By Andrew Langer
Environmental activists have a new tactic: protesting outside shareholder meetings of major energy gas firms. In May, protestors gathered outside ExxonMobil’s annual meeting to scream, “keep it in the ground.”
These demonstrations are part of a larger effort to bully major institutions, like universities and pensions, into selling their fossil-fuel stocks. As “green hero” Bill McKibben explained, “[It’s] time for shareholders of conscience to simply break ties.”
If shareholders want a clean conscience, though, they should reject such advice. The moral case for supporting fossil fuels has never been stronger.
Reliable, low-cost energy is essential to lifting the developing world out of poverty. Producing oil and gas delivers extraordinary economic benefits. Plus, as America’s fracking boom makes clear, natural gas extraction can help lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Green campaigners insist that fossil fuels are an unalloyed evil that should be abandoned at all costs. For these activists, the only ethical sources of energy are expensive and unreliable technologies like solar, wind, and hydropower.
Such arguments ignore the fact that oil and gas remain indispensable to life.
They’re crucial to expanding access to electricity, clean water, and economic opportunity, particularly for the 85 percent of the global population living in the developing world. Without fossil fuels, it’s impossible to create the kind of modern infrastructure – including roads, hospitals, schools, and electrical grids – that supports economic progress.
Globally, 1.2 billion people lack access to electricity. The situation is particularly dire in sub-Saharan Africa, where the local electricity-generating capacity – excluding South Africa – is just 28 gigawatts, roughly equivalent to Arizona’s.
About 6.5 million people live in Arizona; 860 million live in the sub-Sahara.
The lack of reliable electricity forces about 3 billion people worldwide to use charcoal and wood for their everyday energy needs. Dependence on these harmful fuels is one reason why diseases caused by air pollution kill more than 4 million people annually.
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has pointed out, “Widespread energy poverty condemns billions to darkness, to ill health, to missed opportunities … It is inequitable and unsustainable.”
Expanding the supply of cheap fossil fuels could lift billions out of poverty. Indeed, over the last four decades, some 680 million Chinese have moved out of destitute privation into the global middle class. Their economic miracle was powered by fossil fuels.
Work from the International Energy Agency estimates that sustained expansion of fossil fuel use in Africa would improve energy access for a quarter of a billion people and add $7 trillion to the regional economy. That’s roughly $1,000 more in annual income for every person on the continent.
Remarkably, the green movement would have no problem denying these underserved populations access to low-cost, life-improving energy. Such a perverse ethical position puts ideological purity before the genuine human needs of the world’s least advantaged people.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the environmentalist case against fossil fuels concerns the environment itself.
Natural gas generates only half of the emissions as coal when burned. And now that falling gas prices have led to a transition away from coal, America’s emissions have fallen to historic lows. Indeed, domestic carbon emissions are 12 percent lower today than they were in 2005, making America the world leader in emissions reductions.
The fossil fuel industry has done more to improve living conditions and safeguard our environment than the green movement could ever hope to do. If environmentalists want to attack these accomplishments as unethical, they’ll need something more than picket-line slogans.
– Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty