A Free-Market Energy Blog

Taking the Environmental High Ground on Fossil Fuels

By -- August 29, 2013

“You may know that coal has dramatically improved the economies of India and China by allowing them to build super-productive factories that make their people much more well off financially. But you might not know that their environments have gotten much better as well.”

Yesterday I wrote about why it is so important for the energy industry to take the moral high ground in the debate about fossil fuels, and today I want to connect that to the related issue of taking the environmental high ground.

One of the ways in which environmentalists have been able to gain the moral high ground is by accusing the energy industry of polluting the environment and making life on earth worse. On its face that may seem plausible, but as I wrote Tuesday, if you look at key indicators of human health as they relate to the environment, fossil fuels have actually improved our environment and made us healthier than we’ve ever been at any other time in history.

For the same reason the energy industry deserves to take the moral high ground, so it deserves to and should claim the environmental high ground. Here are some thoughts on how to do that.

Taking the Environmental High Ground

Whenever possible in a debate, you want to take the high ground right out of the gate. When discussing fossil fuels, that is particularly true on environmental issues.

Here’s an example of how to do it on coal. Here’s what the industry might say to a college audience:

There’s a major new coal project in the Pacific Northwest that is a huge economic and environmental opportunity for America and our trading partners.

Now it might sound odd to hear of coal as an environmental opportunity—but it’s true.

You may know that coal has dramatically improved the economies of India and China by allowing them to build super-productive factories that make their people much more well off financially.

But you might not know that their environments have gotten much better as well.

With cheap, plentiful, reliable energy, they have been able to better protect themselves from nature’s dangers with things like:

· water purification plants

· irrigation systems

· indoor plumbing

· hospitals

· modern buildings

· disease control

· smoke-free electric stoves

Energy from coal has contributed to the increase in the number of people with clean drinking water by over 2 billion over the past twenty years.[1]

In the last 20 years India has multiplied its coal-powered electricity generation by more than 3 times, and in that time the average life expectancy has gone up by 7 years.[2][3]

Now you might have seen or heard of harmful smoke clouds above China and other places that use a lot of coal. But these exist not because they’re using coal, it’s because they’re using coal improperly—without proper air and water-protection laws.

Coal, contrary to what you have heard, is not some scary, super-toxic material—is just super-compressed ancient plants.

Whenever you use plant-based substances to generate energy, you can run into problems with natural plant materials like nitrogen and sulfur—in certain quantities they’re very healthy but in larger quantities they can be dangerous.

This is not just a coal risk—in fact, the worst air pollution in China comes from burning things like wood, straw, even animal dung in indoor or outdoor fires with no filtration systems whatsoever.

In many cases, the Chinese have highly-effective filtration systems for coal plants—the government just has companies keep them off.

We in the coal industry are encouraging China, India and others to pass proper air and water protection laws to protect citizens against all kinds of air-pollution.

That, combined with the incredible positive economic and environmental power of coal, will improve these countries’ well-being greatly—and they will become even better trading partners.

A new coal mine is something we should all be excited about. And we have hit the motherlode of coal in a place in Wyoming called the Powder River Basin (PRB).

PRB coal is in huge demand in various Asian countries, who can use it to become more productive and raise their quality of life—which is good for everyone.

Are we going to take advantage of this enormous wealth creation opportunity—and international development opportunity—and leave industry free to build the necessary export terminals ASAP?

Or are we going to sacrifice prosperity and environmental health, here and around the world, to uninformed hysteria?

I hope you join our cause for the future of your community, your country, and the aspirations of billions around the world.

In my experience, this kind of argument is very hard to respond to. Because it owns the environmental high ground and covers all the bases, there’s not much to attack—and a ton of positive claims they have to contend with.

One instructive experience I had in taking the environmental high ground was when delivering a provocatively titled talk “Why Mining Improves Our Environment” at an ultra-“green” campus.

Before the talk, a friend of mine noticed an anti-mining activist chatting on his cell phone saying how he was going to watch this crazy speech and then blast the speaker.

Given his past experience, he was expecting me to just evade the environmental issue, but I did the opposite.

I started the talk by expressing how important it was to be concerned about the environmental issues connected with mining.

I then read some excerpts about some horrible, toxic mining practices in China—the kind of thing you might read Greenpeace saying about coal, that always has the implication that if anyone, anywhere has a dangerous mine then of course we should ban coal.

And then I asked the audience, do you think we should ban the energy that is connected with these mining practices?

Many said yes.

And I said, by the way, this is a mine for the materials used to produce wind power, does that change your mind?

That threw them. And then, they took it all back and started making my points for me.

They say, come on, everything has negatives, but we need to look at the big picture, the overall impact. We should try to solve the problems, not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I said I couldn’t agree more, so let’s look objectively at the environmental positives and negatives of mining in general and coal in particular. And then it was a slam dunk: mining improves our environment and coal improves our environment.

So in the question period, this guy and his friends who had planned to “gotcha” me were just sitting there silent and deflated. That was satisfying to me. Of course, I would have hoped that they became passionate supporters of the Center for Industrial Progress.

But if someone starts out as your seething enemy, making them deflated is a pretty good outcome, as those of you who deal with hostile regulators or activists would probably agree.

That said, the best outcome is making people inspired and into advocates.


[1] UNICEF, Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation 2012 Update.

[2] U.S. Energy Information, International Energy Statistics, Coal, Consumption, accessed February 17, 2013.

[3] The World Bank, “Life expectancy at birth, total (years),” accessed February 17, 2013


  1. GalSitty  

    The positives explained in this piece apply to coal, to issue the blanket statement that it applies to the “energy” industry in general could be misleading. Not all forms of energy are equal, are produced equally, or can be used equally or interchangeably. For example, the economic benefits of cheap coal could be more than offset by the economic harm of high oil prices. In the U.S. the domestic coal industry does add about $35 billion/year to our economy, but imported oil takes out about $330 billion/year from our economy- almost 10 times as much!


  2. Michael Smith  

    GalSitty wrote:

    ” In the U.S. the domestic coal industry does add about $35 billion/year to our economy, but imported oil takes out about $330 billion/year from our economy- almost 10 times as much!”

    The notion that imports “take something out of our economy” is a total fallacy. An import is a trade, and exchange of value for value. In this case, it is an exchange of dollars for oil. And it is win-win; the buyer gets the oil, the seller gets the dollars. No one “loses” anything; the trade is made only because the buyer values the oil MORE than the dollars and the seller values the dollars MORE than the oil. NO ONE LOSES ANYTHING. More importantly, virtually all of those dollars have to come back into our economy, because the only place they can be spent is HERE in America. Thus, the whole notion of a “trade deficit” is a phony issue, manufactured by those seeking protectionist tariffs or other anti-free-trade measures.


  3. rbradley  

    Yes, the balance of trade needs to be demoted as an economic argument. Imports pay for exports and vice versa. And as Adam Smith explained in the 18th century, the wealth of nations is about an increasingly specialized international division of labor, not about relative imports and exports.


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