A Free-Market Energy Blog

Fossil Fuel Self-Defense

By -- August 30, 2013

“It’s estimated that, in large part thanks to new, coal-powered infrastructure, between 1 billion and 2 billion people now have access to clean drinking water that didn’t 20 years ago.”

So far this week, I’ve argued that fossil fuels actually improve the environment for human beings, and applied that idea to two important strategies for any debate on the value of fossil fuels: taking the moral high ground and taking the environmental high ground.

I apply both in the following excerpt from my book, Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet.

How the Coal Industry Should Defend itself

Once you understand that coal and other fossil fuels improve our environment, your ability to defend them is incomparably greater.

Let’s work through an example: the controversy over coal exports in the Pacific Northwest.

Here’s a typical attack: “They’re coming to ship their poison so they can poison the people in China. And that poison’s going to come back here and poison your salmon and your children, so don’t let it happen.” [1]

That was from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

So let’s say you’re debating Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in the media. How do you respond?

If you’re clear that coal improves our environment, not just that it’s less poisonous than he thinks, you can completely turn the tables and make clear that as supporters of coal you’re the environmental benefactor and he’s the environmental danger.

Here’s how I might respond if I were in the coal industry:

Mr. Kennedy has described coal as poison and those of us in the coal industry as poison dealers. That’s a very serious accusation. He is telling our coal miners, our coal transporters, our coal power generators—and their families—that they’re accessories to murder.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To say something is poison means that it makes you very sick or kills you. But when countries generate electricity using coal, they lead healthier and longer lives.

In the last 20 years, countries such as China and India have started using many times more coal, and their health and longevity have shot up. They are buying it voluntarily because it is good for their lives.

It’s estimated that, in large part thanks to new, coal-powered infrastructure, between 1 billion and 2 billion people now have access to clean drinking water that didn’t 20 years ago. [2]

Do you know what clean drinking water means to a child who can play with his friends because he’s not deathly ill with some parasite? Do you know what this means to a mother who doesn’t have to worry about the water she gives her child, morning, noon, and night?

Without coal, countless children would be unnecessarily sick. Is Mr. Kennedy saying we should turn back the clock? There are still nearly a billion more people without clean drinking water, whom coal could help. [3]

Is Mr. Kennedy saying we shouldn’t go forward? Coal is the opposite of poison—it is medicine.

Now coal has certain risks—as does medicine.

Coal’s risks come from the fact that historically it was formed from super-compressed ancient plants.

As a result, coal contains natural plant elements like nitrogen and sulfur, which are benign in modest quantities but harmful in larger quantities.

Therefore, it’s important to limit the amount of these materials that come out of coal plants near large population areas—which is exactly what we in the American coal industry do. And that’s what we encourage other countries to do.

If Mr. Kennedy truly cares about human health around the world, he should join the coal industry in the campaign to free coal exports while calling for better pollution laws abroad.”

What is Kennedy going to say to this? What’s any anti-coal person going to say about this? In my experience, it’s hard to say much.

And the reason it’s hard to say much to that kind of argument is because it clearly addresses the moral issue head-on, rather than dodging morality to focus on narrow practical benefits.

Since the moral issue in this case is the environmental issue, taking the high ground on both is only a matter of confidently conveying a few incontrovertible facts about the relationship between coal and the human environment, and unapologetically taking credit for the benefits to human life.



[1] L., Emily, “Robert F. Kennedy, Jr: ‘Coal is Crime,’” Care2, May 8, 2012, accessed February 17, 2013.

[2] UNICEF, Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation 2012 Update, accessed Feb. 15, 2013.

[3] Ibid.


  1. Dick Storm  

    My compliments. Not only is the quality of life in China improving from the use of coal. So is India with dozens of modern, clean, efficient new utltrasupercritical coal plants that are already running with dozens more to follow. The anti-Fossil Fuels crowd has done an effective job of smearing the energy that a better quality of life depends on. 90% of America’s energy is provided by Coal, Oil, Gas and Nuclear. Policies from our elected officials have been against all of these. From pipelines to nuclear waste storage. Of course, the President’s “War on Coal” is well known now. Just imagine if the 100-150 new, clean, efficient coal plants planned in 2008 were built from 2008-1013? These were stopped by the Sierra Club, NRDC and other anti coal groups. Had these been built the number of jobs created would have been between 300,000 and over 1,000,000 for steel, concrete, copper wire, manufactured generating components and more. These may not have stopped the recession, but the number of jobs avoided are magnitudes above what the Keystone Pipeline would provide. If last November the energetic, Patriotic and under employed or unemployed Americans that want better jobs knew what the politicians were doing to “Avoid Economic Prosperity” we would have a more business friendly Government. Sadly, we have three more years to struggle. Hopefully, the productive industrial manufacturing organizations can sustain themselves on the meager business flow between now and the next election.


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