The dangerous delusion of ‘leave it in the ground’ proponents

Newton B. Jones, International President

Fossil resources remain essential to human existence

CLIMATE ADVOCATES WHO agitate for a future without fossil resources fail to appreciate — or choose to ignore — the essential, life-sustaining and life-enhancing value of the fossil-based natural resources humanity has relied upon for well over a century.

We need only to look at the global threat of the Covid-19 pandemic to be reminded that fossil resources are critically important. As the pandemic continues to spread across continents, medical professionals have faced severe shortages of clinical supplies, equipment and personal protective gear that put their lives — and their patients’ lives — at risk. The surge in illnesses has led to scarcities in ventilators, gloves, scrubs and masks. Especially in the early stages of the outbreak, extreme measures were taken to locate and transport machines and materials. Companies have switched normal production lines to manufacture medical equipment and supplies.

The pandemic has illustrated just how dependent the human race is on modern medical technology, and that technology is dependent on fossil resources.

Without fossil resources – especially petrochemicals that go into plastics and pharmaceuticals – modern medicine would be severely disabled, and we would all suffer the consequences.

Antibiotics, syringes, heart valves, flexible tubing, monitors, MRI machines, face shields, IVs, bottles, and the plastic packaging that keep materials sterile all require crude oil and natural gas derivatives.

And that is just part of the picture. Fossil resources also provide the reliable baseload electricity (or back-up in the case of renewables) that ensure energy-intensive medical facilities operate reliably and safely. The very buildings themselves are constructed of steel, concrete, glass and aluminum manufactured by industries that depend on reliable, always-on, fossil-based (or nuclear) energy. Nearly all medical transportation from ambulances to life-flight helicopters depend on fossil resources. So do the aircraft, ships and trucks that ensure hospitals are stocked with life-saving materials and equipment.

Indeed, we rely on fossil resources for our health needs and our everyday lives, from food production and distribution to general transportation to heating and cooling our homes. It is inconceivable that fossil resources can simply be left in the ground without horrendous consequences to life as we know it.

The false hope of 100% renewables

MANY WHO PUSH for an end to fossil fuels also believe that renewables (chiefly wind and solar) can supply all of our energy needs. This idea is a fundamental plank in the Green New Deal popularized by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and supported by Sen. Bernie Sanders among other U.S. politicians. Green politicians in Canada, Europe Australia and other areas of the world also pledge their support to 100% renewable schemes. Dozens of environmental groups lobby governments around the world to support renewables and defund fossil resources.

Moreover, as the world invests trillions of dollars in rebuilding global economies devastated by the pandemic, many climate activists clamor for a “green recovery” that throws additional billions of dollars in subsidies at wind and solar.

But renewables, like all forms of energy, have limitations and challenges. Wind and solar are far from the idyllic green solution often portrayed by the green movement.

Batteries used in electric cars can release lithium nickel and cobalt ions into the environment, harming beneficial bacteria in landfills, according to the American Chemical Society. Reports of child labor in the Congo, where much of the world’s cobalt is mined, raises serious ethical questions.

Gigantic lithium-ion batteries of the type used by some utilities to back up wind and solar energy systems are not the ideal solution some advertise. “These batteries are far too expensive and don’t last nearly long enough…” says the MIT Technology Review in an article titled, “The $2.5 trillion reason we can’t rely on batteries to clean up the grid.”

The article goes on to say, “If we plan to rely on them [lithium-ion batteries] for massive amounts of storage as more renewables come online—rather than turning to a broader mix of low-carbon sources like nuclear and natural gas with carbon capture technology—we could be headed down a dangerously unaffordable path.”

In the highly controversial documentary “Planet of the Humans,” released in April, progressive producer Michael Moore and director Jeff Gibbs challenge the premise that wind and solar are the answer to climate change. The film explores a range of issues associated with wind and solar power: environmental devastation from rare earth mining and manufacturing of renewables-generation components, massive land use requirements, risks to endangered bird species, public opposition to blighted landscapes, dependency on fossil power systems for back-up generation (requiring duplication of energy sources), costly electricity rates, and the inability to recycle damaged or end-of-life solar panels and wind power components.

The film also questions the profit motive of green energy proponents and businesses in light of massive government subsidies.

The green movement’s response to the film was largely apoplectic with calls for it to be pulled from YouTube (which it was for a time) and countercharges of censorship.

Whatever faults the film may or may not have, it raises legitimate questions about how we use renewables and whether it is wise to lock in our future on the hope that wind and solar alone will solve climate change — that we can simply leave fossil resources in the ground.

Germany’s troubled dive into all-renewables

PERHAPS THE BEST evidence of what 100% renewables might look like as a global climate change solution can be found in Germany. That country’s Energiewende (energy transition) program, initiated in 2000, is a colossally expensive and disruptive attempt to power the nation primarily with wind and solar. To date, billions of euros have been poured into an effort to phase out fossil and nuclear power. Results have been mixed at best, some say disastrous.

Writing for Asia Times, Johnathan Tennenbaum notes that Germany has built more than 30,000 wind turbines and 1.7 million solar power installations that together have a rated capacity of more than 100 gigawatts. “Unfortunately,” he notes, “most of the time the actual amount of electricity produced is only a fraction of the installed capacity. Worse, on bad days [with little wind or sun] it can fall to nearly zero.”

To make up for the intermittent nature of wind and solar power, Germany has had to rely on coal-fired and nuclear power plants, the very energy sources wind and solar are supposed to replace.

Assessing the progress of Germany’s renewables program late last year, McKinsey & Company concluded: “Germany has been a leader in the transition toward a low-carbon-energy system, but it will still miss most of its energy-transition targets for 2020.”

If one of the richest countries in the world cannot achieve intended emission targets through an aggressive renewables program; what does that mean for the rest of the world?

It’s time to end the climate change demagoguery

THE WORLD IS simply not meeting the Paris climate accord’s global climate target that would limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.

Clearly, renewables alone cannot get the job done — and keeping fossil resources in the ground is not a reasonable alternative for the near future. Globally, we need to consider all options and all technologies that can reduce carbon emissions. That includes fossil resources with carbon capture, use and storage; nuclear energy; renewables and future energy sources such as hydrogen.

Climate demagogues who demand a 100% renewables future are only fooling themselves and standing in the way of progress with other types of technology.