Fossil Fuels Are a Blessing to Humanity

Fossil Fuels Are a Blessing to Humanity
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You may be inclined to think fossil fuels are a curse on humanity. After all, just look at how many oil-rich countries are run by repressive governments. Right?

On the contrary, fossil fuels are a blessing to humanity. Although the explosion in material prosperity ushered in after the Industrial Revolution has complex causes, the ready availability of densely packed energy sources—in the form of coal for steamships and locomotives, and later oil to fuel motor vehicles and airplanes—was certainly a contributing factor.

To appreciate how well-suited fossil fuels are to the development of transportation networks, consider the following facts about the energy density of various types of storage (taken from this source):

Storage Material Specific energy (megajoules per kilogram of material) Energy density (megajoules per liter of material)
Coal ~30 ~38
Gasoline 46.4 34.2
Liquified natural gas 55.5 22.2
Lithium metal battery 1.8 4.32

Now given their high energy density and convenience for transport, it’s understandable that fossil fuels are valued highly on the market. This, in turn, explains the so-called “Resource Curse,” in which those countries with large endowments of natural resources tend to score worse on measures of democracy and even economic development. Yet as counterexamples such as the United States and Canada—countries with enormous endowments of fossil fuels and yet excellent scores on human rights and development—underscore, it’s not so much that fossil fuels cause repressive governments, but rather that autocratic regimes can get away with their dysfunction if they are propped up by lucrative mineral exports.

It’s not just that oil exporters tend to have repressive governments. Even well-functioning democracies become embroiled in wars for oil in the Middle East.

Wars are indeed a tragedy, and humans unfortunately fight over things they value highly. (People often rob banks, but that doesn’t prove money is a curse to humanity.) There is nothing in fossil fuels per se that causes humans to fight; the United States and Canada have prodigious endowments, and the owners of these resources are typically left in peace. Fossil fuels make humanity richer, and humanity would be even richer still if they’d stop fighting over who controls fossil fuels.

The United States doesn’t “need” to police the Middle East to ensure the flow of oil. The whole point of one regional autocrat conquering his neighbor’s territory is to be the one selling that oil to the world market.

Since oil is fungible, even if a hostile regime tried to deny exports to the United States, that would simply rearrange world trade and mean that America imported its oil from friendlier places. The economic shocks and gas lines of the 1970s weren’t caused by the OPEC embargo, but instead were the fault of the foolish wage and price controls of the Nixon Administration.

It’s possible that fossil fuels served a useful “bridge” to get us into the modern age, but especially with the growing threat of climate change as well as the falling costs of alternative energy sources, humanity needs to wean itself off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Sounds plausible, right?

It is very convenient for environmental activists in Europe and the United States to personally live with the benefits of the Industrial Revolution, while recommending that people in India and Africa eschew the cheapest forms of energy in the name of mitigating climate change. For example, the latest (as of this writing) World Bank data show that in 2014 the per capita electricity consumption (measured in kilowatt-hours) was 310 in Bangladesh, 355 in Ghana, and 806 in India, while it was 6,938 in France, 7,035 in Germany, and 12,987 in the United States.

Even on its own terms, the concept of the “social cost of carbon” looks at the alleged “negative externality” of carbon dioxide emissions that are not being accounted for in normal market prices. Even if the official estimates put out by the EPA on the “social cost of carbon” were correct—and there are serious problems with the way these numbers are calculated—it wouldn’t prove that fossil fuels in total were harmful to humanity. Rather, it would only mean that “on the margin” humans were emitting too much carbon dioxide, and should cut back.

Even with the advances in wind and solar power, conventional government estimates still forecast that fossil fuels will provide most of the United States’ energy needs for decades to come. Here is a chart from the most recent projection by the Energy Information Administration (EIA):


Profile photo of Robert P. Murphy

Robert P. Murphy is the Senior Economist at the Institute for Energy Research, and a Senior Fellow with the Fraser Institute. He holds a PhD in economics from New York University. Murphy is the author of Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action (Independent Institute, 2015) as well as numerous other books and hundreds of articles.

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