Research & Commentary: Fossil Fuels and the Environment

Published June 6, 2013

Eighty percent of the world’s energy and 60 percent of its food and clothing are produced or transported using fossil fuels. Critics of fossil fuel use say governments should make investments to help transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. They also claim if fossil fuels weren’t able to externalize the costs of the environmental damage they inflict, they would lose their cost advantages over renewable sources.

Advocates of affordable energy counter by saying the externalized costs of fossil fuels are offset, if not overwhelmed, by the externalized benefits ‑ the demonstrated value fossil fuels bring to all of us. Fossil fuels create a barrier between nature and humanity, thereby protecting us from nature’s whims while displacing our reliance on living plants and animals for our economic needs.

According to Indur Goklany, Ph.D., without fossil fuels at least 2.3 billion hectares of habitat would have to be converted to cropland, equivalent to the total land of the United States, Canada, and India combined, just to meet the demand for food.

Perhaps the largest demonstrated benefit from fossil fuels has been their contribution to human capital. By allowing people to live longer, work longer, travel more, populate more, and communicate more, fossil fuels have facilitated a rapid increase in the quantity and quality of human knowledge.

By expanding human capital, affordable available energy presents humankind with the best chance to foster technologies that will ultimately enable a transition away from these fuels. With the emergence of shale technology and natural gas, the United States has reduced carbon emissions to 1992 levels even though the nation’s population has grown by one-quarter since then. Large government investments in renewable sources and forced reductions of fossil fuel use as a result of excessive taxes or regulation will merely impede such progress. 

The following documents provide additional information about fossil fuels and the environment.


Ten Principles of Energy Policy
Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast outlines the ten most important principles for policymakers confronting energy issues, providing guidance to help withstand ongoing changes in markets, technology, and policies adopted in other states, supported by a thorough bibliography.

How Fossil Fuels Have Greened the Planet
British scientist and House of Lords member Matt Ridley examines satellite data to demonstrate how human use of fossil fuels has greened the planet through displacement of firewood as a fuel, by raising CO2 levels, and by warming the planet.

Why Growth Is the Environment’s Best Friend
Former American Enterprise Institute scholar Kenneth Green describes the relationship between energy production and environmental degradation, which he says many people believe to be linear. Green says the real relationship looks more like an inverted letter “U.” According to the Kuznets Curve, as populations grow larger and reach a point of overutilization, people tend to notice they are over-utilizing a resource and quickly scale their use back to the maximum sustainable level, demonstrating the best way to minimize energy’s impact on the environment is to maximize economic growth. 

Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet
Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress explains the fallacy of applying the “hidden costs” argument to fossil fuels. According to the “hidden costs” or “externalities” argument, fossil fuels are artificially cheap because their prices don’t reflect the costs of negative “externalities” such as pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, etc. This argument is fallacious, Epstein says, because the price of fossil fuels also doesn’t reflect many benefits we receive, such as the value of having a warm home in the winter, electricity for factories to operate, and fuel for the ambulance that takes our children to the hospital.

Humanity Unbound: How Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity from Nature and Nature from Humanity
Indur M. Goklany, Ph.D. chronicles how fossil fuels, as imperfect as they are, have largely augmented or displaced people’s reliance on living nature for food, clothing, and mechanical power, and by doing so have greatly improved life expectancy and living standards while protecting nature from greater human intervention.

Yergin: Energy History Repeats Itself
Pulitzer-prize winning author and energy historian Daniel Yergin discusses the “World Energy Timeline” he created to trace the history of energy starting from the construction of a twelfth century windmill to the power outages that followed Superstorm Sandy. Yergin says what struck him most was how certain themes tend to repeat themselves, including many periods when people thought they were running out of energy only to reach a technological breakthrough that opened new doors. 

Wind Farms vs. Wildlife
Clive Hambler, lecturer in biological and human sciences at Oxford University and a trained zoologist specializing in species extinction, describes how wind turbines and other land-intensive renewable power sources wreak havoc on wildlife by reducing space for natural habitat.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Environment & Climate News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland Institute Policy Analyst Taylor Smith at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.