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This Earth Day, let's accept the critical role that fossil fuel plays in energy needs

This Earth Day, let's accept the critical role that fossil fuel plays in energy needs
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Since its inception in 1970, Earth Day (April 22) has been a strange mix — a celebration of springtime and the great outdoors, combined with doom-and-gloom prophecies of destruction, centering on overpopulation, pollution and capitalism.

But because Earth Day is an opportunity for reflection about our planet and the people who inhabit it, we should consider how man’s use of natural resources has affected the environment and the human condition. In particular, we should honestly assess the data as to how fossil fuels impacted our planet, the environment, and quality of life. But like most things in life, the data does not always reflect the popular narrative.

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We have been told that fossil fuels are wrecking the environment and our health. The facts are that life expectancy, population and economic growth all began to increase dramatically when fossil fuels were harnessed — and have continued to do so for the 200 years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

 

When one thinks about it, it makes sense. Fossil fuels have allowed people to be more productive, to engage in less backbreaking manual labor, and to grow more food. Fossil fuel use for machines, transportation, electricity, and plastics allows us to build complex devices, travel longer distances, illuminate our homes, and build everyday products from toys to computers. 

Consider this one example: gasoline in a car is used to transport an expectant mother to a hospital; coal and natural gas powers the electric lights and medical devices in a delivery room; that same electricity ensures that a pre-maturely born baby is kept warm in an incubator 24 hours a day, seven days a week; and petroleum-based plastics are used for tubing to supply that tiny baby with air and food.

Without oil, natural gas, and coal, none of this would be possible and available to so many people. In fact, many in developing countries can’t save premature babies because they don’t have access to the reliable electricity that fossil fuels provide Americans.

Fossil fuels have also allowed us to address hunger. In the United States, energy allows us to produce three times as much food as we did a century ago, in one-third fewer man-hours, on one-third fewer acres, and at one-third the cost. About 3 percent of the population now produces all the food that over 300 million Americans consume. From fertilizer produced with natural gas to tractors powered by diesel engines, and irrigation systems that pump water and refrigerators that prevent food from spoiling, natural gas, oil and coal are the energy that feeds America.

Likewise, consider running water and sanitation. Natural gas, oil and coal help supply the electricity to pump clean, running water to our homes and allow us to operate wastewater and sewage plants so we don’t pollute our rivers.

There is no doubt that the burning of fossil fuels has caused pollution. But what is often not reported is how human ingenuity has reduced emissions. Since 1973, emissions have dropped 90 percent, even with a 123 percent increase in coal-fired electric generation. Since 1980, ozone is down 33 percent, nitrogen oxide down 57 percent, sulfur dioxide down 87 percent, carbon monoxide 85 percent and lead down 99 percent. Even U.S. carbon emissions from power generation have reached a 30-year low. In fact, these carbon emissions have been reduced primary through the fracking revolution — in which hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling have made huge domestic quantities of natural gas available for electric power generation, off-setting dirtier coal.

Some suggest that we can replace fossil fuels with renewable resources to meet our needs, but they never explain how. The challenges are clear: 80 percent of energy consumed (transportation, manufacturing and electricity) in the U.S. comes from fossil fuels. About 63 percent of electricity generation comes from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, petroleum, and other gases), with about 20 percent from nuclear energy. Renewable wind and solar, however, only provide about 7.6 percent of our electricity needs (6.3 percent wind and 1.3 percent solar) — and this is only when the sun is shining or wind is blowing.

This does not mean we should not use renewable energy. Of course we should. But these facts do mean that we need to be honest about whether renewables can displace other energy resources in providing for our energy needs. Moreover, nearly 100 percent of the plastics we use every day are made from petroleum — and wind and the sun cannot be transformed into plastic.

America is blessed with an abundant supply of affordable natural gas, oil and coal. When we celebrate Earth Day, we should consider the facts, not the political narrative, and reflect about how the responsible use of America’s abundant resources of natural gas, oil and coal have dramatically improved the human condition — and continue to do so.

Bernard L. McNamee is the director of Life: Powered, an initiative at the Texas Public Policy Foundation to ensure Americans have access to reliable, abundant, affordable energy. He previously served as deputy general counsel for energy policy at the U.S. Department of Energy.