Fossil Fuel and Life

by Richard T. Stuebi

In the past month, we’ve witnessed two major catastrophes associated with U.S. production of fossil fuels — the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion killing 11 workers in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Massey Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion claiming 29 lives in West Virginia.

It’s easy to vilify energy companies like BP (NYSE: BP) and Massey (NYSE: MEE) for being reckless at these operations. No doubt, there will be lots of investigation in the months to come, and tighter regulations and legal action in the years to come. Scrutiny is definitely deserved, new requirements may be forthcoming, and severe punishments may well be in the offing.

Rather than focus on the obvious human cost of these tragedies, and the truly frightening ecological disaster currently unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, I choose to comment herein on the profound implications of our long-followed energy policy, which I term as “cheap energy at any price”.

For the most part, our problems do not lie with fossil fuel producers. Certainly, they must be held to meet safety and environmental standards — and in these two cases, these standards do not appear to have been met. But that does not mean that all oil and coal companies are led by evil people, and that their employees are complicit conspirators in misdeeds against humanity and the planet.

No, it’s far too easy to take that oversimplistic but misguided position.

Pretty much every reader of this post will willingly use fossil fuels today — in the coal burned to generate the electricity to power your computer, in the petroleum burned to move you to your place of work.

Let’s not forget that fossil fuels have been an instrumental factor in the huge leaps in quality of life over the past 100 years. It is this utter reliance by all of us on these fossil fuels that compels companies and people to supply these fuels. And, of course, to try to make a profit in doing so. After all, that is the American way.

These two disasters are the exception, not the rule. More fundamentally, the problem is not on the supply side, but on the demand side.

Fossil fuel companies are not the bad guys — they supply a product that will remain vital for years to come.

We have met the enemy, and it is us.

It is time for us to dedicate ourselves to putting virtually all of our incremental attention, money and efforts towards an energy system not nearly so dependent upon fossil fuels. And, we need to accept imposing such a discipline upon ourselves — for instance, by being willing to establish stronger price signals in the energy markets to drive our society in that direction.

In other words, we must stop the “cheap energy at all costs” mentality that has pervaded our thinking for decades.

As Albert Einstein once noted, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” In the case of energy, if we keep putting all of our eggs in the fossil fuel basket, all we can expect are more human and ecological tragedies.

Only a few of these tragedies will be very visible and instantaneous as in these two explosions. The worse tragedies are long-term and hidden: climate change, depletion of finite and irreplaceable resources, continued reliance on supplies from objectionable sources, and increasing geopolitical conflict leading to resource wars.

Think about the deceased of the Deepwater Horizon and Upper Big Branch, working on an offshore oil rig or underground in a coal mine. Are these the jobs we want to see for the 22nd Century? Did these people want their children to be earning a wage in the same way they were?

The best way to honor the dead would be by taking these recent tragedies to increase our resolve to move us from the fossil fuel past to a new and better future that need not rely so desperately on fossil fuels.

It won’t be easy, quick or cheap to create a new energy system, but we need to start working much harder to sever the link between fossil fuels and human life. Because escalating reliance on fossil fuels can only be harmful to our long-term social and planetary health.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

2 replies
  1. Richard Stuebi
    Richard Stuebi says:

    Daniel,I'm a big proponent of energy efficiency. But, unless you consume absolutely zero energy, you're going to need some kind of energy. My comments were solely about the supply side of the equation.

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