Is Stanford's decision not to divest from fossil fuels an energy awakening?

While the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and most of the media declare that a forced and rapid end to the era of fossil fuels is a moral imperative, more sane voices emerge. Such climate sanity comes from an unlikely source: thoroughly green Stanford University. In mid-April, the trustees of this university, from which I earned two degrees, issued a five-page statement announcing that Stanford would not divest endowment assets in oil and natural gas. This is a curious departure from Stanford's divestiture in coal companies two years ago. Both decisions were made in response to the demands of Fossil Free Stanford, part of a student movement begun in 2010 on campuses across the country.

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Stanford's justification for rejecting Fossil Free Stanford's demand departs from the dogma of the orthodox climate alarmists. As the statement explains, the Board of Trustees declined to divest in oil and natural gas because it "could not evaluate whether the social injury caused by the fossil fuel industry outweighs the social benefit it provides." (Emphasis added.) To the climate crusaders, now holding the reins of the federal government, such a statement is blasphemous. There are no social benefits ascribable to fossil fuels, according to entrenched climate alarmists.

Yet, Stanford now acknowledges the social benefits of at least two of the three fossil fuels! When has anyone heard the White House or the EPA recognize the "social benefits" of fossil fuels? Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryLet's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy The Memo: Democrats struggle to find the strongest swing-state candidate 2020 caucuses pose biggest challenge yet for Iowa's top pollster MORE refers to climate change due to carbon dioxide as "perhaps the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction." The EPA estimates a highly speculative "social cost of carbon" without identifying any social benefit.

Stanford's recent statement makes no mention of the board's earlier decision to divest from coal companies. The trustees elsewhere have maintained that the coal and oil sands industries are unacceptable because they emit more carbon dioxide per unit of energy and because viable substitutes are available. Yet, if assessed on the basis of the calculus articulated in the trustees' statement, coal should pass the test. The mainstay of base load electric generation at the lowest cost, coal provides social benefits to billions of people and offers the only affordable alternative for the more than 1 billion people who still lack access to electricity.

The trustees' statement emphasizes the university's many efforts to reduce carbon dioxide. Yet, it departs from climate orthodoxy by admitting that there are now no energy alternatives deployable at a scale sufficient to displace oil and natural gas and to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions. Is this not a way of saying that current renewable technologies are incapable of providing the social benefits now provided by oil and natural gas? In spite of green progress, Stanford avows, "at the present moment oil and gas remain integral components of the global economy, essential to the daily lives of billions of people in both developed and emerging economies." (Emphasis again added.) In conclusion, the trustees "do not believe that a credible case can be made for divesting from the fossil fuel industry until there are competitive and readily available alternatives."

The trustees' nuanced recognition of the benefits of fossil fuels implies that current renewable technologies are incapable of achieving their legislated purpose. This refreshing dose of reality echoes, although perhaps coincidentally, the recent insight of two Stanford-educated engineers. In 2007, Google tasked these engineers (Ross Koningstein and David Fork) to design a renewable energy system called RE<C (Renewables Cheaper than Coal) that was affordable and could actually avert the dangerous warming predicted by the science of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In 2014, these engineers, who "had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists at the beginning of the project, concluded that current renewables were a "false hope." As they wrote: "Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today's renewable energy technologies simply won't work: we need a fundamentally different approach."

Similarly, Bill Gates recently shifted his investments from more deployment of current renewable systems to research in breakthrough technologies for zero-carbon, affordable energy systems. An energy "miracle" akin to the development of the automobile is needed, according to Gates, because current renewables are incapable of meeting energy demand even at "a beyond astronomical cost." Yet, a massive deployment of these futile renewable systems is, right now, under way in response to a congressional extension of renewable subsidies and in anticipation of carbon cuts that the EPA is poised to mandate if the Clean Power Plan rule survives full judicial review.

That Stanford has declined to divest in oil and natural gas obviously will not turn the tides of the climate issue. The insights of the Stanford trustees, Bill Gates and a broad swath of engineers, however, should precipitate a harder look at counterproductive climate policies and at the full scale of the energy challenge at hand.

White is the distinguished senior fellow-in-residence and director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. She is the author of "Fueling Freedom," along with coauthor Steve Moore, to be released by Regnery Publishing on May 23.