Humans have been burning fossil fuels for energy since the Industrial Revolution. We use them to heat our homes, cook our food and fuel our cars. Over the course of more than a century, fossil fuels became entrenched in every aspect of the economy and people’s lives.
Our reliance on oil, coal and natural gas created the climate crisis, and it threatens ecosystems and human health through acute environmental disasters, like this weekend’s oil spill off the coast of California.
“When we drill, we spill,” Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer for Oceana, a group working to protect the planet’s oceans, told CNN. “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s just a matter of ‘when.’”
But transforming a system so vastly dependent on fossil fuels won’t happen overnight, said Iraj Ershaghi, the director of the petroleum engineering department at the University of Southern California. A transition away from fossil fuels is a huge task – one that the energy industry and world leaders have seen coming, yet have dragged their feet on.
“Many people become emotional and talk about how tomorrow, we have to stop drilling, but even if you stopped drilling or you don’t produce domestically, you’re still going to have to import oil,” Ershaghi told CNN. “It’s not a simple thing to do.”
The challenge, according Rick Steiner, a marine conservationist and oil spill expert, comes down to to either taking advantage of fossil fuel – an affordable and geopolitically vital source of energy – or ensuring the planet’s future viability by leaving most of it in the ground.
“Our whole energy economy is built around easy, cheap fossil fuels, but they’re not that cheap when you really incorporate the long-term economic costs of that we’re starting to see today,” he told CNN. “We need to get serious about reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.”
Fossil fuel accounts for more than 80% of global energy consumption, and scientists have warned that production would need to be reduced substantially to avoid a potentially catastrophic rise in global temperatures. A study published in September found that a vast majority of Earth’s remaining fossil fuels must remain underground by 2050 to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, including worsening extreme weather, irreversible ecosystem shifts, loss of life as well as economic hardship.
Just this summer, the United States has been battered by drought-fueled wildfires, deadly heat waves and floods. In August, Hurricane Ida disrupted 90 to 95% of the Gulf Coast’s oil and gas production and damaged current and abandoned pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure. Weeks later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported dozens of oil spills as a result of the catastrophic storm.
On Saturday, officials reported a massive spill from a 17-mile pipeline that leaked 126,000 gallons of oil off the coast of Southern California, infiltrating a critical wetland and killing wildlife. Steiner, who also flew over the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989, said these disasters are inevitable when dealing with oil and gas.
“No matter how safely the oil industry and governments think they can do this, there’s always a risk,” Steiner said. “Every single one of these offshore oil spills is another indication that we need to be moving away from the (fossil fuel) industry.”
According to a key UN report in August, the only way to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – what scientists say is imperative to avoid the worst impacts – is to make deep cuts to fossil fuel emissions while simultaneously removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Experts told CNN the only way to achieve that is through bold, systemic policy changes that would rapidly and equitably transform the entire energy system that people have come to rely on in their daily lives. And Ershaghi said as long as there is demand for oil and gas, companies will not stop extracting fossil fuels.
“Energy companies are looking for cash flow,” he added. “The fact is the demand for our economy runs on oil and gas, and we are not moving fast enough on the renewable areas.”
Still, there are things the government can do. Savitz said the United States could end fossil fuel subsidies, something President Joe Biden pledged to address, and instead fund the transition to clean energy by supporting renewable energy.
“It’s kind of a no-brainer,” Savitz said. “Why would we be investing in something that repeatedly creates economic disasters through oil spills and climate change, instead of facilitating the development of a new industry, that takes us away from all that?”
Scientists say the planet is running out of time to avoid worst-case scenarios. The push comes as the US Congress is debating a massive infrastructure as well as a spending bill with provisions to slash fossil fuel emissions, and less than a month before the United Nations-brokered climate talks begin in Glasgow, Scotland. Steiner said there have already been too many wake-up calls.
“There’s going to be difficulties in the transition to a low-carbon economy, and we know this – we always have,” Steiner said. “We’ve been slowly getting there over the last 10 years, but we know we need to be much more vigilant this decade or this will be game over for the climate, economy and social fabric of civilization and the future of our planet.”