Environmentalists and activists on the further reaches of the green movement occasionally go as far as to say ‘leave all fossil fuels in the ground.’ While a legitimate fear of climate change may make this view understandable, it is ultimately misguided. Modern life unequivocally requires fossil fuels, but that doesn’t mean we must be dependent on them for energy forever.
To begin, solar, wind, and all other green and renewable energy infrastructure require fossil fuels. From plastics and grease to insulation and molds, fossil fuels make up the very material used to generate renewable energy through wind blades, turbines, and solar panels. This does not even scratch the surface of the amount of energy actually needed to mine the materials, develop the products, and deploy the systems.
We could theoretically move to a world where fossil fuels are not used at all to generate power. This would require us to overcome the diluteness and intermittency problems of wind and solar; but with enough wind, solar, hydroelectric, and nuclear capacity on line, along with effective storage capability, fossil fuels may be unneeded for energy.
But power is a relatively small portion of what fossil fuels actually achieve in the modern world. Consider that the only way you are reading this is because of fossil fuels, and we are not talking about the electricity that charges your phone or computer. The plastic, ink, paint, rubber, and other components of your device are all directly derived from petroleum. And these only represent a very small fraction of products petroleum provides.
Plastic is one of the most ubiquitous materials in the modern world, used in everything from the food industry to medical care, household products to emergency response equipment. Plastics are made from chemical polymers. As the World Economic Forum notes, “while various sources can be tapped for these building blocks, over 90% of synthetic polymers are made from fossil sources.”
Thinking of coal, gas, and petroleum only as fossil fuels is far too limiting. While these are incredibly potent, useful, and even life-sustaining, their utility far exceeds fueling and powering our lives. We must all broaden our perspective on fossil resources and appreciate their necessity in modern life.
Without exception, every American encounters and relies on petroleum every single day. We do not have to love the emissions these resources produce when generating power, but we must appreciate the resources for their applicability to housing, transportation, medicine, and virtually everything from necessity to luxury products.
So if and when that day comes that we no longer draw petroleum from the ground, pipe it to refineries, and pump it from gas stations, we must realize that we will need to continue extracting it for almost every product we use.
Written by Benjamin R. Dierker, Director of Public Policy
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.