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Energy and Our World

Philadelphia Bridge Collapse Crystalizes Fossil Fuel Debate
n this handout photo provided by the City of Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, smoke rises from a collapsed section of the I-95 highway on June 11, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. According to reports, a tanker fire underneath the highway c

This article originally ran on Forbes.com on June 14, 2023. All rights reserved.

Daniel B. Markind is a Forbes.com energy column contributor. The views expressed in this article are not to be associated with the views of Flaster Greenberg PC.

The explosion and fire of a tanker truck just north of Center City Philadelphia, leading to the collapse of sections of Interstate 95, one of the most heavily traveled roads in the United States and the chief highway connecting Maine to Florida, crystalizes the debate over fossil fuels in this country.  Coming soon on the heels of the eerie reddish cloud from the Canadian forest fires that fouled the air in many eastern cities last week, issues relating to climate change are taking on a new urgency. 

Each side will no doubt use the Philadelphia tragedy as justification for its own beliefs and policies.  The anti-fossil fuels crowd will claim that this shows the danger of our continued reliance on sources of energy that are inherently dangerous.  The tanker truck that caught on fire was carrying gasoline.  Gasoline is highly flammable, to say nothing about its potential emission of greenhouse gasses both in its transportation  and its use.

The pro-fossil fuel crowd will note that transporting any type of fuel by truck is among the most dangerous ways of transmission.  Ignoring for the moment that pipelines are not the most efficient way for gasoline to be delivered locally anyway, had the gasoline been able to be moved by a pipeline, whose further development is being prevented by members of the “anti” crowd, this tragedy likely would not have happened.  Pipelines can also explode, but all the data shows that pipelines remain the safest means of transmission of fossil fuel products, as well as among the most environmentally friendly.

Lost in the debate likely will be the infrastructure aspect, and specifically why one of the country’s most important roads buckled and collapsed as quickly as it did.  After all, the section that collapsed was part of a $212 million reconstruction project that was completed only four years ago. (Source)

All that aside, certain facts cannot be avoided.  First, pollution is global.  If we believe fossil fuels are responsible, and if we are closing in on a climate catastrophe, then the response has to be global.

China is the world’s largest emitter of CO2.  It emits more CO2 than the United States and the European Union combined.  While China is trumpeting that its non-fossil fuel energy sources now exceed fifty percent of its total installed electricity generation capacity (Source), it still uses far more fossil fuels, especially coal, than it does renewable energy.  Last year, coal constituted 56.2% of China’s total energy consumption, as opposed to 25.9% from renewables.  In addition, as recently as 2020 China was building more than three times as much new coal capacity as the rest of the world combined. (Source)

Regardless, China’s switch toward renewables constitutes significant progress.  Still, there are those who believe fossil fuels must be phased out immediately.  They warn that if this is not done, climate disaster will occur.  What they ignore, however, is that if a full switch is actually accomplished in the West but not in China, the climate catastrophe they fear will still not be alleviated.

On the other side, too many strange atmospheric events are happening these days to dismiss them out of hand, the way many on the other side do.  There may be good individual reasons for each such climate event, such as bad forest management for the wildfires, but taken together it is hard to dispute that something unusual is happening with our weather.  There are too many warning signs to ignore what is increasingly obvious.

The question still remains what do we do about it, and what is the time frame?  Again, without China fully on board, no immediate switch away from fossil fuels by the West, if that even were possible, would likely produce the desired result.  

There is no indication that China, which continues to open coal-based power plants, will get fully on board anytime soon.  That being the case, the best option is to transition to renewables as quickly as possible, but with the understanding that we are decades away from any possible full phasing out of fossil fuels.  Meanwhile, we must strive to make our society as emission-free as possible, without destroying our world economy and creating the conditions for a societal backlash so extreme that it will reverse all the progress that has been made.  We have seen how this can happen in Sri Lanka, the Netherlands, and even Germany following the start of the Russia-Ukraine war.  To do this correctly, and in as environmentally friendly a way as possible, we need to transition in a step-by-step process deliberately but quickly.

Although the committed environmentalists will dispute it, n practice, that means building out our pipeline infrastructure so we get off the road as many dangerous tanker trucks as possible, and otherwise accepting the reality that, with China increasing its coal consumption, it is going to be difficult to meet the final goal of having nearly universal “green” energy production without going through an interim phase of more widespread natural gas consumption instead.  It means not phasing out gas stoves entirely but encouraging them instead, as they will only help speed the conversion from coal to natural gas overall.  It means, as Philadelphia surprisingly is doing now, studying the possibility that our cities with port facilities near natural gas deposits become export terminals so we can encourage other nations to convert from coal to natural gas. (Source)

It means realizing that the billions of dollars pledged by the Federal government for renewable energy development in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and other recent legislation serves little purpose if the projects to be proposed cannot be timely permitted.

Most importantly, it means that if we wish to revitalize our infrastructure at the same time as we secure our planet's climate, we need to work within the arc of the possible, and not the fanciful dreams of those for whom reality can be put to the side to serve political or idealistic aims.

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