Universities shouldn’t be too quick to divest from fossil fuels

As students resume their studies this month – from college students down to the elementary school level – I’ve been thinking a lot about how we have shaped the national conversation about our global energy economy.

Our kids are taught in high school that global warming is a major threat and that fossil fuels need to go, immediately. In recent years, students at universities nationwide have been spearheading campaigns demanding that their schools immediately and completely divest from companies that invest in, develop, sell, or otherwise are involved with fossil fuels.

Now students might argue that their schools are powerful institutions that can make change. Personally, I would find these efforts to divest of oil and gas investments much more sincere if those who proposed them pledged to divest all oil and gas products from their daily lives first. But, that proves difficult for many.

This is because their demands aren’t realistic and don’t consider the whole, global picture. There needs to be a balance in our national conversation that shows how our energy consumption has swayed history positively.

In The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, author Alex Epstein explains that when you look at the bigger picture, oil and petroleum have improved the lives of seven billion people worldwide. It’s the reason we’re the greatest country on Earth, and why others continue to develop following our path. These fuels are behind a multitude of products including carpet, clothes, shoes, shampoo, tires, perfume, insecticides, candles, pens – even iPhones. And of course, it is also the reason developing countries have had heat and transportation. Even as we look to make a transition in our energy consumption, we must recognize the role oil has played in our development.

Universities seem to understand this, in part. Last year, in the face of strong student demands, Stanford University voted not to divest from fossil fuels. Their reasoning:

“Because achieving these goals will take time, and given how integral oil and gas are to the global economy, the trustees do not believe that a credible case can be made for divesting from the fossil fuel industry until there are competitive and readily available alternatives.”  

This response reminded me of an idea by former CIA Director James Woolsey comparing oil to common salt in an op-ed he penned about 10 years ago. Woolsey reminded us that before the 19th century, the world fought over another major strategic commodity – salt. However, new technologies like electricity and refrigeration eventually ended the strategic importance of salt.

The point is that, although we still use salt, no one would say that we are “salt dependent.” Likewise, our staggering dependence on oil can be reduced with the help of alternative fuels. But unlike salt, oil is still too strong a commodity in the global economy to do away with altogether.

This was the goal of my Pickens Plan, which began 10 years ago just after Woolsey’s comments. The idea was to reduce our dependence on OPEC oil and use our own resources, including wind, solar, and natural gas, to bridge the gap. Underscoring the plan was the understanding that we cannot ignore oil as a player on the stage – for now.

That doesn’t mean we can’t begin to think about divesting from fossil fuels. It just means that it’s not prudent to make oil out to be something untouchable, to be dropped, no questions asked. The reality is that the most robust and effective energy plan, one that will reliably shift us onto renewable sources of energy, acknowledges the role oil has played in our history and understands it to be a key player in the present. 

Transitioning to the ‘energy of tomorrow’ won’t happen overnight. We will need to take a more comprehensive approach.

I consider myself a staunch environmentalist. For 10 years now, I have been promoting wind, solar, and natural gas as alternatives to OPEC oil. But until growing technologies can turn oil to salt on the global stage – that is, until its major strategic importance weakens – it will be a reality in our energy picture.

Understanding that nuance is the best first step toward changing it.