Congress Must Combat Threats to Affordable Energy

CEI’s recently-published Agenda for the 115th Congress highlights specific steps lawmakers can take to rein in unlawful overreach by executive agencies, reduce the costs of federal regulations, and unleash America’s entrepreneurial, wealth-creating potential. Chapter 4 details several policy proposals relating to energy and environment topics, including air quality regulations, climate change policy, and renewable energy mandates. The details of those issues are important, but even more fundamental is understanding why energy itself is, as the economist Julian Simon famously put it, the “master resource.”   

Energy is the lifeblood of the economy. Thanks to affordable energy, the average person today lives longer and healthier, travels farther and faster in greater comfort and safety, and has greater access to information than the privileged elites of former times.

Carbon fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—provide 82 percent of both U.S. and global energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. They are the world’s dominant energy sources because, in most markets, they beat the alternatives in both cost and performance.

Critics claim carbon fuels have hidden costs that make them unsustainable. In the 1970s and 1980s, experts often depicted carbon fuels as both intractably polluting and rapidly depleting. Technological advances—spurred by sensible regulation and the market-driven imperative to minimize waste and improve efficiency—put the lie to those gloomy prophesies, as energy supplies increased while the air and water got much cleaner.

Today, critics claim unchecked carbon energy use will cause catastrophic climate change. However, the climate models producing scary impact assessments increasingly diverge from reality. More important, the climate change mitigation policies those critics advocate pose serious risks to American prosperity, competitiveness, and living standards.

The wealth creation and technological progress made possible by affordable carbon-based energy make societies more resilient, as they protect people from extreme weather, improve health, and increase life expectancy. Since the 1920s, global deaths and death rates from extreme weather have decreased by 93 percent and 98 percent, respectively.

The war on affordable energy also raises serious humanitarian concerns, especially regarding the poor. Energy costs already impose real burdens on low-income households, including reduced expenditures for food, medicine, education, and late credit card payments. “Consensus” climatology implies that the Paris climate treaty’s objective of limiting average global temperatures to 2°C above preindustrial levels cannot be accomplished without massive cuts in developing countries’ current consumption of carbon fuels. Putting an energy-starved planet on an energy diet is bound to be a cure worse than the supposed disease.

Increasing the affordability of both U.S. and global energy is an important economic and humanitarian objective. Policy makers heeding the time-honored healer’s maxim, “First, do no harm,” should reject policies to tax and regulate away mankind’s access to affordable energy.