As COVID-19 cases surpass 2 million this month and continue to climb, we are confronted with the same question we were in the spring: Can our hospitals handle the patient surge?
Reports that hospitals are “busting out at the seams” and reaching a “tipping point” are already pouring in. Several governors are meeting the threat with new curfews and stay-at-home orders this holiday season. Yet in the same breath, emboldened by a Biden victory, many of the same leaders want to shut down the oil and gas facilities that have kept our hospitals powered during the pandemic. Our health care system needs affordable and reliable energy now more than ever.
When disaster strikes and the power goes out, health facilities face a critical moment. Though most hospitals have backup generators, they are not guaranteed to kick in right away, work properly or last more than a few days — especially during a natural disaster. Just a few minutes without a ventilator could mean life or death for some patients.
Hospitals are huge facilities that require a tremendous amount of energy to power multiple wings, floors, surgery rooms and recovery rooms. They rely on energy to illuminate surgical lighting, refrigerate medicine, power ventilators and other essential equipment, and even cook meals. Hospitals need reliable power around-the-clock, but it’s a luxury becoming less certain in states that are ditching oil and gas — the lifeblood of American energy.
Take California, for example. The state is in the process of transitioning away from fossil fuels with self-imposed regulations and natural gas bans. On Aug. 14 and 15, California literally ran out of energy. Half-a-million homes and businesses lost power during the state’s first rolling black outs in nearly 20 years. During an extreme heat wave, state agencies reportedly failed to plan for the spike in energy demand. And the lights went out.
California’s approach isn’t good enough for America’s health care system, especially during a pandemic. Our hospitals need the reliability fossil fuels offer. Natural gas is one of the safest, most reliable and most affordable energy sources out there. Unlike wind and solar, gas is not weather-dependent and can easily be stored during a period of low energy demand and withdrawn during high demand. Americans rely on an extraordinary gas pipeline network that zigzags 3 million miles across our country to safely deliver reliable energy to our homes, businesses and hospitals — 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Not only do hospitals rely on a robust natural gas supply and infrastructure, but many of the life-saving equipment used inside health care facilities are made from petroleum. Materials including hand sanitizer, latex gloves and medicines as well as equipment such as examining tables, wheelchairs and MRI machines all have parts derived from oil and gas. Everywhere you turn in a hospital you can see just how important petroleum is. Surely, we have taken this reality for granted.
Our health care system depends on reliable energy to function, but some lawmakers are pushing for energy policies that would leave hospitals even more vulnerable to power outages. This is an unfortunate, unrealized irony. The transition to natural gas has lowered greenhouse gas emissions and can continue to do so alongside renewables. Only an all-of-the-above energy policy ensures our health facilities will keep the lights on and equipment running to care for COVID-19 patients this winter.
Our leaders must recognize the critical role of oil and gas in not only powering our health facilities, but also in fueling the American economy out of this pandemic. The next presidential administration should embrace an all-of-the-above energy strategy, or California’s dark reality could become the rest of the country’s.
• Craig Stevens, a former senior adviser to Energy Secretary Sam Bodman and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, is the spokesman for Grow America’s Infrastructure Now (GAIN).