By Kerry Jackson, Pacific Research Institute
Earth Day, which has been observed every April 22 since 1970, was established to educate the public about air and water pollution. Nothing wrong with that. No one wants to live on a dirty planet. But shouldn’t there be another dimension? How about celebrating what Earth has produced for us?
Air, water, and food are of course gifts we are all grateful for. But another set of earthly assets has been almost solely responsible for the evolution of civilization: fossil fuels, the largest source of primary energy in the world. This planet is a hydrocarbon-producing machine, and it has plenty more to give.
Yes, a 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara was one of the eco-events that inspired Earth Day founders to set aside a day that’s become synonymous with the environmental movement. But it’s a mistake to confuse oil spills with oil use.
If we didn’t utilize oil, along with the other fossil fuels, natural gas and coal, our modern world would not exist. Earth’s hydrocarbon pools not only feed our transportation needs, and heat and cool our homes, they uphold the framework of advanced society. If we had not harnessed the power of fossil fuels, we wouldn’t have progressed much since the middle of the 19th century.
Yet there are, as energy analyst Alex Epstein says, “many leading thinkers and institutions” guilty of “‘catastrophizing’ the negative side-effects of fossil fuels,” while at the same time “ignoring fossil fuels’ unique, massive, and desperately needed benefits to human flourishing.”
“Fossil fuels are uniquely cost-effective,” says the author of “Fossil Future,” a new book that makes the case for more oil, natural gas, and coal, not less. Hydrocarbons are “the only form of energy that can provide every type of energy need (electricity, mobility, industrial heat, residential heat) at low cost, on-demand, for billions of people.”
Other energy sources have been tried, yet even “after 100 years of vigorous competition from alternatives,” says Epstein, fossil fuels still “provide 80% of the world’s energy, including over 90% of the world’s transportation energy.”
Not one of us would recognize human existence prior to the turn of the previous century. Daily lives in the era were “much more austere.”
“Life was hard and dirty, and most people never traveled 100-200 miles from where they were born, and life expectancy was short,” before the 1900s, says Ronald Stein an engineer and energy analyst. But today, because “crude oil is manufactured” into more than 6,000 products “that are the basis of lifestyles and economies,” humanity thrives as it never had before.
Among those petroleum-based products are the plastics found nearly everywhere – in our cars, homes, cell phones, computers, and clothing. The asphalt we drive on is derived from crude, as are the tires that meet the road.
We also live in a far healthier age, thanks to oil. Petroleum products are at the center of our present-day medicine. Syringes (which most of us have encountered in the last year in the form of COVID-19 vaccinations), intravenous tubing, stethoscopes, rubber gloves, artificial heart valves and limbs, analgesics, antihistamines, antibiotics, antibacterials, aspirin, and respirators, are but a few examples of the many health care staples made from petrochemicals. The ambulances and life-flight helicopters that transport patients and organs would not exist without oil.
“The scale and subtlety of our country’s dependency on oil and natural gas cannot be overstated,” says health care consultant Dan Bednarz. And “nowhere is this truer than in our medical system.”
Oil also gives us fertilizers to boost agricultural yields, pesticides to stop crop infestations, herbicides that choke off parasitic weeds, and the detergents, soaps and shampoos which keep us clean.
Even those Sharpies that environmental protesters use to scrawl anti-fossil fuel messages on their signs are made from hydrocarbons.
Simply put, our everyday lives have been made “everyday” by fossil fuels. It would have been a crime against humanity to fail to take advantage of the hydrocarbon bounty the good Earth has made available.
The most hardened eco-activists would probably concede this. But that won’t be the message on April 22. Decarbonization of the West by replacing fossil fuels with costly and less-reliable wind and solar power will be the talking point repeated in a loop. Oil, natural gas, and coal will be demonized, their defenders vilified. Earth Day has become more about excluding those with different ideas regarding energy and the environment than an authentic celebration of the rich resources Earth has favored us with.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.