Why the moral case for fossil fuels isn’t one we should make
Alex Epstein's ideas found a receptive audience in Calgary last week. Here's why you shouldn't be a part of it
In journalism, we like to tell ourselves that our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But Calgary Herald columnist Deborah Yedlin turned that aphorism on its head in a recent piece covering the appearance last Tuesday by Alex Epstein, the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and founder and president of the Center for Industrial Progress. Epstein’s argument is that the negatives associated with fossil fuel use – and more on that in a moment – are vastly outweighed by the positives. “If you want to improve the lives of the poor, for the last 30 years and 300 years we have seen one consistent truth, which is you industrialize and you do it using the cheapest and most reliable energy you can get, which is fossil fuels,” Epstein told an audience at the Palliser Hotel. “Saying you can get to cure poverty by getting rid of fossil fuels is like saying you want to prevent polio by getting rid of vaccines.” Yedlin backstopped Epstein’s case in her column, arguing that “whether it’s the papal encyclical, the G7 agreement or the non-governmental organizations that protest against the oil sands, the more realistic challenge is that the world needs to be more efficient, invest in more energy sources and find ways to change the energy mix so less carbon is emitted. Eliminating fossil fuels is not only unrealistic but bound to cause myriad unintended, negative consequences. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions.”
Perhaps. But the road to hell is also paved with self-delusion and false hope, and to my mind those are Alex Epstein’s stock in trade. I understand the desire to want to push back against the arguments being made by environmental activists, many of which are utterly divorced from economic, environmental and social realities and most of which are put forth by people who are actively and unapologetically antagonistic towards the energy sector’s interests. That’s why so many people rushed to embrace Ethical Oil when it first came out – for once, they could stand tall and proud and push back against the increasingly hysterical criticism to which they’d been subjected. Nobody wants to be told that what they do for a living is killing the planet, and Ezra Levant’s book, however crude it might have been, offered them a coherent counterargument. And while both Epstein’s argument and the person making it are more polished than Ethical Oil was, it’s cut from the same cloth.
But let’s not fool ourselves here, folks: Epstein is selling a product, not offering a solution. And the product that Epstein is selling is the intellectual equivalent of ice cream. Yes, his brand of intellectual ice cream has better ingredients and more attractive packaging than the one Levant was pitching, but it’s still ice cream – and it’s still completely devoid of any nutritional value. Epstein’s arguments aren’t going to convince anyone who wasn’t already on board with fossil fuels to begin with, and if anything they’re likely to polarize people who are still willing to hear both sides. He may be a sophisticated pitchman, but he’s still stumping for ideas that are more focused on reassuring people than winning them over. For example, the notion that coal represents “one of the cleanest sources of energy in history,” as he told the hosts of The Energy Gang podcast in a recent interview, is self-evidently untrue – unless by “one of” he meant “one of a very, very long list.” His views on climate change, while skillfully presented and carefully couched in the language of scientific skepticism, is equally problematic when it comes to using his book and his arguments as a means to advance the energy sector’s interests in the ongoing debate.
The case that Epstein makes in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels isn’t necessarily a bad one, and the rhetorical skills that he routinely displays in presenting it are admirable. But where that case falls down – in my view, anyways – is in the fact that it’s fundamentally backward-looking. I suspect that’s by design given that the case against renewables, the source of energy that fossil fuels will be competing against in the future, looks a lot stronger in the past. That said, his is the definition of a rearguard action, and rearguard actions are by their very nature more concerned with preventing further losses than actually reversing them, and the energy sector needs to find ways to win. Epstein’s argument won’t help Canada get its energy products to market any more quickly. It won’t convince any of its critics that it’s acting in good faith and in compliance with existing rules and regulations. And it won’t turn the tide of public opinion that continues to advance on Alberta’s borders. What it does is make people in the energy sector feel better about what they do and why they do it. There’s value in that, I suppose, but only inasmuch as we identify it accordingly. It’s not a game plan. It’s not a way forward. It’s a bowl of ice cream – and an expensive one at that.
Postscript: In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I found The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels intriguing enough to reach out to him back in April and ask him to write something for the back page of our magazine. I’m a big fan of stirring the pot from time to time, and I thought the broad strokes of his argument more than met that standard. I wrote to him and suggested that he might want to write something about the forthcoming climate change negotiations that will culminate in Paris at the end of the year and how his ideas ought to inform them. His response put an end to that correspondence, and it underscores what I think is the biggest weakness in his argument. “The main way the moral case should inform those negotiations,” he said, “is to get them canceled and get countries focused on human life and human progress, including the mastery of climate through development.” The energy sector can no longer afford to be seen as obstructing progress on climate change. It must inform that progress, and, if it’s particularly ambitious, help shape and guide it. The rearguard battle that Epstein seems to want to fight achieves none of those goals.