Why Fossil Fuels are Here to Stay
By David DemingThere is a political movement that seeks to end all fossil fuel use. The primary rationalization for this goal is the theory that the continued buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will result in global warming and degrade the natural environment. When he campaigned in 2020, US President Biden promised “we are going to get rid of fossil fuels.” Subsequent to his election, Biden followed through in a number of ways. He shut down construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline and cancelled oil lease sales in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. As the supply of petroleum was artificially strangled by these policies, the price of both oil and gasoline soared. High energy prices fed inflation and reduced personal incomes.
The attempt to phase out fossil fuels is both misguided and dangerous. We use fossil fuels because they are inexpensive, reliable, abundant, and concentrated forms of energy. Energy use correlates with life expectancy, literacy, education, and prosperity, values that all human cultures appreciate. For several decades, fossil fuels have supplied about 80 percent of world energy. This is not going to change in the foreseeable future. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that in the year 2050, the two leading energy sources in the US will be gas and oil. Renewables, while the fastest growing category, are only anticipated to supply about 20 percent of the energy mix. The Chinese are among those who have an appreciation for the inevitability of fossil fuels. China has more than a thousand coal-fired electric power plants, and coal use in China continues to increase, year after year.
The characterization of wind and solar power as “sustainable” and “renewable” is misleading. Only the fuels, wind and sunshine, are free. The infrastructure necessary to capture, concentrate, and deliver energy is not sustainable. Both wind and solar suffer from inherent limitations to which there is no conceivable technological solution. They are dilute and intermittent. There is no mechanical fix that can make the sun shine at night or the wind blow during a calm. Battery storage is insufficient by many orders of magnitude. Mining raw materials for battery manufacture has environmental consequences. Lithium ion batteries and solar panels wear out and accumulate in landfills as toxic waste with the potential for groundwater contamination. Renewable energy sources are entirely unsuitable for aviation, long-distance transport, and cannot meet varying demand for electricity. It is a utopian fantasy to imagine that solar and wind power will ever be able to make more than marginal contributions to the energy mix.
For a long time, one of the arguments for phasing out fossil fuels was that the supply is limited and it was prudent to switch to alternative sources before exhaustion. The singular example was M. King Hubbert’s Peak Oil Theory. When US oil production peaked in 1970 and then systematically declined for 38 years, Hubbert’s theory appeared to be verified. But the introduction of new production technologies reversed the trend, and by 2018 US oil production had exceeded the peak of 1970. When the supply of oil became so abundant that the price briefly became negative on April 20, 2020, a stake was driven through the heart of the Peak Oil Theory. It’s now apparent that the magnitude of the worldwide petroleum resource exceeds ten trillion barrels, and we’ve only produced about 10 to 20 percent of that total. Without even a consideration of unconventional resources such as oil shales, we have enough petroleum to last for several decades. And, at current consumption rates, both coal and gas resources are sufficient for hundreds of years.
Fossil fuels will be gradually phased out of the energy supply this century, but not by renewables. Nuclear power is the only feasible technology that has the potential to supply electric power that is concentrated, reliable and low in cost. Seven different types of Generation IV fission reactors are currently under development. And although the last fifty years would seem to suggest that the quest for fusion power is chimerical, rapid advances are now being made through innovative and diverse approaches. It is only necessary that one of these be successful.
The transition to nuclear will take several decades. Attempts to artificially reduce fossil fuel use before nuclear power comes online will strangle economic growth and human prosperity. No one will accept this. Any government policy that attempts to deliberately inflict economic harm will ultimately be rejected in any country that has a semblance of democracy. If fossil fuel use is causing global warming, the only road forward is to forego mitigation and focus on adaptation.
David Deming is a geophysicist and professor of arts and sciences at the University of Oklahoma. Follow him on Twitter @profdeming.