The City of Pecos, TX is an intriguing place. It started as a typical western railroad station in 1883. Due to the availability of groundwater and the railroad’s access to markets, Pecos grew into an agricultural center in the 20th century and was famous for its Pecos cantaloupes. Interstate Highway 20 was built around the outskirts of town. Like the railroad, it supplies access to markets for agricultural products. IH-20 also supports another product for which Pecos is now known.
Pecos lies within the Permian Basin, a former shallow seaway that became the world’s largest producer of oil in 2019. A drive across west Texas on IH-20 is like driving through an industrial complex. During a recent night spent in a motel there, I felt like I was staying in a worker’s camp. I saw no other women, except for those working at the hotel and in the restaurant where we ate. Temperatures that day had been around freezing, with a steady mix of freezing rain and flurries as we drove. From the appearance of the men, they had not spent the day sheltered in the car like we had. Breakfast was served in the motel starting at 4:30 am, much earlier than in most hotels. The trucks in the parking lot were long gone when we arose the next morning. The men are working long, hard days.
I may not have seen women, but there was evidence of them in snippets of cell phone conversations I overheard in the hotel lobby and at the restaurant that evening. Men were talking with lovers and spouses, and sometimes switching into the voice of men talking with their children. In their voices, I heard echoes of my grandfathers. They were men who loved their spouses and children. One way they showed their love was taking whatever work they could find to support their families as well as possible. For my grandfathers, it meant long, hard days of work in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.
Oil, natural gas, coal: all are fossil fuels. My life wouldn’t be what it is today, if it wasn’t for the labor of my grandfathers in the fossil fuel industry. At the same time, climate change is threatening my family’s future well-being. It’s already a public health threat to people in my community and is displacing people in places around the world. The accelerated rise in the global average temperature over the last century is due to the greenhouse effect caused by the emissions of greenhouse gases. Approximately 76% of the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels for electricity and for transportation.
Clearly, for the well-being of all life on this planet, we must address climate change, and this means addressing our use of fossil fuels. My concern is the rhetoric that has developed around fossil fuels. Fossil fuels often are given the full blame for the climate crisis, sometimes to the extent of vilifying and demonizing them. You don’t have to look far on the internet to find a post saying we must put fossil fuel companies out of business. When I hear these statements, I think about my grandfathers and the men I saw in Pecos.
As a person of faith and as a scientist, I’m disturbed by the narrow focus much of the public dialogue of climate change has on fossil fuels. It separates people into winners and losers, while my faith calls me to seek wholeness. The focus on fossil fuels gives me something to blame for the problem, without asking anything of me. It’s the proverbial judging a speck in another’s eye without noticing the log in my own eye (MT 7:1-5). The focus on fossil fuels also oversimplifies a technically complex issue.
I can’t begin to address the complexity of fossil fuels, energy use, and climate change in one blog post. For now, I offer a few thoughts for expanding the conversation in ways that may lead to an inclusive and healing dialogue.
Natural gas, oil, and coal are just things. They don’t cause the problem. The way we use them, and the emissions created by their use, are the problem. That means I am part of the problem. Until I make the sacrifices required to stop using natural gas, oil, and coal, I need to be careful of what I demand of others.
A shift to renewable energy sources is needed, but it may not solve the climate crisis. Renewable energy sources still have lifecycle emissions of greenhouse gases and come with other environmental problems. This is true for both wind and solar energy. In addition, per capita energy use is increasing. For renewable energy to be an effective part of the solution, I must first reduce my energy use to my “fair share,” which is an interesting discussion for another day.
Due to the wide range of contexts in which energy is needed, it’s unlikely we’ll totally end the use of fossil fuels. Oil has many uses that we may not want to eliminate. Consider the ways plastic materials are used in hospitals. These plastics are made from oil, the production of which releases greenhouse gases. Net zero and carbon neutral practices can be used to mitigate the impact of these emissions on the climate. The practices move the focus from the fossil fuels to the emissions created by their use. The goal is to sequester or offset an amount of carbon from the atmosphere equivalent to the amount of emissions that can’t be avoided by an activity. Carbon sequestration also has the potential to remove accumulated carbon in the atmosphere and mitigate the impacts of climate change that we’re already experiencing. There are many ways to do this, but the technologies are still being developed. By demonizing fossil fuels, people who can contribute to these technologies are alienated from the conversation.
Carbon sequestration applies to me, too. Even if I reduce my energy use and shift to renewable energy sources, my daily activities still will cause some carbon emissions. The higher my standard of living; the higher my carbon footprint. If I’m concerned about climate change, then I need to consider paying the cost to offset the emissions I can’t, or am not yet ready to, avoid. It’s unjust for me to expect the climate, and those who are suffering from its changes, to continue subsidizing my carbon footprint. Justice also brings me back to the men in Pecos. Through all of the above, I’m looking for a just transition that provides for the people who will lose their job in the transition and that repairs damage done to those who have been harmed by climatic changes they did not cause. I seek this because “to do justice” is an essential part of my Christian faith.
So, the next time I hear someone pounce on fossil fuels as the problem, I will say, “Yes, I hear you. Now let’s expand the conversation.” I hope you consider doing the same.