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On Earth Day, A Reality Check On The Future Of Fossil Fuels

Mark J. Perry, AEIdeas

On Earth Day, let’s not forget to celebrate and appreciate the human resources — knowledge, ingenuity, know-how, creativity, “petropreneurship,” and imagination, i.e. the “instruction manuals” – that transform otherwise unusable resources like shale hydrocarbons into energy treasures that will power our economy for generations to come.

On Earth Day, according to various advocates, “events are held worldwide to increase awareness and appreciation of the Earth’s natural environment.” It might be a good time to appreciate the fact that Americans get most of their plentiful, affordable energy directly from the Earth’s “natural environment” in the form of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum).

It’s largely those natural energy sources that fuel our vehicles and airplanes; heat, cool, and light our homes and businesses; and power our nation’s factories, and in the process significantly raise our standard of living. Shouldn’t that be part of “increasing our awareness and appreciation of Earth’s natural environment” — to celebrate Mother Earth’s bountiful natural resources in the form of abundant, low-cost fossil fuels?


The chart above illustrates the importance of the Earth’s hydrocarbon energy treasures to the American economy — in the past, today, and in the future. Over almost a one-hundred year period from 1949 to 2040, fossil fuels have provided, and will continue to provide, the vast majority of our energy by far according to Obama’s Department of Energy. Last year, fossil fuels provided more than 83% of America’s energy consumption, which was nearly unchanged from the 85% fossil fuel share twenty years ago in the early 1990s.

Even more than a quarter of a century from now in 2040, the Department of Energy forecasts that fossil fuels will still be the dominant energy source, providing more than 81% of our energy needs. So, despite President Obama’s dismissal of oil and fossil fuels as “energy sources of the past,” the forecasts from his own Department of Energy tell a much different story of a hydrocarbon-based energy future where fossil fuels serve as the dominant energy source to power our vehicles, heat and light our homes, and fuel the US economy.

Further, President Obama’s energy policy has been primarily to force taxpayers to “invest” in “energy sources of the future” – renewables like solar and wind — instead of expanding production of oil, natural gas and coal. But again, the Department of Energy data tell a much different story. Even after billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for renewable energy, renewables last year provided only 7.1% of America’s energy, which was actually less than the 9.3% share that renewables provided in 1949, more than 60 years ago – that’s not a lot of progress for the politically popular, and very expensive, renewables.

When it comes to solar and wind, those two energy sources combined provided less than 2.2% of America’s energy consumed in 2014 – an almost insignificant amount. Even in 2040, more than a quarter century from now, solar and wind together will account for only about 4.3% of America’s energy, according to government forecasts, and all renewables together (including hydropower) will provide only 9.5% of our nation’s energy – about the same as in 1949 (see chart)!

To further appreciate the Earth’s natural environment on Earth Day, we should celebrate the revolutionary extraction technologies of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling that have allowed us to tap into what were previously inaccessible, natural energy treasures trapped in tight shale rock miles below the Earth’s surface. It’s an important point that those shale resources have been part of the Earth’s “natural environment” for hundreds of thousands of years, but have only become usable natural resources in the last seven years, because of the human resourcefulness that led to breakthroughs in drilling and extraction technologies.

Therefore, the full awareness and appreciation of Earth’s natural environment really only makes sense as a greater appreciation of the human resourcefulness and human ingenuity that have transformed natural resources like sand into computer chips, and oil and gas trapped in shale rock formations miles below the ground into usable energy products.

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