A Critical Look at "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels"

By Freeman, Jody | Energy Law Journal, July 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

A Critical Look at "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels"


Freeman, Jody, Energy Law Journal


A CRITICAL LOOK AT "THE MORAL CASE FOR FOSSIL FUELS"

Synopsis: This article provides a critical review of Alex Epstein's provocative book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, which offers a robust defense of the fossil energy industry and a stinging rebuke to those who would advocate shifting to a cleaner global energy supply. Epstein argues that fossil energy has been the main driver of human flourishing historically and that it is uniquely capable of continuing to support human flourishing in perpetuity, making it the morally preferable global energy choice for the future. Epstein makes numerous highly controversial claims about science, technology, risk, cost, and morality. He argues or implies, among other things, that renewable energy has virtually no potential to supplement or compete with fossil energy; that environmentalists care more about nature than people; that climate change is entirely manageable without curbing fossil fuel use; that the costs of fossil energy are vastly overstated and the benefits badly understated; and that favoring cleaner energy amounts to opposing the developed world. This article carefully examines Epstein's main arguments, assessing their persuasiveness in light of both logic and the best evidence available. It provides many examples of instances in which Epstein selectively relies on evidence that supports his worldview; presents false, incomplete, or misleading data; mischaracterizes his opponents' claims; and dismisses or ignores serious and substantive counter-arguments. The article disputes Epstein's central claim that because fossil energy has delivered enormous social benefits in the past, there is absolutely no reason to change course and diversify our energy supply in the future.

I. INTRODUCTION

Many insiders in the oil and gas industry have warmly received Alex Epstein's book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, which argues, as its title suggests, that the industry has gotten a bum rap. Epstein's central claim is that fossil energy has been the principal driver of human flourishing, and remains the only source of energy that can ensure our quality of life going forward. Fossil fuels are far more abundant, cheap, and reliable than any other source of energy, he argues, and nothing can rival their advantages. Moreover, according to Epstein, there is no good reason to change course. Contrary to what many so-called experts have claimed, he says there are no significant downsides to continuing to rely so heavily on fossil energy. Public health has in fact improved as fossil fuel consumption has increased, and will continue to do so, he claims. Climate change, in Epstein's view, is entirely manageable, if it poses any risk at all. 1 Epstein faults environmentalists, thought leaders, and public officials for overstating the costs and understating the benefits of fossil energy, and for unfairly vilifying energy companies. In rebuttal to what he views as their highly skewed portrayal, Epstein's book "explains why humanity's use of fossil fuels is actually a healthy, moral choice."2

Reviews in the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, and other conservative outlets have heaped praise upon Epstein's book, calling it, "a full-throated defense of . . . the American way of life" 3 and a "powerful, systemat ic, and relentlessly logical philosophical case for the moral value of the fossil-fuel industry, and the fundamentally immoral basis of the movement that is seeking to demonize and destroy it."4

Scientists and environmentalists who know of Epstein's book a re likely to shrug it off as a polemic. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss Epstein's book simply because it is partisan. The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels has struck a chord with many in the oil and gas community who feel underappreciated-and they deserve a serious response.

Fossil energy has indisputably delivered enormous benefits to society. Industrialization, fueled largely by coal, gas, and oil, has indeed brought with it advances in health, higher standards of living, and tremendous social progress (even if not every ounce of that progress can be attributed directly to fossil energy). …

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