Alex Epstein, who most know from his book “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” has been busy.
Since founding the energy think tank Center for Industrial Progress in 2011 he received the “Most Original Thinker of 2014” award from the McLaughlin Group. He has been publicly debating environmentalist organizations such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and 350.org’s Bill McKibben- an opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline since 2011. He has spoken on campuses and to employees and leaders at Fortune 500 energy companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Enbridge, and TransCanada. One of his major goals is to teach millions of employees in the fossil fuel industry to understand the value of what they do and how to communicate it. He is now working on a sequel to “The Moral Case”.
Speaking in an EnergyStrong webcast last week, Epstein opened with a video clip of his participation in a huge anti-fossil fuel protest event in New York City attended by 100,000 people. In the clip, he engages protestors, explaining how fossil fuels keep people safer from climate extremes and that due to fossil fuels use, we’re seeing 15 times fewer climate-related deaths globally. He explains how fossil fuels are far cheaper, more plentiful, more reliable, and essential to billions of people’s lives and questions why protestors want to risk all of these benefits. For a Canadian watching the clip for the first time, it’s encouraging to see a calm, reasonable questioning of the climate agenda – something that is so lacking in current Canadian public discourse as well as lacking in the clean energy plans of the Biden administration. Epstein then began his discussion of energy and climate policy, which have been the main issues of the 2020 elections, saying,
“I believe that the best policy for America’s future and the world’s future is a policy of energy freedom, in which all sources of energy–including fossil fuels–can compete to produce the most reliable, lowest-cost energy for billions of people. I am extremely worried that a large percentage of candidates running for office are advocating “renewables only” policies that, if implemented, would quickly turn America into a third-world country.”
There is a lot that Canadians can take away from Epstein’s North American perspectives and his identification of energy and climate issues. He is adamant that what North Americans have been taught about fossil fuels is very biased. He feels educators, media, and climate lobbyists only focus on the negative effects of fossil fuels without looking at the benefits. Conversely, we only hear reports of the benefits of solar and wind without critical examination and reporting of their negatives. In Canada, we are exposed to the “tarsands” negative messaging about our natural resources. It is a public shaming of both the oilsands and fossil fuels, drawing attention away from their benefits and the incredible work companies are doing to reduce their carbon emissions. We could use a dose of Epstein’s enthusiasm for fossil fuels.
He has built a wealth of insights on his website energytalkingpoints.com. Epstein debunks assertions that solar and wind are affordable or as some may claim- cheaper. He characterizes solar and wind as “unreliables” that depend on reliable fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydro infrastructure to back them up. He advises that the more reasonable message is that renewables don’t replace the cost of fossil fuels. Instead, they add to the cost of fossil fuels, and mandating solar combined with wind as a percentage of power generation sources has resulted in higher electricity prices in several jurisdictions. He also counters the misidentification of energy proponents as climate deniers and pushes for direct answers to the loaded questions one is likely to encounter on climate change, such as his response to being accused as a climate denier:
“I’m a climate thinker. I believe in climate change, not climate catastrophe. We should definitely not do anything that raises the cost of energy in a world where billions already can’t afford it. The only humane policies are more adaptation to keep us safe and more innovation to make low-carbon energy cheap.”
There is an urgency to calls for the abandonment of fossil fuels in sustainable recovery plans, which seems discordant in face of the record levels of debt countries around the world are facing due to Covid 19 responses. There seems to be an assumption that raising the cost of energy will be manageable despite reports indicating otherwise. In the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2020, the section on building on a sustainable recovery points out that lockdown measures and the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic have had an impact on progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It reports that progress on energy access in Africa is being reversed and that the number of people without access to electricity is set to increase in 2020 after declining over the past six years, while basic electricity services have become unaffordable for up to 30 million people in Africa and Asia who had gained electricity access. They conclude the economic fallout from Covid-19 adds to the difficulties faced by governments in expanding access, leaving 660 million people without access to electricity by 2030, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa, and close to 2.4 billion people without access to clean cooking globally.
Epstein supports his fossil-fuel position with a review of the critical relationship between energy and a country’s economy. He reasons that energy is the industry that powers every other industry, so energy is fundamental to the US (and Canada’s) economy. He notes there is a direct relationship between lower-cost energy creating lower costs to produce everything we consume. Conversely, increasing the cost of energy increases the cost to produce products. He mentions that food, clothing, shelter, clean water, medical care – all become more abundant when energy costs go down and they all become less abundant and more scarce when energy costs go up. He also suggested responses to the current identification of climate change as the “biggest existential threat” of our time. (Just as an aside, “existential threat” is possibly the most overused term in 2020 and was the subject of an interesting article in The Atlantic titled “ The Astonishing Rise of Existential Threats- Have 2020 candidates been reading too much French philosophy?”) Epstein counters misstatements that fossil fuel dependence poses a ‘direct existential threat’ with the clarification that fossil fuels are instead an existential resource.
“Energy is an existential resource. Our capacity to master climate is greater when we master energy. Energy supports climate. Fossil fuels’ CO2 emissions have contributed to the warming of the last 170 years, but that warming has been mild and manageable—1 degrees Celsius, mostly in the colder parts of the world. If the world continues using fossil fuels to provide reliable, low-cost energy to billions of people, the result will not be a climate crisis but continued manageable warming, significant greening, and a far better life for billions of people.”
Epstein’s emphasis on mastering climate is a function of what he calls a positive “pro-human” focus on sustaining human life using technology and using fossil fuel energy sources to reduce air pollution. He emphasizes that according to a WHO 2018 report, around 7 million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air that lead to diseases and that those numbers can be alleviated if we implement transitions from solid fuels to natural gas (LPG). He asserts that an overemphasis on climate has overtaken energy conversations when we should be focused on eliminating poverty. He wants to see the conversation return to a recognition that energy is crucial to our quality of life, that billions of people globally live with energy insufficiency and that nothing comes close to fossil fuels for providing for people globally and managing climate impact in all aspects.
However, Epstein recognizes the current challenges of communication and messaging. He makes the point that when the fossil fuel industry is attacked, the absence of a response by the fossil fuel industry “says something” – giving an impression of truth to the accusations. In his words,
“There’s a current moral monopoly that the anti-fossil fuel movement has- basically it’s almost uncontested. So as people are saying that fossil fuels are bad and that climate change is an existential threat and nobody’s challenging them– then there’s this kind of moral monopoly. Then everybody either adopts the idea and or everyone is afraid of challenging it. But when it becomes known that there are well-founded challenges to those ideas then the monopoly breaks and people start to think more rationally. Standing up in numbers neutralizes the anti-oil mob mentality- it’s a numbers game.”
In 2020, Epstein’s ideas from “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” and the webcast are more relevant than ever. Canadians can certainly take a page from Alex Epstein’s book to change the energy conversation in this country- or better yet, from the upcoming sequel.
Maureen McCall is an energy professional who writes on issues affecting the energy industry.