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Montana Tech Professor Courtney Young


Predictions of global catastrophe are as old as Hollywood disaster movies. The latest is exemplified by one of the nation’s best-known politicians, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is concerned about climate change and wants to keep oil, natural gas and coal in the ground. He is calling on governments, corporations, universities, and faith-based institutions to divest their investments in fossil fuels, essentially declaring war.

It may seem looney, but the political reverberations of a sustained campaign should not be underestimated. After all, American universities are credited with helping put an end to apartheid in South Africa, divestment played a role in forcing public-health regulation of U.S. tobacco, and now climateers like Sanders have profound implications on U.S. energy policy. Society and the fossil-fuel industry had better gird itself.

Last month, New York City Mayor Bill Di Blasio announced plans to withdraw $5 billion of pension fund investment. Campaigns have been mounted by Boulder, Colorado,  Madison, Wisconsin; San Francisco, Oakland, and several counties in California. Recently, a coalition of 2,000 people, including celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, and more than 600 institutions worth $2.6 trillion in assets worldwide pledged to divest. Even though they have not done so yet, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced its divestment plan nearly four years ago. Their Cassandra-like predictions say the U.S. will soon forego fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy. A look at the numbers explains why these climateers are nonsensical.

Despite generous tax credits and mandates for renewable energy, solar and wind combined supply only 3.2 percent of our energy. Years of assistance, government subsidies, dramatic drops in cost, and that’s all!

So how can anyone expect renewables to replace fossil fuels? Not without winters where we freeze in the dark, schools, stores and businesses close, highways empty, and our economy ultimately collapses. So what exactly is under the hood?

Yes, fossil fuels at about 80 percent. The Energy Information Administration forecasts energy consumption will increase 28 percent by 2040 but, even then, fossil fuels will still account for 77 percent. 

They are not going away because their advantages are what we need -- high energy density, ease of storage, flexibility, low cost and, most importantly, availability on demand during peak use, all of which keeps us employed.

The U.S. has the world’s largest coal reserves. Coal is proving to also be a source of rare earth minerals which are critically important in the manufacture of products ranging from weapons systems to mobile phones. Because we depend on China for REMs, they are referred to as critical materials, particularly since they are supplied by an “unfriendly” country.

Recently, the National Energy Technology Laboratory said significant progress has been made in extracting REMs from coal and noted four projects are being launched, including one using lignite coal at the University of North Dakota. The laboratory recognizes that further research and development is needed.

The anti-fossil fuel movement should reconsider its infatuation with solar and wind. These renewables remain uncompetitive and contribute only marginally to U.S. energy. Everywhere around the globe, growth has been hobbled by high capital and development costs. If the most prosperous nation can’t afford them, who can?

Furthermore, most renewables require large areas of land and masses of collectors and they’re of little value when the weather isn’t cooperating, requiring fossil fuel as backup.

A rich and embarrassing history of wrong-headed ideas precedes divestment in the fossil-fuel industry. Not long ago, energy experts predicted U.S. oil and natural gas industries would be short-lived but forgot to account for technological advances, namely horizontal drilling and fracking, allowing production from hard-to-reach reserves. These technological gains dramatically reduced costs of exploration and production just when shortages were predicted along with skyrocketing costs at the pump brought on by OPEC.

In coal burning, technological advances have realized dramatic reduction in emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates, things that were also not foreseen. Furthermore, improved efficiencies are also being observed at some coal plants giving a sign that investments are paying off helping with carbon mitigation in the process. This gives assurance that coal production and use should continue.

However, Bernie Sanders, climateers, and divestment campaigners don’t want you to know any of that. Furthermore, they offer no plan to replace fossil fuels because it won’t work; rather, they boost solar and wind as a public relations stunt. It is nothing but rhetoric. Renewables have their place in our economy but, without a plan, will remain small. Investments in fossil fuels are the current key. I just hope they come in time to save places like Colstrip.

Courtney Young is the deparment head and Dept Head and Lewis S. Prater Distinguished Professor of Metallurgical & Materials Engineering at Montana Tech in Butte.