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Abundant Energy From Free Markets

There are two broad approaches to problem solving: top down, or from the bottom up. Top-down approaches include presidential edicts, bureaucratic orders and government intervention. Bottom-up solutions include believing in people, individual empowerment and free market approaches.

With that in mind, I see three significant long-term, global challenges facing humankind:

  1. Energy poverty.
  2. Lack of a secure supply of reliable, affordable, and clean energy. 
  3. Climate change.

Notice that all of these revolve around energy: how to generate it, how to deliver it, how to consume it, and what the effects of consuming it will be. By keeping these challenges in mind, we can decide what goals to set, and we can see the danger of setting the wrong goals.

>>>READ: Free Markets Can Drive Prosperity Up, Emissions Down

For example, in the year 2023, we are seeing major threats to energy security, reliability, and affordability. This is not due to any shortage of available resources. It is due to years of underinvestment in hydrocarbons and related infrastructure, which is happening because policymakers, operating from the top down, are setting the wrong goals. They are focused on naive political and regulatory pressures as well as a misguided attempt to get to zero carbon emissions without considering the implications of the adverse effects on human prosperity and upward mobility. They are ignoring inevitable tradeoffs. They are, in short, trying to pick winners and losers where there will be many more losers than winners if policies trap people in energy poverty.

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But energy markets are impossible to manage from Washington. Nobody knows when there will be a cold snap, a food shortage, or an outbreak of war in Europe or the Middle East. Any of these events can send energy markets soaring or plunging. Those markets mostly operate from the bottom up. They are the result of millions of people making billions of decisions. Those markets actually work and can respond more quickly to price signals when they are not constrained by government dictate. Market prices reflect current supply and demand dynamics and encourage investment in valuable products. That creates a virtuous cycle of delivering more of what we need and less of what consumers no longer value.  Market competition drives down prices. 

Another problem is that those who want to guide markets are all too eager to underinvest in hydrocarbons because they say they are concerned about climate change. Such heavy-handed, top-down intervention ignores the importance of reliable energy for everyday life and the fact that higher energy prices disproportionately hurt poor people. Even in wealthy nations, rising energy prices pose significant economic and health threats to lower-income people.  Living in poverty is exhausting and we should strive to reduce this condition, not accept it as collateral damage from climate policies.

Things are even worse in poor nations. While media in the wealthy West warn of dramatic threats to human health today from climate change, the World Health Organization estimates that some 3 million people die each year from energy poverty. That is a conservative estimate, as it only considers impacts from a lack of clean cooking fuels which forces billions to suffer copious pollution from burning wood and dung indoors for cooking. 

It doesn’t need to be this way.

The goal at my company, Liberty Energy, is to bring modern energy to the one-third of humanity that still lacks access, and to help energize the world with a secure supply of affordable, reliable, clean energy. That will be “ESG” done right. When we do that, we can end global poverty, which should be our top 2050 goal.

Ending poverty will require using more hydrocarbons, not fewer. So it is important to note that hydrocarbons, like everything else, have downsides. They deliver air pollution and influence climate change. But their upsides are even larger. They deliver longer, more opportunity-rich lives, preserve forests, reduce the need for cropland, and can be used to provide clean water and basic medical care. Pollution control technologies can reduce the environmental downsides while preserving the enormous upsides. 

Simply put, there is no such thing as “clean” energy or “dirty” energy. All energy sources have positive and negative impacts on humans and the environment. Evaluating the tradeoffs in energy systems requires thoughtful analysis in the context of local conditions, values, and needs. It also requires the application of free markets: allow people to make decisions about their own energy future without subsidizing or constraining one form of energy over another.

The fact is that simply having access to energy is the greenest policy possible. People in Haiti depend on wood for fuel, for example, and this leads to significant deforestation and higher GHG emissions. Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic, its wealthier neighbor with modern energy sources, is covered in a healthy rainforest.

Liberty is working to deliver more clean-burning propane by launching the Bettering Human Lives Foundation, which will support entrepreneurs in expediting availability of clean cooking fuel (propane) to the over 2 billion people who lack it today.  Those aspiring to cook with propane are currently burning wood, charcoal, dung, and agricultural waste. Replacing those fuel sources can save millions of lives and free countless women from the drudgery and danger of traditional biomass fuels. 

Wealthy nations have pipeline infrastructure that delivers natural gas (methane) to your stove, home heater, cloths dryer, etc.  Lower income countries lack this infrastructure, however propane can substitute as it can be widely distributed without pipelines. We need more propane, now and in the near future, to save lives and improve human outcomes.  Fortunately, Liberty and our colleagues in the shale industry are delivering surging U.S. propane production available to better human lives.

It is not just propane, of course. We need more of every kind of energy to be delivered cleaner and cleaner with the help of innovation. We need more natural gas, nuclear, geothermal, solar, and yes, even coal. Everyone’s goal is to reduce energy poverty and reduce emissions in a way that better understands the tradeoffs people around the world face. 

>>>READ: For More Innovation, Unleash More Economic Freedom

Utilizing more energy sources encourages bottom-up innovation. It can eventually deliver everything from propane stoves and small solar arrays for cell phones to next-generation hydropower projects. It allows different communities to employ the right tools for them, like using solar in sunny areas, geothermal where quality resources exist, nuclear in remote locations, and hydro along available streams. There is simply no one size fits all solution.

By preserving and improving millions of lives, new sources of energy and greater use of existing sources such as hydrocarbons can lift people out of poverty, allowing them to go to work or school and earn a better living.  All of this unleashes human potential. This is how we can drive human progress to the next level and begin solving problems like climate change. Not by giving things up, but by leveling people up. This will come from markets, not mandates.

Our descendants can live in a richer world, a world free of dire human poverty. They can do so if we allow innovators and entrepreneurs to find cost-effective ways to clean up the environment while energizing the world. Human liberty, bottom-up social organization, and abundant, affordable energy enabled the modern world. The same forces can deliver a brighter future for all.

Chris Wright is the CEO of Liberty Energy.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

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