Research & Commentary: Heartland Brief Lays Out the Many Benefits of Fossil Fuels

Published June 21, 2018

A new Heartland Institute Policy Brief by Joseph Bast, a Heartland director and senior fellow, and Senior Legal Fellow Peter Ferrara, titled “The Social Benefits of Fossil Fuels,” argues that mankind’s historic and ongoing use of fossil fuels—coal, natural gas, and oil—has resulted in nearly incalculable benefits for humanity, wildlife, and ecosystems. The Policy Brief details five main benefits and will appear as a chapter in the most recent volume in the Climate Change Reconsidered series, which is set to be released later in the summer.

Bast and Ferrara argue too few scientists are taking the time to understand the contribution that the study of economics can make to the climate change debate. “If they did,” they write, “they would discover many issues at the center of the debate aren’t as simple or obvious as newspaper articles and fundraising letters make them seem.” At the same time, they continue, many economists are making the same mistake, “believing the popular myth ‘the debate is over’ on the science of climate change and thinking their only contribution to the debate is finding the most efficient ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The first benefit of fossil fuels Bast and Ferrara outline is that it has been closely associated with reduced global poverty. Bast and Ferrara argue fossil fuels have been responsible for lifting billions of people out of subsistence poverty, while at the same time reducing the negative effects poverty can have on human health. Since 1850, total world energy consumption has increased nearly 50-fold, per capita energy consumption has increased by about nine-fold, and total human population has increased 5.5-fold.

The second benefit is the large improvement in human well-being and safety that has been ushered in by the labor- and life-saving technologies that have directly resulted from fossil fuel production. “Without cheap and reliable fossil fuels,” the authors note, “there would be less food, no indoor plumbing, no air conditioning, no labor-saving home appliances such as washing machines, few hospitals, and no ambulances to take us to a hospital when we need urgent medical care. Fossil fuels transformed transportation, vastly increasing human mobility with positive effects on housing, working conditions, health care, education, and much more.”

The third benefit is the dramatic increase in the quantity, quality, and reliability of the food supply, which Bast and Ferrara say is directly linked to fossil fuels. The authors use the example of the discovery of ability to make ammonia from natural gas—the Haber-Bosch process—which they call “one of the greatest achievements in human history.” This process is responsible for a huge increase in crop yields and has reduced “to virtually zero the need to convert wildlife habitat into cropland.” Without the Haber-Bosch process, “the global Green Revolution would not have been possible.”

The fourth benefit is the “Greening of the Earth” caused by the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a result of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is the “food” of plant life. The authors make note of data showing “the 120-ppm increase in atmospheric [carbon dioxide] concentration that has been caused by the historical burning of fossil fuels has likely increased agricultural production per unit land area by 70 percent for C3 cereals, 28 percent for C4 cereals, 33 percent for fruits and melons, 62 percent for legumes, 67 percent for root and tuber crops, and 51 percent for vegetables.”

The fifth benefit, assuming human carbon dioxide use is driving global warming, is that mortality rates have markedly improved because there is less extreme cold weather because of a warmer planet, leading to fewer deaths and injuries. “If fossil fuels are responsible for some amount of global warming,” Bast and Ferrara write, “then they should be credited by saving lives by reducing deaths due to cold weather.”

“Fossil fuels have benefited human health by making possible the dramatic increase in human prosperity that has occurred since the first Industrial Revolution, which made possible investments in goods and services that are essential to protecting human health and prolonging human life,” the authors conclude. “Fossil fuels further improve human health by making environmental protection both valued and financially possible, and by powering technologies that protect human health and extend lives, including electricity, cars and trucks, and plastics.”

The higher energy costs guaranteed by a switch from fossil fuels to higher-cost “renewable” electricity sources, such as wind or solar, would lead to slower economic growth, as affordable energy is the key to productivity growth and the production of virtually all goods and services. Therefore, elected officials and agency regulators at all levels of government should repeal subsidies, taxes, and regulations aimed directly at reducing the use of fossil fuels.

The following documents provide more information about fossil fuels and climate change.

The Social Benefits of Fossil Fuels
This Heartland Policy Brief by Joseph Bast and Peter Ferrara documents the many benefits from the historic and still ongoing use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are lifting billions of people out of poverty, reducing all the negative effects of poverty on human health, and vastly improving human well-being and safety by powering labor-saving and life-protecting technologies, such as air conditioning, modern medicine, and cars and trucks. They are dramatically increasing the quantity of food humans produce and improving the reliability of the food supply, directly benefiting human health. Further, fossil fuel emissions are possibly contributing to a “Greening of the Earth,” benefiting all the plants and wildlife on the planet.

How the Premature Retirement of Coal-Fired Power Plants Affects Energy Reliability, Affordability
In this Policy Study – the first in a series of four – Center of the American Experiment Policy Fellow Isaac Orr and The Heartland Institute Senior Fellow Fred Palmer discuss Australia’s experience with policies that forced coal-fired power plants into premature retirement, making large parts of the country dependent on unreliable and high-priced renewable energy, particularly wind power. The study also examines the parallels between the United States and Australia and discuss problems faced by states that have aggressively promoted renewable energy, examines the importance of “prudence” and diversified energy portfolios, and evaluates a U.S. Department of Energy study that correctly identifies natural gas-fired power generators as a reason for coal plant retirements but fails to describe accurately the role played by renewable energy subsidies in those retirement decisions.

How Obama-Era Regulations Are Shutting Down Perfectly Good Power Plants
In this Policy Study – the second in a series of four – Center of the American Experiment Policy Fellow Isaac Orr and Heartland Institute Senior Fellow Fred Palmer offer a brief overview of the “war on coal” and the damage done by the Obama-era zombie regulations. They then discuss two of those regulations in more depth: the Clean Power Plan and the addition of carbon dioxide to New Source Performance Standards for new power plants. Orr and Palmer also explain why the Endangerment Finding should be rescinded and address seven “zombie” regulations unrelated to carbon dioxide that are adversely affecting coal-fired plants. Lastly, they describe how the Trump administration has begun the process of replacing Obama-era zombie regulations with policies based on real science and sound economics.

Public Policy and Coal-Fired Power Plants
In this Policy Study – the third in a series of four – Center of the American Experiment Policy Fellow Isaac Orr and Heartland Institute Senior Fellow Fred Palmer discuss how the premature retirement of coal-fired power plants will cost consumers billions of dollars in the form of higher electricity prices and regulatory compliance costs, subsidies for renewable generation technologies, construction of unneeded electricity generation capacity and transmission lines, and lost economic opportunities, especially in energy-intensive industries such as manufacturing. They also discuss how state renewable energy mandates and federal subsidies given to renewable energy sources, primarily wind and solar, distort wholesale power markets to the detriment of coal-fired power plants and the real-life impact these policies have on families, businesses, manufacturers, and coal mining communities.

How to Prevent the Premature Retirement of Coal-Fired Power Plants
In this Policy Study – the fourth in a series of four – Center of the American Experiment Policy Fellow Isaac Orr and Heartland Institute Senior Fellow Fred Palmer offer a brief history of electric utilities and describe how efforts to deregulate them in the 1990s led to more, not fewer, regulation. There is no “free market” in electricity today. They describe the four Obama-era zombie regulations on coal and the six subsidies and mandates favoring renewable energy (primarily wind and solar) that must be eliminated to restore a free market for energy.

Impacts of the Natural Gas and Oil Industry on the U.S. Economy in 2015
This study, conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, shows that the natural gas and oil industry supported 10.3 million U.S. jobs in 2015. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage paid by the natural gas and oil industry, excluding retail station jobs, was $101,181 in 2016, which is nearly 90 percent more than the national average. The study also shows the natural gas and oil industry has had widespread impacts in each of the 50 states.

What If … America’s Energy Renaissance Never Happened?
This report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy examines the impact the development of shale oil and gas has had on the United States. The report’s authors found that without the fracking-related “energy renaissance,” 4.3 million jobs in the United States may not have ever been created and $548 billion in annual GDP would have been lost since 2009. The report also found electricity prices would be 31 percent higher and gasoline prices 43 percent higher.

What If … Hydraulic Fracturing Was Banned?
This study is the fourth in a series of studies produced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. It examines what a nationwide ban on hydraulic fracturing would entail. The report’s authors found by 2022, a ban would cause 14.8 million jobs to “evaporate,” almost double gasoline and electricity prices, and increase natural gas prices by 400 percent. Moreover, cost of living expenses would increase by nearly $4,000 per family, household incomes would be reduced by $873 billion, and GDP would be reduced by $1.6 trillion.

Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming
In this book published by The Heartland Institute, authors Craig Idso, Robert M. Carter, and S. Fred Singer say the most important fact about climate science, which they say is often overlooked, is scientists disagree about the environmental impacts of the combustion of fossil fuels on the global climate. There is no survey or study showing “consensus” on the most important scientific issues, despite frequent claims by advocates to the contrary. Scientists disagree about the causes and consequences of climate for several reasons. The authors say the only “consensus” among climate scientists is human activities can have an effect on local climate and the sum of such local effects could hypothetically rise to the level of an observable global signal. The key questions to be answered, they say, are whether the human global signal is large enough to be measured, and if it is, does it represent or is likely to become a dangerous change outside the range of natural variability? On these questions, an energetic scientific debate is taking place on the pages of peer-reviewed science journals, say the authors.

Climate Change Reconsidered II: Physical Science
Climate Change Reconsidered II: Physical Science is an independent, comprehensive, and authoritative report on the current state of climate science, published in October 2013. It is the fourth in a series of scholarly reports produced by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, an international network of climate scientists sponsored by three nonprofit organizations: the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, the Science and Environmental Policy Project, and The Heartland Institute. (Also see the executive summary of Climate Change Reconsidered II: Physical Science

Climate Change Reconsidered II: Biological Impacts
Released on April 9, 2014, Climate Change Reconsidered II: Biological Impacts is an independent, comprehensive, and authoritative report on the impacts of climate change on plants, terrestrial animals, aquatic life, and human well-being. (Also see the Climate Change Reconsidered II: Biological Impacts “Summary for Policymakers”:


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 subject, visit Environment & Climate News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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