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

Pearls Before Swine
distributed 3/4/16 - ©2016

Earlier this week, at a public hearing on proposed regulations about US energy policy, I quoted a strange passage from the Bible.

As I always do when presenting this kind of testimony, I tried to figure out what my unique contribution can be when I speak on behalf of Eco-Justice Ministries. What can I say, as a person of faith, that cuts to the core of the ethical issues, and stands out from the clutter of standard talking points offered by 100 other advocates from pro and con camps.

It was fun to discover the relevance of a fairly obscure Bible verse for this very modern situation. A few quirky words from Jesus provided practical and moral wisdom.

"Do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you" (Matthew 7:6) grounded my three-minute comments about technical government regulations.

After you read about the connection -- metaphorical, not biological! -- between pearls, swine, and methane, I hope you'll send a brief statement in support of the proposed rules, too.

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The hearing in suburban Denver was for proposed rules from the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that will reduce methane waste from oil and gas operations on public lands. New rules are needed, because the previous regulations were put in place 30 years ago, under very different conditions. The amount of drilling, the location of wells, the technology involved, and the science about environmental impacts have all changed profoundly.

The new regulations address three problem areas: venting, flaring, and leaks.

  • Venting occurs most often when methane (natural gas) comes out of a well that the driller intended to produce liquid oil. The gas, in this situation, is considered a waste product, and it is just released into the atmosphere. Because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, widespread venting is a climate disaster.
  • Flaring is somewhat better for the climate -- the methane is burned at the well, converting methane to less powerful carbon dioxide.
  • And leaks are just that -- the unintended escape of methane from wells, pipelines and other production systems.

In the world of today's oil and gas production, there is a lot of venting, flaring, and leaks.

That was the context for my interpretation of Jesus' words. I explained to this secular audience that the "pearls before swine" message boils down to "Don't treat what is precious and valuable as garbage. Don't use the family treasure as slop for the hogs."

Each year, oil and gas companies waste $330 million worth of natural gas through venting, flaring and leaks on public and tribal lands. They don't pay for any of that wasted gas, they don't pay royalties on it, and they don't have to pay for any of the pollution that is caused. Wasting gas is the cheap and easy option for them.

In a 2012 study, an amazing 6-12 percent of the total natural gas production in the Unitah Basin of northeastern Utah escaped into the atmosphere. The BLM director said that, under these new rules, applied nationally, "The gas saved would be enough to supply every household in the cities of Dallas and Denver combined, every year." A great treasure is thrown away, treated as worthless, because it is inconvenient or costly to process.

And not only is there a tragic waste of valuable energy, those released gasses are a threat to public health -- including increased rates of asthma in children -- and they are a powerful driver of climate change. We are all at risk, now and far into the future, because of inadequate production methods.

"Do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you." We have treated irreplaceable treasure as garbage, and we are being mauled.

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I'd say that at least 3/4 of those speaking at the Denver-area hearing supported the new rules, and many had suggestions for how to make them stronger. I also expect that a large percentage of the written comments that will go to the BLM will come from oil and gas companies, explaining why these rules are an impossible burden.

My comments pushed farther than what I heard from any other pro-rules speaker that afternoon. I affirmed the BLM rules to reduce methane waste as an essential step, but pointed to a different kind of standard:

With what we now know about the climate impacts of methane and carbon dioxide, the ethical answer is that we must cut to zero emissions. Not only should all venting and flaring be eliminated, and all leaks plugged, but very soon all production of oil and gas will have to be phased out. As was recognized in the Paris Accord last December, our global society has to get off of fossil fuels. These resources need to be left in the ground.

If the enormous problems of methane waste and leaks can be reduced, then natural gas is a relatively "clean" fuel as we make a rapid transition toward efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy sources. But fossil fuels have to be taken off of the energy menu as quickly as possible.

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The proposed rules for reducing methane emissions are important as we begin to make the clean energy transition. I encourage you to submit a brief statement in support of those rules.

Two on-line forms will allow you to work from a prepared statement. (If you can add a personal story, a faith-based message, or even just re-word the standardized statement, your comment will be given more weight.)

Don't cast your pearls before swine. Don't treat what is precious as garbage. Don't waste valuable fuels -- and cause dangerous pollution -- because it is the easy and profitable way to do business. Please take a few minutes to submit a comment in support of strong rules.

A short note about that passage from Matthew: The Anchor Bible commentary suggests that the "pigs" are alien and heathen people, and the "pearls" are religious truths. So the line may be "a Jewish Christian proscription against evangelizing Gentiles."

The practical advice about avoiding waste seems to be a more meaningful interpretation for today, especially in light of Christian theology which affirms that "there is neither Jew nor Greek."

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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