Producers of fossil fuels: oil, natural gas, and coal, provide a crucially important material value: affordable, abundant, and reliable energy. Without such energy, our ability to survive and prosper would be significantly diminished, as the evidence from history and the developing countries today shows. Currently (or at least until the pandemic lockdowns started), about 80% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels, and no viable alternatives to them exist.
Yet, oil, gas, and coal companies are continually being accused by environmentalists for causing catastrophic, man-made climate change because using their products emits CO2. Many climate models predict that CO2 emissions will raise the temperature of the globe dangerously high. Activist scientists, aided by the media, claim that this is already occurring and causes “climate emergencies,” manifested as floods, droughts, hurricanes, and forest fires.
While the temperature of Earth has increased (by less than one degree Celsius) in the last 100 years, there is little evidence that it can be attributed to human activity alone, or that it has contributed to any weather-related catastrophes. As ecologist and Greenpeace co-founder Dr. Patrick Moore has pointed out, we live in one of the coolest periods of the last five million years, and the level of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere is near historic lows.
Nevertheless, many national governments have joined in a political movement to remove carbon emissions by eliminating the use of fossil fuels—and companies that produce them.
One of the consequences of the economic lockdowns that governments have imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the plummeting demand for and prices of fossil fuels. This has caused financial stress to many oil, gas, and coal companies and made them slash capital expenditure and production.
Many governments are trying to leverage the situation with initiatives to further reduce demand for fossil fuels and promote alternative sources of energy. An example is the Canadian Liberal government’s recently announced goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The plan to achieve it includes subsidizing hydrogen technology, solar and wind energy, and small scale nuclear plants.
The Canadian government’s net-zero 2050 plan has been aptly criticized for not being feasible because it ignores reality: the lack of necessary technology and the increasing demand for affordable and reliable energy in developing countries around the world. (See the informative editorial and two op-ed columns about this in the Financial Post).
I offer an additional moral criticism of the government’s plan and a defense of the fossil fuel companies, based on the principle of individual rights and the government’s role as their protector.
The net-zero 2050 plan constitutes, not protection, but violation, of individual rights. It violates the right to liberty and property. By legislating what kind of energy must be used, the government violates the fossil fuel companies’ and their customers’ right to liberty, as they cannot choose what to produce and consume. The government also violates these companies’ right to property, as their owners cannot freely choose where to invest their capital. And the government violates all citizens’ right to property and right to life, as it forcibly takes their money through taxes to promote a program that diminishes their prosperity and their ability flourish.
The principle of individual rights is crucially important to protecting people’s freedom of action in a social context. As Ayn Rand has explained, only when individuals are protected by the government against physical force or fraud initiated by others, are they free to produce and trade material values that enhance human life and allow their producers to profit.
The history of innovation in the fossil fuel industries is a testimony to this. Coal was the first fossil fuel to emancipate humans from physical labor by powering machines. Since its discovery in the early 1700s, new innovations for extracting and processing coal have been continual, including today’s clean coal technology to mitigate pollution. The trajectory of the oil and gas industry is similar.
By producing affordable, abundant, and reliable energy, fossil fuel companies have contributed tremendously to human prosperity and wellbeing and should be free to continue to do so, as per the principle of individual rights. The government’s net-zero carbon 2050 plan is an egregious violation of the individual rights of both the fossil fuel producers and individual taxpayers. Its consequence will be a significant decrease in human flourishing, when the supply and reliability of energy decrease and its cost increases.
When plans like Canada’s net-zero 2050 are proposed, we must protest the government’s violation of individual rights, including its attempts to eliminate the fossil fuel companies.