Is There a Future for the Beleaguered Fossil Fuels Industry?

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NEW GEOGRAPHY-Perhaps no economic issue — even trade — is as divisive as the energy industry. Once a standard driver of economic progress, the conventional energy industry has become increasingly vilified by the national media, sued by blue state attorneys general and denounced throughout academia. Some suggest that the industry should be demonized and hounded much as occurred in the case of tobacco. 

 

Yet, is this attack entirely justified? Unlike tobacco, energy is a huge economic driver, and conventional fossil fuel industries employ roughly 2 million people nationally, while hosts of industries — notably agriculture, manufacturing and warehousing — depend on reasonable energy prices and consistent delivery. Overall, fossil fuels last year accounted for 81 percent of all U.S. energy consumption. 

The one great exception is California, long a major oil-producing state, where fossil fuels are about as popular as herpes. In order to enhance its obsession with promoting climate “leadership” — likely to reduce emissions globally by a mere 0.4 percent by 2030 — the state has declared war on this industry, even though most Californians still depend on the gooey stuff, particularly for transportation. Once, we produced a lot of fossil fuel, but now we import a majority of it from abroad, taking an economic asset and turning it into a permanent deficit. 

Doom or future boom? 

In the past, advocates for “green energy” tied their agenda to concerns over “peak oil,” suggesting that renewables will save us from dependence on an increasingly scarce resource. More recently, given the huge increase in U.S. energy production, the argument has shifted to the notion that there’s too much oil, and that prices will not support the industry. 

Others suggest that the industry be undermined for environmental reasons. Yet, the reality is that most advanced countries — and developing countries even more so — depend heavily on coal, oil and gas. Some of these countries, like China, talk a good game, but continue to construct ever more coal plants, seek to buy more oil, including from the United States, and nurture an expanding automobile sector. 

Seeing the demand, frackers and offshore drillers have reason to stay in the game. Indeed, according to some projections, an improving global economy and a decline in production from the energy bust will drive prices up, perhaps to well over $100 a barrel, within the next three years. 

Prospects for energy-related development have been improved by the ascendency of the Trump administration, which has a strong fossil fuel constituency. Energy Secretary and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry wants to make the U.S. “dominant” in the global energy market. Increasing U.S. energy production also plays an important geopolitical role in challenging the power of global menaces such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela. 

Sensible transition needed 

As is so often the case, at the extremes — say, total climate skeptics and global warming hysterics — there can be no possible middle ground. Yet, there is room for reasoned positions that accept at least some of the reality of climate change, but wish to do so in a way that does not decrease incomes and living standards for the middle class, particularly for families. 

Generally, the green lobby gives little more than lip service to these concerns, perhaps, in part, because such advocates are funded by wealthy donors whose money comes from either post-industrial fields like software and media, coastal patrons, or the ranks of green trustifarians. The left-wing theorist Jedediah Purdy has noted that “mainstream environmentalism overemphasizes elite advocacy” over economic mobility, which is less of a concern in temperate Pacific Heights and Malibu than in Modesto or Riverside. 

In fact, there is a good middle ground, one not long ago embraced by more pragmatic greens, including the longtime environmentalist James Lovelock, inventor of the term “Gaia.” This involves embracing the much cleaner natural gas as a market substitute for coal, whose consumption nationwide has dropped 38 percent since 2005. No posturing will allow President Donald Trump to salvage coal over time. Natural gas, whose consumption has grown, and has been easily the biggest contributor to the United States’ reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, now accounts for twice as much of our energy as coal, and generates well over five times the energy of renewables. 

To pursue a cleaner environment, instead of dogmatically calling for a total ban on the development of fossil fuels, including natural gas, we can still develop our reserves while nurturing renewables at the same time (Texas manages to be No. 1 in oil, gas and wind energy), and hope that, over time, they become more competitive economically. 

Ultimately, we have to find a way to grow our economy and clean up the environment at the same time. In this process, fossil fuels can play an important transitionary role, as we move to lower emissions, in ways that do not condemn more and more Americans — and people elsewhere — to permanent economic stagnation.

 

(Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com… where this piece was most recently posted. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book is The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

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