WASHINGTON — Oil, gas and coal have boosted living conditions around the globe, but policies to effectively replace those fossil fuels “with inferior energy sources” could undermine those improvements, a former Texas environmental regulator argues.
In her new 36-page paper outlining “the moral case” for fossil fuels, Texas Public Policy Foundation senior fellow Kathleen Hartnett White insists that access to oil, gas and coal are inextricably linked with prosperity and human well-being.
Current policy debates about heat-trapping greenhouse gases — including the Environmental Protection Agency’s new plan for throttling carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plans — overlook “the inestimable human benefits of fossil fuels,” White says.
“Energy-dense, abundant, versatile, reliable, portable, and affordable, fossil fuels provide over 80 percent of the world’s energy because they are superior to the current alternatives,” White argues. “Until energy sources fully comparable or superior to fossil fuels are securely available, policies to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide should proceed with caution lest they prematurely exhaust the well-springs of mankind’s greatest advance.”
White is formally unveiling her paper Thursday at the conservative Heritage Foundation a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol — a potentially friendly audience for her provocative arguments about renewable energy as an “unreliable and parasitic” power source and her criticism of “the wealthy elites” steering environmental policies against carbon pollution.
Powering a revolution
White describes fossil fuel energy as a critical ingredient for the Industrial Revolution — unleashing economic productivity, boosting life expectancy and expanding the global food supply. Now, she suggests, people in developed countries take for granted that fossil fuels effectively are responsible for our clothing, food, transportation, medical treatment and “omnipresent electronic devices.”
“Abundant energy is so embedded in every moment of our personal and working lives that its presence, action and value go unnoticed,” observes White, a former commissioner on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. “Bundles of concentrated energy are interwoven in almost every action we take and every physical object we use.”
White describes oil, gas and coal as superior to renewable power generators such as wind and the sun because they are relatively high-dense energy sources that don’t require as much space above ground to harness. She also touts them as affordable and more reliable options, noting they are often used as a backup power source for more intermittent wind and solar generation.
“In contrast to renewable energy resources from wind, solar, and biomass, man can control access to and conversion of the energy held in fossil fuels,” White says. “No machine or person can control when the wind blows or at what velocity. No one can control how much of the radiant heat of the sun will hit the earth on a given day or hour.”
Renewable power advocates have highlighted the lowering cost of the resources as technology improves. The cost of wind power, for instance, has declined as companies install taller towers supporting wider blades that together generate more electricity.
Keeping the lights on
The American Wind Energy Association has stressed that the power source helped keep the lights on in Texas during cold snaps last winter.
Research is also under way to develop large, utility-scale power storage so the electricity from wind, sun and other sources can be harnessed and delivered precisely when it is needed — a potential answer to some of the reliability concerns White describes.
The flip side of White’s case in favor of fossil fuels as essential to improving the human condition is her argument that efforts to restrain them can have widespread harm, especially for the poor.
“Mandates to force an abrupt energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources are naive and fraught with peril for highly industrialized economies,” she asserts. “Relying on the vast store of dense, versatile energy in fossil fuels, the economic growth begun in the Industrial Revolution still offers the promise of an end to abject poverty.”