The Case for Fossil Fuels

Below is an excerpt from a large study: “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” by  Alex Epstein, Center for Industrial Progress.

Read the full study here, 11 pages.

What does it mean to be moral?
This is an involved philosophical question, but for our purposes I will say: an activity is moral if it is fundamentally beneficial to human life.

By that standard, is the fossil fuel industry moral? The answer to that question is a resounding yes. By producing the most abundant, affordable, reliable energy in the world, the fossil fuel industry makes every other industry more productive—and it makes every individual more productive and thus more prosperous, giving him a level of opportunity to pursue happiness that previous generations couldn’t even dream of. Energy, the fuel of technology, is opportunity—the opportunity to use technology to improve every aspect of life. Including our environment.

Any animal’s environment can be broken down into two categories: threats and resources. (For human beings, “resources” includes a broad spectrum of things, including natural beauty.) To assess the fossil fuel industry’s impact on our environment, we simply need to ask: What is its impact on threats? What is its impact on resources? The moral case against fossil fuels argues that the industry makes our environment more threatening and our resources more scarce.

But if we look at the big-picture facts, the exact opposite is true. The fossil fuel industry makes our environment far safer and creates new resources out of once-useless raw materials.

Let’s start with threats. Schoolchildren for the last several generations have been taught to think of our natural environment as a friendly, stable place—and our main environmental contribution is to mess it up and endanger ourselves in the process. Not so. Nature does not give us a healthy environment to live in—it gives us an environment full of organisms eager to kill us and natural forces that can easily overwhelm us.

It is only thanks to cheap, plentiful, reliable energy that we live in an environment where the air we breathe and the water we drink and the food we eat will not make us sick, and where we can cope with the often hostile climate of Mother Nature.  Energy is what we need to build sturdy homes, to purify water, to produce huge amounts of fresh food, to generate heat and air-conditioning, to irrigate deserts, to dry malaria-infested swamps, to build hospitals, and to manufacture pharmaceuticals, among many other things. And those of us who enjoy exploring the rest of nature should never forget that oil is what enables us to explore to our heart’s content, which preindustrial people didn’t have the time, wealth, energy, or technology to do.

The energy we get from fossil fuels is particularly valuable for protecting ourselves from the climate. The climate is inherently dangerous (and it is always changing, whether we influence the change or not). Energy and technology have made us far safer from it. The data here are unambiguous. In the last 80 years, as CO2 emissions have risen from an atmospheric concentration of .03% to .04%, climate-related deaths have declined 98%. Take drought-related deaths, which have declined by 99.98%. This has nothing to do with a friendly or unfriendly climate, it has to do with the oil and gas industry, which fuels high-energy agriculture as well as natural gas-produced fertilizer, and which fuels drought relief convoys. Fossil fuels make the planet dramatically safer. And dramatically richer in resources.


  1. If we stop using these fuels, what happens? Bacteria and fungi feed on them to make natural gas (methane) and plenty of CO2. So, we use them and produce CO2, a valuable fertilizer and not methane which kill a lot of people and animals each year.

  2. Dear Johnathan
    I am also a retired economic geologist – mostly industrial minerals, some precious metals. I am glad you reviewed Alex Epstein’s re issued book, the moral case for fossil fuels. I have followed Alex for several years and think he makes the best case for the continued and expanded use of fossil fuels. Expanding the access for third world countries to fossil fuels is the key to those poor countries survival. too bad our environmental communities largely want to keep the poor poor. Sadly, a solar panel to charge a cell phone in a few hours is not the way to a better life for those people.

    Was directed to your blog by a Rotary Friend.

    Dinah Shumway

    1. Solar works well in small arrays, but commercial units are trouble for the environment and never give back what they cost. A friend up by the big rez in NM uses them, but she got sick last April and something went wrong. Her husband, sad to say, has Alzheimer and can do nothing. Now she hooks up the truck to the converter to use anything electric. both are in their 70s, and are living on a few acres of the family farm with only SS income (and do not never ever ask if she could use some money, she tends to be fiercely independent 🙂 the array is getting repaired as she gets better.

Comments are closed.