Fossil Fuels to the Rescue

It is past peak hurricane season, and the southern continental United States has been pummeled by massive storms this year. Many have been quick to demonize fossil fuels, blaming them as the root cause of these powerful storms. However, regardless of one’s opinion on the major cause of climate change, humans need fossil fuels now more than ever.

Late summer 2017, three major hurricanes made landfall on U.S. soil—within a one-month time span—and  caused overwhelming damage to infrastructure, and displaced large swaths of the population. Fossil fuels have played a critical role in reducing the death toll and fueling the post-disaster relief efforts than any other energy resource.

If you think Hurricane Harvey was bad, when compared to the Galveston Hurricane of (1900)—which claimed roughly 12,000 lives (and is considered the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history) or Hurricane Katrina (2005)—which claimed 1,836 lives—Harvey’s death count remains under one hundred.

These numbers are not by coincidence. Hurricane Harvey was a much more powerful storm than Katrina, and just as powerful as the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, yet it claimed a fraction of the lives. Despite the other variables at work, one of the largest contributors to such a low death toll is because of over a century of industrial development powered primarily by fossil fuels. As such, the reliance on fossil fuels has enabled cities to be more resilient to powerful storms as they remain rapidly available in times of need. Other resources are limited in their ability to provide power during times of disaster. Solar panels cannot generate electricity during a hurricane, and can be displaced if the home loses its roof. At first glance one might turn to wind power, however, the erratic nature of the winds would make it difficult for wind turbines to operate properly. Conversely, access to diesel for diesel powered generators enable families to maintain consistent and reliable access to power during storms. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that Florida Power and Light is restoring power at a pace approximately four times faster than it did after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, partly because of increased cooperation among electrical companies, but also because of access to fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels, especially diesel, provide some of the most instantaneous sources of energy on the planet. Few other energy resources are so readily available to provide the necessary power needed to fuel ongoing search and rescue efforts, as rescue boats and helicopters run almost entirely on fossil fuels. In response to Hurricane Harvey, the Department of Defense sent 11 generators, 100,000 gallons of gasoline, and 493,000 gallons of diesel fuel to Texas to aid in the recovery. As of Oct. 8, Hurricane Maria left 90 percent of Puerto Rico without power, but generators kept hospitals, households, and businesses powered.

The U.S. Department of Energy keeps just over 700 million barrels of stored oil reserves that can be released in the event of supply disruption, such as hurricanes crashing into the southern United States. In addition to maintaining energy security – the reliability of satisfying energy needs at cost-effective means – the supply allows critical fuel to continually be used for recovery efforts. In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the Department of Energy delivered 3.1 million barrels of crude, out of 5.3 million authorized out of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Energy security is national security. Despite optimistic trends in renewable energy, renewables still cannot replace fossil fuels as the primary provider of U.S. energy needs or the necessary power for rapid recovery efforts during natural disasters. As such, in spite of strong contention, one should look at Fossil fuels are a blessing, not a curse.