Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Remarkable Shifts on Energy
distributed 6/20/08 - ©2008

With gasoline selling for $4 per gallon, the politics of energy have taken an interesting, if subtle, shift. I see a hopeful trend, a cause for concern, and opportunities for action.

Only two months ago, panic about the price of petrol led candidates McCain and Clinton to float proposals for a "gas tax holiday". The intention -- in a quite transparent appeal to cash-strapped and angry voters -- was simply to lower the cost of gas. Among the numerous critiques of the "holiday", economists pointed out that lowering the price of gas would increase consumption, which might well end up raising prices even more than the initial 18 cent tax reduction. A case of obvious pandering provided some surprising education about the complicated economics of oil.

Pain at the pump is still a very effective political hook, but the discussions have broadened dramatically in just 8 weeks. Foremost among the current proposals are ideas about drilling our way back to cheap and abundant gas. Fast-moving legislative proposals would open oil leasing in areas that may have large oil deposits, but which have long-standing restrictions on drilling. Oil production from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and sensitive regions of US coastal waters is being pushed as a means to ensure adequate oil supplies to the US.

Those proposals are hitting lots of resistance. Many reports are making the same point that I made in Notes last week -- the realities of peak oil guarantee that we'll never be able to pump enough "black gold" to meet rapidly rising global demand, and certainly not to become "energy independent" in the US. Also within the last few days, lots of experts have described how long it would take to bring that difficult-to-produce oil to market, that much of the Alaskan oil would probably be sold to Japan, and how trivial the impact on consumer prices would be.

This is a remarkable shift in public conversations. Within two months, there has been a turn from the political pandering of a three-month, 18 cent price reduction to serious analysis that touches on the realities of peak oil, the pricing of global oil commodities, and the fact that energy policies must be framed in decades instead of months. Complex issues and sophisticated analysis are showing up in headline news stories.

The public doesn't like paying high prices, but people also seem to be amazingly suspicious of quick and easy fixes. Scientists and economists are speaking out in news stories and political hearings. Editorial writers and bloggers are providing commentaries that go beyond short-term and simple answers.

I find all of this to be good and remarkable news. Realities about limits and global interdependence are entering into high-priority political conversations in the context of this election year. Politically dangerous ideas that have generally been considered taboo are now found on the center of the stage. Quite suddenly, there is a refreshing maturity to some of the debate about oil policy.

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I'm also noticing an even larger expansion of the discussion. Two months ago, the talk was only about gas prices. Today, it is about broad energy policy. Perhaps the realization that simplistic and narrow solutions won't work is becoming clear to politicians on the stump. Or perhaps we're seeing the deal-making that is part of politics as usual. But in any case, the policy discussions have suddenly expanded from a single issue of consumer prices to far-reaching considerations about energy supplies.

The politicians and business leaders who propose oil drilling in coastal areas and ANWR are not speaking only about that controversial topic. They are also talking about nuclear power, "clean coal" and oil shale, biofuels, renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and measures for efficiency and conservation. I'm sensing a political necessity to put all of these topics on the table as a condition for even raising controversial ideas for drilling.

My cynical side sees it simply as vote trading -- "I'll give you money for solar energy if you'll vote for offshore drilling." Even if that's the case, though, the fact that the trading is happening in public speeches shows that the voters are catching on to the complex relationships. It is becoming very clear that gas prices, food supplies, global warming and local jobs all are interconnected. That's a very exciting development.

The astounding rise in the price of oil and gasoline in the last few months have created an intense and informed interest in energy policy. The fact that there is no easy way to lower gas prices has led politicians, pundits and the public into an awareness of the complex interconnection of energy issues. There's a danger, though, in that new awareness.

I've heard experts divide energy into the kind that comes by wire (electricity) and the kind that comes in pipes (such as gasoline and natural gas). There's very little interplay between the two kinds of energy. Much of the stuff that comes in pipes is used for transportation, which is where the up-close-and-personal voter interest in gas prices is most intense. Building more electrical generation facilities isn't going to do anything at all to reduce gas prices -- at least not until plug-in cars become common.

I fear that the political urgency which started around gasoline prices might be hijacked to spread billions of dollars in funding to increase any and all forms of energy, including those that are highly polluting and major contributors to climate change. If public anxiety about gasoline prices is used as the political impetus to get nuclear and coal-fired power plants built, then we're losing ground.

In this moment when voters are paying attention to some of the complexities of energy policy, we have the opportunity -- and the obligation -- to put the focus on the most important ethical goals: sustainable energy supplies into future generations, with the lowest ecological impacts.

We need to make sure that this moment of awareness and concern is not derailed by people and institutions who are campaigning for "more and cheaper energy" of any kind on the basis of today's frustration with oil prices. In our role as church and community leaders, we can help keep the focus on sustainable and clean energy, at responsible prices. Today, the press and the public are surprisingly open to complex analysis. We can be heard when we raise questions about why gas prices indicate a need for more electrical generation from coal and nuclear power.

I rejoice in the surprising opportunity to address complex questions about energy policy. I pray that voters and leaders -- political, religious, business and environmental -- will make good and responsible use of this remarkable time.

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Three brief additional notes:

  1. Last week, a starting point for my Notes was an action alert from the American Family Association calling for expanded oil drilling. (I want to clarify that I generally despise the content and style of the AFA mailings, and that I've chosen to be on their list so I can watch what some very effective opponents are doing.) Yesterday, the AFA said that their alert had generated nearly 400,000 emails to Congress. I doubt those numbers, but it is true that the folk who support drilling are working hard for that cause. I urge you to contact your Senators and Congressperson to demand restraint on drilling, and a comprehensive approach to energy.

  2. The national push for oil and gas production is focused on the coasts and ANWR. In the home turf of Eco-Justice Ministries, related issues of critical local importance include absurd proposals about oil shale leases, bitter conflicts about drilling for natural gas on the Roan Plateau of western Colorado, and controversial new rules being considered by the Colorado Oil & Gas Commission that address wildlife and public health. Please let us know if you'd like to be put on the specialized email list from Eco-Justice Ministries that will keep you informed about these Colorado issues.

  3. This morning, Sierra Club released its first ever national report on the environmental engagement of communities of faith, Faith in Action: Communities of Faith Bring Hope for the Planet. Highlighting one exceptional faith-based environmental initiative from each of the fifty states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, Faith in Action demonstrates the breadth, depth and diversity of spiritually motivated grassroots efforts to protect the planet. The report notes: "We also recognize that lasting social change rarely takes place without the active engagement of communities of faith." Among the 52 honored initiatives, it is wonderful to see many partners and colleagues of Eco-Justice Ministries -- congratulations to our good friends! The full report is available at www.sierraclub.org/partnerships/faith/report2008/.

    Shalom!

    Peter Sawtell
    Executive Director
    Eco-Justice Ministries

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