).

The definition of a resource involves human ingenuity to transform a raw material into something usable. The value and subsequently the price of a resource varies depending on several factors. How much of a resource is readily available depends on availability of technology to extract it, price comparisons with other available resources, and on infrastructure available to process and deliver the resource. Thus we have categories of resource reserves: resource in-place, technically recoverable resource, and economically recoverable resource. These fluctuate according to supply and demand economics. 

One important thing he notes is how the availability of oil produced by the oil industry revolutionized agriculture through mechanization and effectively solved world hunger problems – at least those not constrained by local poverty and politics. Mechanized agriculture and crop technology drastically increased yields. Fertilization from natural gas derived nitrogen fertilizers from the Haber-Bosch process is another major part of that picture. Fossil fuel powered water pumping in irrigation is another contributor. Epstein notes that rarely do the fossil fuel producers get any credit for providing the resources that feed us and improve countless lives. Thus he argues that fossil fuel producers should be hailed rather than vilified.

Epstein goes on to be the catastrophist he warns about by predicting billions of unnecessary premature deaths if carbon emissions reductions are implemented on the recommended scale – 80% reductions over several decades. I think that is way off.

He talks about his experiences in high school and college where he was taught the dire realities of global warming. He states that he didn’t like the potential restrictions on behavior implicated in responding to climate change threats. Later he discovered there were a few climate scientists that were skeptical of global warming predictions such as MIT’s Richard Lindzen and Patrick Michaels of the University of Virginia. These researchers claim that the effects of global warming are mild and inconsequential. They are not considered to be correct by most climate scientists yet they are exalted by those who oppose implementation of policies to quickly mitigate global warming. He does note that there is uncertainty about the dangers of climate change and that society has unfortunately categorized people into climate change believers and climate change deniers, those who see it as a looming catastrophe and those who see it as inconsequential. The depiction of “climate change denier” is both an unfair subtle jab comparing to ‘holocaust deniers’ and a straw man. While fossil fuels may increase global warming and its effects they also increase our ability to adapt to climate impacts. Many people who believe climate change is occurring also think our best focus should be on adapting to it. Thus the need for adaptation, particularly to extreme weather events which may be enhanced by climate change, can be widely agreed upon.

Epstein defers by noting that climate disasters have always occurred, that climate has always been volatile and dangerous. While that may be true that has nothing to do with anthropogenic enhancements towards the likelihood of increased amount and potency of events. He compares current changes in things like sea level to past changes (sea level has been rising since the end of the last ice age) but fails to acknowledge that impacts could be much worse with astronomically higher coastal populations.

Epstein displays a graph to show that the greenhouse effect is an “extreme diminishing effect – a logarithmically decreasing effect,” as if this makes the anthropogenic effect less – it doesn’t. Sure the initial CO2 in the atmosphere that was there before the industrial age has the most effect. He notes that it is not the greenhouse effect alone that is postulated to lead to catastrophic effects but proposed positive feedbacks that amplify it. He points to doubts about feedbacks and climate sensitivity but fails to mention that the vast majority of climate scientists agree on the range of those effects. He then mentions the uncertainty in climate modeling. Models are based on assumptions and if one or more of those assumptions is off the mark then the future predictions may be incorrect. He shows Jim Hansen’s predictions from 1988 and how he overestimated warming by about 0.2 to 0.4 deg Celsius. Of course the state of climate science was much less certain in 1988 than it is now and the models have been updated. This is classic “cherry-picking” to sow doubt. Next he shows John Christy of the University of Alabama Huntsville’s tropospheric satellite temperature data that also shows that degree of warming has been overpredicted. What he doesn’t mention is that the surface data does show warming consistent with modeling so his refutation is only half or part correct. (animals and humans affected by changing temperatures do not live in the troposphere). My own speculation is that the troposphere or any place further out from the surface of the earth encompasses a vastly larger area than near surface so changes might be muted or altered in some ways.

He shows another graph on ‘accumulated cyclone energy’ which suggests that storm energy has not increased as models predict. He also attacks sea level rise scenarios as unscientific because they are overly based on modeling and refers to numbers that do not match models as “climate dishonesty.” While modeling does have issues and is constantly being refined and reinforced with more data as time goes on I think he is being quite unfair here since the scientists do not see their sometimes inaccurate predictions as ‘unscientific’ or ‘dishonest’ but correct for discrepancies as they occur. Scientific modeling has been used very successfully in many scientific disciplines and although global climate modeling can be seen as quite complex there is no reason to disregard it or downplay its usefulness. He is basically accusing scientists of not being scientific. While he rightfully disses people like Bill McKibben for incorrectly associating the greenhouse effect directly with catastrophic climate change I find it rather silly that he claims to out-science prominent scientists. He does correctly dis the common 97% of scientists agree argument which is incorrect and overused but clearly a majority (I would guess well over 80%) of climate scientists and a lesser amount of other scientists agree. Economic geologists (of which I am one) have a larger percentage that do not agree and this is very likely due to the fact that most are involved in fossil fuel production.

In addressing climate ethics he does rightly point out that several prominent scientists have crossed over into policy too much and made absurd statements – Hansen’s statement that fossil fuel CEOs should be tried for crimes against humanity and nature and the late Stephen Schneider’s argument that scientists should dramatize and make scary the potential effects of climate science to stimulate policy actions. This is unfortunate and I agree with Epstein that it is not ethical and would mislead the public.

Next he introduces the fertilizer effect and so-called ‘global greening,’ whereby increased atmospheric CO2 stimulates plant growth and leads to increased green plant mass. This is undoubtedly true. He invokes the work of climate scientist Craig Idso that shows this and strongly suggests that increased agricultural yields are due not only to fertilizer made from natural gas but also due to increased atmospheric CO2. Of course, most climate scientists do not believe that this positive effect offsets the negative effects of CO2. The fertilizer effect is true of most plants including food and commercial plants but there are some plants that do not benefit from increased CO2. While those who are apt to dis the dangers of climate change will often point out that CO2 is plant food, several studies indicate that the negatives outweigh the positives. Epstein seems to think otherwise and warnings about the dangers of climate change can be chalked up to biases that consider human impacts on the environment to always be negative. Thus, again he accusing scientists of being unscientifically biased and dishonest. I find his argument unconvincing.

Of course, fossil fuels and the technologies they enabled have led to fewer climate-related deaths as we can now much better predict in detail extreme weather events. This is no surprise although Epstein seems to think it is. Also unsurprising is that developed nations have fewer deaths from climate-related events like droughts, storms, floods, heatwaves, and wildfires than developing nations do. Fossil fuels (and really now all energy sources) and their enabled technologies make populations less vulnerable. However, high populations in vulnerable areas particularly near the tropics, the so-called ‘global south,’ are still quite vulnerable. There is no doubt that technology makes us safer. 

Epstein rightly berates John Kerry for telling Indonesia, a developing country that is vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis, to stop burning coal. However, perhaps they should be berated for excessive underground coal fires and especially for irresponsible land clearing by burning, illegal logging, habitat destruction, and much of this due to palm oil plantations. In some years the smoke from out-of-control land-clearing fires and deforestation in Indonesia has been the number one single source of global carbon emissions.

In adapting to sea level change he points to the Netherlands as many do. They used technology to adapt by building dikes and water drainage systems. Of course, the Netherlands is a small country that does not typically have storm surges like the Atlantic coastal cities of the U.S. sometimes do. Flood control is useful and should be more widely applied as Houston recently discovered. 
He considers ‘climate justice,’ the argument from anti-fossil fuel advocates that by burning more fossil fuels we are endangering the poor in particular. He rightly notes that the cheapest and most widely available forms of energy make the climate livable the fastest. The undeveloped world has the right to industrialize and that will make their local climates more livable for them. People working in the fossil fuel industries, particularly those at higher levels, have been demonized quite unfairly by the environmental and climate justice advocates.

Technology has also enabled us to mitigate pollution. Air, water, and soil pollution levels have improved through time, due in part to environmental rules like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act (Epstein does not mention this) and due to technologies like ‘scrubbers’ and other pollution abatement technologies, effluent capture and treatment, water recycling technologies, and many other industrial ‘best practices’ to reduce pollution. Our water treatment technologies are mostly what provide us with clean water since much natural water is naturally tainted: with salt, heavy metals, bacteria and other pathogens, and parasites. Chemicals are used to purify water, water that runs through plastic pipes made from oil and/or copper pipes derived from mining.

He notes the toxicity involved in wind turbine manufacture, specifically the processing of required rare earth elements via hydrofluoric acid often from China. Toxic lakes of effluent that give off foul air that affects local people are one result of this.

He considers the advantages of coal: widely available, usually cheap, and easily transportable. Of course, coal smoke sickens people. The trend has always been toward cleaner coal-burning. From in-home burning which was largely replaced by natural gas, fuel oil, and propane, to centralized coal-burning power plants for electricity to plants with pollution abatement equipment installed to more efficient plants to the possibility (now seeming unlikely) of widespread carbon capture and sequestration at the plants. Coal mining has gotten safer and more mechanized over the decades. Nonetheless, in developed countries coal seems destined to continually decline due to its carbon emissions and pollution and in some places from competition from natural gas and eventually renewables.

He considers rights including property rights, the right to pollute, and the right to a clean environment, and the role of government in these rights. He suggests that rights need to be contextualized, presumably in relativity to alternatives. Here we get into debates about where the lines between acceptable and unacceptable risk need to be drawn. Epstein seems to suggest that pollution levels should be set based on technological ability to reduce pollution. While I agree that should be a factor considered I think impact on humans (and nature to a lesser extent) should be the main criteria.

He mentions four common fallacies invoked in anti-fossil fuel arguments: the abuse-use fallacy, the false-attribution fallacy, the no-threshold fallacy, and the “artificial” fallacy. The use-abuse fallacy is simply arguing that if a technology is potentially dangerous, it should be banned. He uses the anti-fracking movie Gasland as an apt example. The false-attribution fallacy is simply falsely attributing cause and effect – when an effect may have other causes. He uses the flaming water faucets again from Gasland as an example. Although drilling (not hydraulic fracturing) can lead to methane migration into a water supply under certain geological conditions (as can drilling a water well too deep) in those places there may also be significant naturally-occurring methane that had previously migrated into the water – which is why lighting faucets occurred in some of those areas long before the advent of oil & gas drilling. He also argues against media headlines that assume causation based on correlations as is often done, quite irresponsibly in my opinion, in epidemiological and other health studies in which the results are often vague and may be attributable to other causes or multiple causes. The no-threshold fallacy says that a substance is poison regardless of the dosage which is obviously false since many substances are beneficial or neutral at low doses and harmful at high doses. Dose is virtually always a factor is poisoning and pollution. This fallacy has been used extensively by those who oppose nuclear energy. The “artificial” fallacy is simply concluding that man-made, or synthetic substances are harmful simply because nature did not produce them. This is patently false and ridiculous. It has been used to advocate against many industries including the food and health industries. Of course, many naturally-occurring substances are harmful, some at low doses.

Epstein is correct to conclude that development including industrial development, particularly in developing countries, overall has led and will continue to lead to a cleaner environment. Most technologies are becoming more efficient and less wasteful. While one might argue that is not the case in air choked parts of China and India it can still be demonstrated that life and health there has improved overall. While outdoor air pollution may have increased, much more dangerous indoor air pollution mainly from wood and dung cooking fires has decreased, reducing fire risk and pollution that mainly affects women and children.

He also points out that fossil fuels in the past have replaced wood for fuel which in turned preserved forests. Oil also replaced whale oil. The internal combustion engine freed horses and cows from being laborers for humans.

He argues against sustainability and the ideas of “carrying capacity” and finite resources, as argued by Ehrlich and Holdren. Notions of “peak oil” and indeed “peak everything” have been challenged since it is often technology developed through human ingenuity that unlocks new resource potential. He seems to think that makes the concept of finite resources irrelevant and in some cases it does but in others it is still quite relevant. He makes the argument like others that we need not worry because technology will save us. While this is possible it is a very weak argument for inaction on several fronts.

“The basic principle espoused in this book is that we survive by transforming our environment to meet our needs. We maximize resources and we minimize risks.”

He talks about his 2012 debate at Duke University with Bill McKibben. Epstein had little help and actually paid McKibben ten thousand dollars of his own money to debate. McKibben was fresh from the publishing of his influential Rolling Stone article, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. McKibben has long called for restrictions on fossil fuel production and may be considered a leading anti-fossil fuel advocate. The article kicked off the divestment movement – divesting from fossil fuels. Epstein felt that McKibben was making a moral argument against fossil fuels and wanted to counter it with a moral argument in favor of fossil fuels.

Epstein complains that in schools we are now taught about the dangers of fossil fuels but not about their benefits. He considers this irrational moral prejudice. He claims that the thought leaders of the anti-fossil fuel movement: Ehrlich, Holdren, Lovins, McKibben, and Al Gore, have exaggerated the negatives of fossil fuels and ignored the positives. He quotes Lovins, Ehrlich, and Jeremy Rifkin opposing nuclear fusion (an inherently safe form of abundant energy for all that has yet to be developed) in the 1980’s to show that they are basically anti-technology. He questions what being “green” even means since being anti-tech is advocating that many people benefit from technology in many ways be denied it. Epstein favors industrial progress as a moral ideal – improving the planet for human beings. Of course that can’t happen if environmental impacts are ignored or downplayed. In terms of media campaigning for fossil fuel companies he thinks they have been too much on the defensive from assaults from environmentalists and should instead be proud and extoll the virtues of fossil fuels. He sees fossil fuel companies as depicting themselves as a necessary evil. The natural gas industry gave the Sierra Club $25 million between 2007 and 2010 when they were promoting the cleaner virtues of gas relative to coal and oil, much of it due to the relationship between then Sierra Club leader Carl Pope and shale gas pioneer Aubrey McClendon. A year or two later the Sierra Club under new leadership was declaring the natural gas industry and their technique of fracking as evil and public enemy number one – of course they kept the money. The fossil fuel industry, particularly the oil & gas industry lately, has long suffered from a PR problem and gaining public acceptance is now a major focus. Effectively explaining the value of their product is the main point of Epstein’s approach but also necessary is convincing the public that they are actually optimizing the minimizing of risks. With delay tactics recently particularly from pipeline opposition there is loss of revenue from delayed project approvals. This also resulted in some lost work and layoffs (me included) during the recent industry downturn.

Epstein calls out candidate Obama who compared the tyranny of oil to the previous tyrannies of fascism and communism, quite an unfair characterization even if just political rhetoric. Epstein offers a summary sentence of his book:

“Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous – because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life.”

In conclusion I would again say that Epstein’s arguments are strong against radical anti-fossil fuel advocates but weak against pragmatic environmentalists who have a more well-rounded understanding of energy, environment, and climate. His arguments treating climate change as a minor problem are weak. I agree that technology allows us to adapt to climate-related extreme weather events and adaptation should be a major focus but I also think we need to reduce emissions as much as is practical and devote considerable research and incentives toward reducing emissions.

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