Editor note: This op-ed, published on April 21, 2000, in the Houston Chronicle, can be revisited to see how the arguments have held up for today. One unanticipated development was the BP Horizon oil spill of 2010, which resulted in a cumulative cost to BP of $61.8 billion. (One only wonders if the spill would have occurred if ‘beyond petroleum’ BP would have focused on real environmental and safety issues instead of global-warming greenwashing in the decade prior to its historic, infamous environmental mess.) The fundamental question remains: are fossil fuels more or less ‘sustainable’ today versus 16 years ago?
A great hue and cry is being heard this Earth Day about how our hydrocarbon-based energy economy is unsustainable. Air pollution is worsening, hydrocarbon resources are depleting and greenhouse gas emissions are destabilizing the planet, a chorus of individuals and groups contends.
Fear not! The energy Malthusians are wrong. Consider the facts in each category of energy sustainability.
- Availability: World proved oil reserves today are estimated to be 15 times greater than the original 1948 estimate. World natural gas reserves in the last 30 years have increased almost five-fold. World coal reserves today are estimated to be over four times the amount calculated nearly a half-century ago. Advancing technology and expanding investment capital, both non-depletable resources, promise to make future energy supplies even more plentiful.
- Affordability: Consumer inflation-adjusted prices for electricity, natural gas and gasoline in the United States have each fallen by approximately one-third since the 1980s. New car prices are at a 20-year low, explaining in part the record vehicle sales of the last 15 months.
- Usefulness: Hundreds of new uses of electricity have emerged in recent decades. Many more uses are appearing in the “wired world.” The digital age is requiring greater quantities of power and electricity that cannot be interrupted. More Americans are driving and flying more miles than ever before for business and pleasure. Energy has never been more pervasive and essential than it is today.
- Pollution: Urban air quality in America is one-third cleaner than in the 1970s. Houston’s air is about one-fourth cleaner than in 1980, while Los Angeles has reduced its smog levels by twice as much in the same time period. Unlike in the Houston area, however, Los Angeles has no problems with particulate matter, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide levels. These gains reflect major technological improvements with transportation fuels, on-board vehicle equipment and power plants.
Oil spillage from tankers and pipelines has significantly declined in the last decade and spilled oil is more effectively cleaned up. Reforms since the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident have made oil spills backpage news, if they are worth reporting at all.
- Efficiency: Energy intensity (measured as energy used per unit of economic output) has dropped by one-third in the in the United States since the 1950s. Yet, total energy usage has more than doubled in this period, reflecting an explosion of new energy applications and the growing wealth of an expanding population.
- Safety: Injury and incidence rates in the oil, gas and coal mining industries have registered notable declines in recent years. Automobile safety continues to improve even with higher speed limits due to improving vehicle technology.
- Security: Energy futures markets and customized energy risk products (such as the 600-product offering on EnronOnline) offer large and small energy users the opportunity to completely manage their price and volume risk over several months or many years. Producers can also hedge during periods of high prices. It has become risky not to manage risk in the information age.
- Climate Change: In the face of the above facts, the energy Malthusians have one last card to play— climate alarmism. While some climate models offer a range of warming estimates that on the high end are problematic, the more realistic scenarios are not cause for concern. Many agricultural scientists and economists have quantified net societal benefits from a moderately warmer, wetter world (whether the result of man-made or natural forces). Higher carbon dioxide levels from hydrocarbon combustion benefit agriculture through enhanced photosynthesis. It is also advantageous that the “greenhouse signal” warms nights more than days and lengthens the growing season.
The 50 percent buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in the last century from hydrocarbon combustion has not produced evidence of an increase in weather extremes but only a modest increase in surface temperatures of under one degree Fahrenheit. Model-projected warming reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has fallen by 40 percent in the last decade, and more declines are expected as climate models more realistically replicate actual climate.
All major economic and environmental trends with conventional energies are positive. There is no need to forcibly remake today’s hydrocarbon-based energy market to saddle consumers with more expensive and less reliable unconventional energies that have their own environmental drawbacks.
Human ingenuity, free markets and the information age have come together to achieve energy sustainability. The best is yet to come for consumers, economies and the environment if market processes continue to win out over false energy alarmism and public policies therein.