A word in favor of fossil fuels

On Earth Day last month, we considered our obligation to care for the Earth. We pledged to turn away from the fossil fuels which have supplied most of the world’s energy for a century. But we forget that fossil fuels and nuclear power are our best sources of environment-friendly energy.
 
 
On Earth Day, world leaders assembled in a grand ceremony at the United Nations building to sign the Paris Climate Accord. That meeting was facilitated by fossil fuel-powered jet aircraft, which spanned oceans rapidly and safely. In the past, those leaders would have travelled for weeks in wooden ships, hoping for favorable winds. Fossil fuels enabled the metals and fuels for modern ships and planes.
 
 
In the oceans, sperm whales now prosper. Their existence is no longer threatened by the descendants of Captain Ahab seeking their oil for lamps. Kerosene from oil refineries replaced that demand, reducing the slaughter of whales.
 
 
To build wooden sailing ships, forests were ruthlessly clear-cut. Fossil fuel coal also saved forests that were being cut down to fuel smelters, forges, charcoal, heaters and stoves. Steel made using petroleum coke replaced wood for ships, mine props, bridges and tall buildings. And the forests expanded.
 
 
Fossil-fueled electric power cured the smog of London. In China, new nuclear reactors and natural gas are expected to clear the air in smog-choked cities. 
 
 
Clean water everywhere is processed by fossil fuel power. Petrol-driven cars and trucks removed horse manure from the big cities, and diesel-fueled farm machinery has reduced the amount of land required to grow food for those cities. Fertilizer and pesticides made from petroleum support the food production needed by our billions.
 
 
There is a role for renewable energy sources like wind and solar. But they require large land area to provide modest amounts of intermittent power. Already, some wind towers are being decommissioned because of high maintenance costs and irregular energy production. But nuclear power plants have useful lives of 60 to 80 years.
 
 
Without carbon-based, high-density energy, our growing numbers and aspirations would have consumed many of the world’s natural resources. The earth would have been stripped for fuel and food by people who lacked the low-cost reliable energy provided by fossil fuels.
 
 
Rolf Westgard
Minnesota Daily reader