And as a reasonable man…

You know the drill

Whenever I get into a conversation about energy policy and the environment, someone often will advocate that our future must include the wise or “reasonable use” of fossil fuels.

That sounds good; if only we could define what “reasonable use” actually means.

Even with new alternative energy sources, facts on the ground show fossil fuels will play a significant role in our future (not only to provide power but also to feed our dangerous addiction to plastics). The energy policies of President Biden and President Trump — and, in fact all recent presidents — include continued investment in fossil fuel infrastructure and extraction. Despite a massive political divide, policymakers on both sides understand that the exclusion of fossil fuels in any type of national policy assures political death.

As for Biden, he made fossil fuels central in the Inflation Reduction Act, largely through funds to support the development of carbon capture and sequestration. Carbon capture and sequestration is controversial and risky, though, and many view it as merely enabling the continued use of fossil fuels to our own detriment.

Be reasonable

Humvee speeds down country road.

A Hummer H3 on a country road in spring. Reasonable use? (iStock.)

What is reasonable is, first, a decision an individual might make.

Reason is in context of local conditions at a specific time.

Reasonable is imprecise, not measurable.

Reasonable is subject to change with time.

Reasonable depends on resources — the money — that one has.

We hear about reasonable use when it comes to laws controlling access to guns. There’s reasonable force in hostile encounters, reasonable accommodation, and reasonable search and seizure.

Many people think the recreational driving of dune buggies and snowmobiles is reasonable. I have sat in lines of stalled traffic between the Anza-Boreggo Desert and San Diego with thousands of recreational vehicles in tow, often behind larger, live-in recreational vehicles. I have witnessed rental Humvees touring the mountain tops in Colorado.

By my accounting, these recreational uses of fossil fuels are “not reasonable.” However, I imagine that if a well-designed poll of Americans existed, most would disagree with me and say such use is reasonable. Even more certain, such a poll would find there is no foundation on which to deny such use.


(Editor’s note: The author’s title for this column is inspired by this scene in “The Godfather.” He writes, “It’s a very useful movie for understanding management and is my official management movie. ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ is my official management play.)

Law and water

In Colorado, where I live, strict water laws define usage. Water rights are owned. Reasonable use includes the idea that water is being used according to the purpose for which it was designated, irrigation perhaps, and that it is not being wasted.

The language surrounding reasonable use is often characterized by that which is unreasonable. That is, your use does not place unreasonable barriers or injury to others who also have a claim to reasonable use.

What is unreasonable is likely to be decided by litigation.

Reasonable use also can be associated with avoiding damage; this often relates to the availability of water downstream. Thus, a negotiation ensues between, for example, upstream municipal/agricultural use versus downstream ecosystems and Tribal use.

A calming effect

Smoke stacks

Emissions from a coal-fired power station make for dramatic visual argument about carbon capture and sequestration. (Image: iStock.)

I have observed many tense negotiations regarding complex issues about natural resources. Parties often invoke the idea of “reasonable people making reasonable use” of the resource in question. There is a powerful calming effect of people agreeing that they are each and all reasonable.

But the question remains: What is the definition of reasonable use?

When issues such as banning chlorofluorocarbons to protect ozone, or putting a price on sulfur emissions to manage acid rain were being negotiated, we acknowledged an acceptable amount of environmental damage in order to reap the benefits provided by chlorofluorocarbons and burning coal. This damage is cast as a cost, and that cost is compared to the cost of mitigating the risk as well as the benefits of use.

The same approach is used to regulate insecticides, herbicides, and medicines. We are willing to accept environmental degradation in order to produce cheap food or “protect” ourselves. Indeed, we pretty much have to accept environmental degradation at this point in human history.

This is one of the motivations for setting a price on carbon waste, be it emissions or plastic. But determining the cost of damage to the planet, which also requires determining the cost of the damage to its people, is a daunting task.

It is safe to say that reasonable use of fossil fuels cannot be discussed without agreement on the cost of carbon waste.

The political fight is already moving to provide barriers to setting the cost of carbon emissions. Some who have historically denied the conclusions of climate science now accept, grudgingly, that the planet is warming and, perhaps, that humans are causing it. But what is the real damage to people and the environment? And who is to say this change is bad?

Not reasonable

a graph depicting the importance of reducing CO2 emissions.

Do “reasonable people make reasonable use” of natural resources? The author is dubious. (Image: iStock.)

If we look at human history, there is no evidence to support the argument that humans will practice “reasonable use” of fossil fuels now or in the future. Thus, the only real criterion to define reasonable use is through the management of fossil-fuel waste products to render them undamaging.

We have known for decades that fuel efficiency would greatly reduce carbon emissions and save money. However, we have not even implemented logical policies anchored in efficiency. We have accumulated an enormous amount of waste and we need to clean it up. And we have yet to price the damage of fossil-fuel waste, whether it is carbon dioxide, methane emissions, or microplastics floating in the seas.

We are violating all of the criteria of reasonable use.

As reasonable people, perhaps we can all agree that reasonable use as a description of fossil fuel policy is not useful. We simply don’t know what it means.
(Lead image of Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film “The Godfather” comes from Paramount Pictures.)


  1. Arlen Brunsvold - '66 MSE(ME), '72 PhD(ME)

    The fourth graphic, (showing water vapor plumes streaming from a power plant cooling towers) is misleading as it implies the visible plumes contain carbon as in CO2, etc. They do not. The exhaust stack does not appear to have a visible exhaust. When I point this out to friends and family many feel they are being misled on purpose.


    • Deborah Holdship

      “When I point this out to friends and family many feel they are being misled on purpose.” I feel this merits a reply. I chose that photo because it was a coal-powered plant producing emissions. Sorry you felt I was misleading you “on purpose.” I would never do that. Deborah Holdship


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