A Free-Market Energy Blog

Defeating Faux Environmentalism: Making a Moral Case for Fossil Fuel Abundance

By -- November 1, 2013

“Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry has not refuted the moral case against fossil fuels. In fact, the vast majority of its communications reinforce the moral case against oil, gas, and coal.” 

There is only one way to defeat the environmentalists’ moral case against fossil fuels—refute its central idea that fossil fuels destroy the planet. Because if we don’t refute that idea, we accept it. And if we accept that fossil fuels are destroying the planet, the only logical conclusion is to cease new development and slow down existing development as much as possible.

Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry has not refuted the moral case against fossil fuels. In fact, the vast majority of its communications reinforce the moral case against oil, gas, and coal.

For example, take the common practice of publicly endorsing “renewables” as the ideal. Fossil fuel companies, particularly oil and gas companies, proudly feature windmills on webpages and annual reports, even though these are trivial to their bottom line and wildly uneconomic. This obviously implies that “renewables” are the goal—with oil and gas as just a temporarily necessary evil.

Don’t think it’s just the BPs, Shells, and Chevrons of the world who do this. Here’s a concession of “renewables’” moral superiority by the most overtly pro-fossil-fuel trade organization I know of, the Western Energy Alliance (WEA):

Natural gas doesn’t compete with renewable energy; in fact, it helps make the vision a reality. Greater electricity production from intermittent sources of power such as wind and solar is possible because natural gas electric generation is available to fill in during the large gaps of time when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

Translation: solar and wind are superior, “sustainable,” “renewable” forms of energy—a “vision” we should make “a reality.” And natural gas is justified, not as a great source of power that deserves to exist because it is great, but as a necessary means to a “renewable” future. It’s clear that ideally we wouldn’t want natural gas, but unfortunately we need it now.

Another way in which the fossil fuel industry reinforces the moral case against itself is by bragging that it is less destructive of the planet than it used to be.

For example, this last September, practically every oil and gas association enthusiastically printed news that the oil and gas industry “invested” between $80 billion and $160 billion in “GHG mitigation technologies” from 2000 to 2012, which contributed to a minor decline in U.S. CO2 emissions during that period.

By endorsing [lower] greenhouse gas emissions as a fundamental benchmark of environmental health, the industry is conceding that it is causing catastrophic global warming—and that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a moral imperative.

But if you support that goal, you have to know that the “official” targets for emissions reductions are more than 85% worldwide—which would mean the demolition of your industry. If greenhouse gas reductions are obligatory, then it is obligatory to get away from fossil fuels as soon as possible.

Still another way in which the fossil fuel industry reinforces the moral case against itself is by trying to sidestep the issue with talk of jobs or economics or patriotism. While these are important issues, it makes no sense to pursue them via fossil fuels if they are destroying our planet.

Which is why environmentalists compellingly respond with arguments such as: Do we want economic growth tied to poison? Do we want more jobs where the workers are causing harm? Do we want our national identity to continue to be associated with something we now know is destructive?

There are many, many more forms of conceding the environmentalists’ moral case and giving them the high ground. Here are half a dozen more just to give you a sense of the scope of the problem. (When I work with companies, one of the first objectives is to ferret out and eliminate all forms of conceding the moral case against fossil fuels.)

· Not mentioning the word “oil” on homepages (this has at times been true of ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron). This implies that you’re ashamed of what you do, and that your critics are right that oil is a self-destructive addiction.

· Focusing attention on everything but your core product—community service initiatives, charitable contributions, etc. This implies that you’re ashamed of your core product.

· Praising your attackers as “idealistic.” This implies that those who want your destruction are pursuing a legitimate ideal.

· Apologizing for your “environmental footprint.” This implies that there’s something wrong with the industrial development that is inherent in energy production.

· Spending most of your time on the defensive. This implies that you don’t have something positive to champion.

· Criticizing your opponents primarily for getting their facts wrong without refuting their basic moral argument. This implies that the argument is right, your opponents just need to identify your evils more precisely.

The industry’s position amounts to: “our product isn’t moral, but it’s something that we will need for some time as we transition to the ideal fossil-free future.” What you’re telling the world is that you are a necessary evil. And since the environmentalists also agree that it will take some time to transition to a fossil-free future, the argument amounts to a debate over an expiration date.

Environmentalists will argue that fossil fuels are necessary for a shorter time, and you’ll argue that they’re necessary for a longer time. They’ll always sound optimistic and idealistic, and you’ll always sound cynical and pessimistic and self-serving.

So long as you concede that your product is a self-destructive addiction, you will not win hearts and minds—and you will not deserve to.


  1. Wayne Lusvardi  

    Mr. Epstein
    The way the greens are getting away with this is that they are rolling out green power incrementally. First its solar and wind farms. But then they are found to need dedicated separate transmission lines because of the pulsing and variability of their power that imbalances pre-existing transmission lines. Then the power grid needs regulating equipment and new substations to keep the flow of electrons going. Next because of the ramping problem, very costly in-line storage batteries are needed. Now, it has been revealed that an imbalancing market needs to be created to dispatch hydropower in a 5-minute ahead market on call when solar or wind power drops off. So we supposedly get clean air at what, 3 to 5 times the price of conventional natural gas power?

    But after all this it is discovered that asthma rates are the same in Texas which emits 679,738 tons of CO2 or 26.5 tons per person compared to California that emits only 360,000 tons of CO2 or 9.55 tons per person. So after all this there will be no discernible health benefits despite all the supposed pseudo-research otherwise.


  2. Roger Clague  

    But why do oil companies not praise their product, which has done so much for increased living standards?


  3. Michael Smith  

    The fundamental problem, of course, is the near-universal acceptance of altruism that leaves people morally compromised and morally defenseless. If one accepts the notion that one has no right to exist except as a sacrificial animal to the needs of any unspecified “others”, then there is nothing to stop the leftists from promoting the earth as the “other” to which people must be sacrificed.

    By this view, every oil well we drill or pound of coal we dig up or tree we turn into lumber constitutes a “rape” of the very object we are expected to sacrifice for. This, Roger, is why oil company executives dare not promote their product — they’d be charged with selfishness and they have no answer to that charge. Alex is teaching them how to answer.

    And when they do answer properly, they’ll discover, to borrow Miss Rand’s terms, “the enormity of the smallness of their enemies”.

    Thanks for everything you do, Alex! We are in your debt.


  4. Aletho  

    “the only logical conclusion is to cease new development and slow down existing development as much as possible”

    And big oil is the primary beneficiary of any slowdown in oil and gas development as their pricing is supported by restricted supplies. That’s why they never counter the propaganda, they even finance some of it themselves. The same factor explains why they are so quiet about the eternal sanctions regimes serially imposed against Israel’s foes. They make out like bandits even as their own trade is disrupted.

    Who profits if the Keystone XL pipeline is delayed?

    It’s not as though their products face serious challenges. They know that in the 22nd century we will all be buying oil and gas.


  5. alpha2actual  

    The health and uninterrupted functioning of international Fossil Fuel Markets determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only Exxon Mobil, and Chevron, and IBM, and Google, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, and Union Carbide.

    Those are the nations of the world today. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, it has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, to see that… perfect world… in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality, no Anthropogenic Climate Change.

    Only one vast and ecumenical holding company of fossil fuel conglomerates, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused, all IPhone GPS tracking disabled.


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