But it’s not gloating. It is not smug, or righteous, or in-your-face. It is a fact about a simple physical reality that the energy industry would love to see discussed with the frequency it deserves. We hear endless stories about how fossil fuels are killing us, why can’t we see one about how they save us, every single day? Especially when it’s so ridiculously obvious? Why is such a no-brainer so impossible for the CBC, or CNN, or the BBC, or even Fox News to consider?
There is no shortage of discussion about negative energy issues. It’s become a cultural norm to slam energy, as surely as it’s a norm to follow the witless travails of a loathsome tribe of Kardashians. We have all been briefed to death on the perils of climate change, the dangers of pipelines, the exploitation of native peoples by energy companies, the evils of fossil fuels and the alleged desire of energy companies to plunder the earth in search of a quick buck. Those exhausted and over-dramatized storylines define energy in the mainstream news. No issue is too small to be ignored, if it is negative towards fossil fuels, and even a half- or quarter-truth is plenty to warrant a headline (finding an example is as hard as finding a pebble, but for reference here’s a typical blow-fest about theoretical water contamination).
But occasionally, Mother Nature smashes that fragile rhetoric with some cold hard reality, like we’re experiencing this week. Which brings up a question that the energy industry would love to hear everyone answer, or even discuss:
Who would like to spend the next week without fossil fuels?
It is probably almost inconceivable to the average citizen what that would actually mean. Cheap fossil fuel derived energy is completely taken for granted, like trees or oxygen.
If someone is dumb enough to stick to their environmental guns and say they would, it might be useful information to hear that tens of millions of people would perish in the next week without fossil fuels. Does that sound melodramatic? Well, it’s not. It is in fact such an understatement that it’s almost bashful. The hardships we would face are almost incalculable.
As but a few examples: hospitals, malls, apartment blocks, public buildings and many commercial businesses would have no heat source, and either close or sit as useless shelters. Over 60 million homes in the US rely on natural gas; imagine that many with no heat and nowhere to go. The food distribution network would be smashed, with long shelf life supplies the only surviving option. Every tree in sight would soon be chopped down for firewood, even though few wood burning fireplaces exist. Electrical space heaters would be the only option, but electrical power – without natural gas or coal contributions – would not be up to the task. Pipes would freeze everywhere, creating unfathomable plumbing nightmares as things thawed. Gasoline supplies would quickly run out, eliminating options to flee to warmer climes. And that’s only the half of it; any honest appraisal would need to consider just how many objects come from fossil fuels.
Petroleum products are a feedstock for an almost unbelievable number of products we rely on. Plastic is derived from petroleum, and goes into almost everything. How about vitamins, detergent, tires, sneakers, soft contact lenses, toothpaste, ballpoint pens, deodorant…all things that rely directly on petroleum products. These items wouldn’t run out in a week, but would sooner or later stop showing up on shelves without petroleum feedstock. In addition, countless objects including steel are readily available because of the cheap heat from natural gas or coal that is required by steel mills. Yes, a few run on organic waste furnaces, but nowhere near enough to meet society’s requirements.
Though the question seems designed to do nothing but emphasize general ignorance, we are placing ourselves in a dangerous position by not asking it. Ignorance is running wild, not just of the benefits of fossil fuels but of the dangers of going without. It is not unfair to ask that question on a day when fossil fuels are so desperately needed, because that proves the point the industry has always tried to make. Modern life is not possible without the cheap and plentiful energy provided by fossil fuels. Period.
It is a serious question for the silent majority, the vast swath of the population that has heard all the negatives but takes for granted the positives.
If you are in the camp that wishes to abolish fossil fuels, then you owe it to at least yourself to consider the feasibility of the alternatives. And alternatives have to deal with weather extremes; to rely on power sources that only work in certain conditions is no solution at all. Reliable and safe power means being able to handle whatever comes next.
The stark reality is that without fossil fuels, without pipelines, more than 100 million people would face imminent death in the path of the huge cold front bearing down on much of North America. There is no way around that. There is no possible evasion of that reality, and there is no possible means of keeping the population alive than through the use of fossil fuels.
These facts are not an attack on renewable energy; the point is that at present we can survive without one but not the other. The question does frame the issues with green power quite magnificently; how many solar panels or windmills would it take to heat every home in Chicago today? Before getting out the calculator, recall that the sun has no strength there this time of year, and the wind is hardly blowing.
This is what the energy industry gets cranky about. This is the point of view we wish all could see, that we wish the news organizations would even acknowledge the existence of. Modern survival requires cheap energy provided by fossil fuels, and in massive quantities. There is at present no other way to achieve this; renewable energy is not remotely equipped to deal with the harsher side of nature. Dealing with 90 percent of weather patterns does not cut it. Renewable energy has its place, and its importance will grow, but we are a long, long, long way away from even thinking of weaning off fossil fuels.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here