2015March/April

Drilling Ahead: Seizing the high ground: The moral case for fossil fuels

by Mike Killalea, Editor and Publisher

Throughout my career, our industry has fought a rear-guard action on environmental issues, and our worst foe is ourselves. As an industry, we to an enormous extent have embraced the opposition’s main arguments against us. And when we accept our enemies’ premises, it’s time to unfurl the white flag.

When we accept the thinking that hydrocarbons are a “necessary evil” and only a “stop gap” on the road to sustainable “green” energy, we might as well not get out of bed in the morning.

Now emerges a thinker proposing that we should embrace our quest for hydrocarbons as a high moral cause and take the battle to our opponents. In a new book, author Alex Epstein argues “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” assuming what he describes as a “humanist” perspective.

Better living through fossil fuels

“I hold human life as the standard of value,” Mr Epstein writes. “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.” (Epstein’s italics.) Fossil fuels, he observes, are the “greatest energy technology of all time.”

Far from destroying lives and the planet, Mr Epstein shows plentiful correlations indicating the diametric opposite. Life expectancy, infant mortality, mortality of young children, malnutrition, air pollution, GDP per person, water quality. All improve as more fossil fuels are used and even more CO2 emitted. While not proof of a causal relationship, it certainly indicates that the world is not overdosing on fossil fuels. Even hydrocarbon reserves increase with increased hydrocarbon use.

The climate con

But wait! What about the climate? Mr Epstein points to uncomfortable facts. First, climate-related deaths since the 1930s have demonstrated a sharp and definitive decline, even against sharply increasing CO2 emissions and a smaller, though pronounced, increase in atmospheric CO2.

But wait! Won’t pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere increase temperatures further? The answer is no.

CO2 vs temperature is a logarithmic curve. This means that as CO2 content increases much beyond that of the early industrial age, the curve levels off. Adding more CO2 – even a lot more – has a minimal increase on temperature.

It is a so-called “positive feedback loop” interplay between CO2 and atmospheric water that is the alleged culprit in out-of-control temperature increases. But Mr Epstein points out that the feedback loop is speculative to the point of, well, loopiness. Further, the computer models that predict the feedback loop cannot even predict the past, much less the future. If a model cannot “history match,” as our reservoir simulation colleagues say, forget about reliable predictions.

In fact, one of the most famous, the 1988 Hansen model, ran two predictive scenarios into the 21st century. Results? Both overshot reality by miles. Epstein further shows results from 102 models, nearly every one as far from reality as Hollywood.

The 97 percent solution

But wait! Don’t 97% of scientists believe that climate change is real, man-made and dangerous? Mr Epstein flat out calls this a “complete fabrication.” The seminal survey of relevant scientific papers found that 97% of climate scientists “endorsed the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause.” Note “main” – not “only”.

Critics of the study noted that only 1.6% of these papers explicitly stated that man-made greenhouse gasses caused at least half of global warming.

And numerous scientists whose papers were surveyed disagreed with the survey’s characterization of their work. “This is not an accurate representation of my paper” was a common remark.

A necessary good

Many of you out there understand the value of our work and our products. But our campaigns to the public too often scream “necessary evil.” We have already lost, Mr Epstein notes, when we:

  • Show shame in our products by focusing on our “good works” – community relations, charity, etc – rather than our core business;
  • Show shame in ourselves, such as companies who have expunged the word “oil” from web pages;
  • Give credence to the opposition by praising them as “idealistic”;
  • Apologize for our “environmental footprint,” as if development (and related jobs) were shameful;
  • Defend ourselves instead of trumpeting our positive contributions;
  • Criticize misinformation by opponents, rather than take the discussion to a higher moral plain, i.e., that we are better positioned morally.

As Mr Epstein summarizes, “The industry’s position amounts to this: ‘Our product isn’t moral, but it’s something that we will need for some time as we transition to the ideal fossil fuel-free future.’ What you’re telling the world is that you are a necessary evil.”

Turn that around. We are a necessary good. Fossil fuels, particularly oil and natural gas, are portable, cheap and clean. The world needs them.

I recognize, my friends, that I am preaching to the choir. But I like the lyrics and music. I hope you do, too.

Mike Killalea can be reached via email at mike.killalea@iadc.org.

Click here to visit Epstein’s website. 

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