Sunday, May 5, 2013

Energy Independence -- at what cost?

I believe we have a moral responsibility to care for the created world. Creation care, as I have written earlier, is part of our worship of God the Creator. As such, I advocate for the development and use of sustainable energy forms, among other things. I see the growing impact of climate change on our world—most particularly on the poorest regions of the earth-- and cannot continue to live complacently a high-consumption American lifestyle. In the past few years I have, with mixed feelings because it also impacts my budget, welcomed the increase in the price of gasoline and other petroleum-based products. As these fuels become more expensive, they make alternatives more desirable and cost-effective. This benefits the environment and has the potential to create new economic growth in sustainable energy.

Now I read (in articles such as this in The Atlantic) that advances in technology, combined with the higher price for petroleum and therefore the higher economic return on the investment, have driven significant new discoveries of oil and natural gas within the United States as well as in other regions. Within a very short time frame we have gone from a scenario in which oil would become in increasingly short supply to one in which the supply has suddenly become quite abundant, or at least potentially so. In fact, some argue that the United States could become not only oil self-sufficient but even an oil exporter in the next several years.

This could be the best thing to happen to not only our country but much of the world in quite some time. If we could eliminate our dependance on oil from the Middle East, Venezuela and other countries, we would no longer be investing our money and resources supporting petro-dictatorships. It doesn't take much to recognize that the largest oil-producing countries also have some of the worst political and human rights situations in the world (think of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran). As long as we depend on their oil, we will support those in power in these countries because we cannot afford to rock the boat too much. But if we and other countries no longer depended on them, they would suddenly lose the funds that keep them in power. That might in fact be very destablizing for those countries and their people, and possibly for the world as a whole, but it would at the least mean we wouldn't have to keep paying tribute to governments whose behavior violates many of the principles that we as Americans claim to hold most dear.

Producing oil and gas domestically could also be environmentally positive in that, if we were to enact and enforce strict environmental legislation, we could create a situation in which they would be produced with the least negative impact on the environment possible. We don't have that control in other countries. We can have it here, although the power and influence of the oil and gas industry makes me doubt we will be as stringent in this area as we ought.

At the same time, oil independence could be the worst thing to happen to our country and our world, for a couple key reasons. First of all, most of the new oil and gas being produced comes from the practice of fracking. This practice, in which steam and other chemicals are introduced into deep wells to fracture the rock, thereby releasing the petroleum and gas locked within, has opened vast new deposits of petroleum to production. But it has also raised some serious questions about the long-term effect on the environment. North Dakota has been undergoing an oil boom for some time due to this process. It has brought great wealth and economic opportunity to the state, but at an uncertain cost. Farmers have complained of their farmland becoming toxic in some manner. Wells and water sources may have become contaminated. The link between fracking and these effects remains hotly contested, but the oil and gas industry is doing their best to stifle the discussion with reassurances that fracking is completely safe. If they are so certain that it is, then why not allow more open debate and discussion, as well as unbiased analysis of the effects? We will make a very poor exchange indeed if we purchase our short-term energy independence at the cost of the long-term destruction of our environment, especially the environment that produces much of our food.

In addition, oil independence reduces the incentive to pursue and promote alternative, sustainable energy sources. Why should we concern ourselves with those when it appears that we have a supply of oil that will last far longer than anyone imagined a short time ago? Despite the advances made in alternative energy sources in the past decade or more, they still cost more per energy unit than oil and gas at current market prices. If oil supply continues to increase – even if demand also increases – oil will still remain less expensive than alternatives. Nonetheless, while acknowledging that we will continue to need petroleum-based energy for quite some time, we cannot continue to use these types of sources as we have for so long without significant harm to our environment and, ultimately, to ourselves and our children. Unfortunately, I think far too many people are content to continue living the status quo as long as possible.

I would love to see us have a healthy discussion of these issues as a society, including but not limited to the political realm. What kind of future do we want for ourselves and our world? What price are we willing to pay for our own comfort and convenience now as opposed to the sustainability of our world and our country for future generations? I fear that such a conversation will not take place, at least not openly and publicly, because so many special interests are at play and they are the ones with the wealth and power to control the conversation, be it through the information we receive or through the political discussions in Congress and state legislatures. What role do we as Christians have to play in this? How can we engage in the conversation and bring a theology of creation care into it?

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