Wednesday, June 13, 2012

PEC 2012 Policy Priorities: A Focus on the Ethics of Using Fossil Fuels

Empowered, however, by a just, good, and gracious God, we must resist the temptation of despair. Among the wealthy and powerful such despondency can be self-serving because it leads to moral paralysis. This “cheap despair” changes nothing and preserves the status quo from which the wealthy and powerful currently benefit. Empowered by God’s costly grace, we must work tirelessly with others as individuals, as a church, and as global citizens to live in harmony with the energy resources God has so abundantly provided. 
–The Power to Change: US Energy Policy and Global Warming, 2008 General Assembly

Presbyterians for Earth Care believes that the overarching environmental problem of our time is global climate change and that the issue requires strong federal climate policies.  With a gridlocked Congress, progress in developing and enacting such policies is slow. The burning of fossil fuels is one of the largest contributors to global warming. The extraction, processing and transport of fossil fuels also contribute to global warming and to pollution of air, land and water.  Today there is great need at the local, state and national levels for Christians to question and oppose entrenchment of fossil energy sources to fuel our economy, and those of other nations. Accurate accounting of the social costs of production, transportation, and location of terminals and pipelines for shipment of fossil fuels is vital in ethical energy decision making. In our time, this accounting is lacking and as Christians we are called to be a prophetic voice on fossil fuels as we embody in our lives and congregations a new energy economy based on energy efficiency and renewables.

The General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has carefully considered the problem of global climate change in its 2008 GA document The Power to Change: US Energy Policy and Global Warming. It stands with an overwhelming majority of scientists who say that climate change is already happening and is caused by human beings. Actions to reduce greenhouse gases are needed now.  The GA has also made renewable resources its choice among energy sources, also recommending reduced reliance on fossil fuels.  Finally, the GA had adopted an ethic of ecological justice to guide its consideration of global climate change and its recommendations on energy.  Four norms are identified in this Christian ethical model to guide the church: sustainability, participation, sufficiency, and solidarity. 

PEC is concentrating on four specific energy problems within the larger context of global climate change, energy alternatives, and the four ethical norms for 2012. Toxics and environmental health and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) are of great concern and will also be addressed in our 2012 policy efforts, expanded upon in other documents.  This document focuses on energy issues. Our position is summarized next to each energy problem. 

1)    Hydraulic Fracking. Place a moratorium on new fracking until human health and environmental impacts can be adequately evaluated by certified independent science. Put into place regulations that ensure that leaks of any fossil fuel gases are minimized from extraction, transportation and storage.

2)    Mountain Top Removal. Stop this practice immediately as the human and environmental impacts are well known and serious, in addition to its contribution to global warming.

3)    The Keystone XL Pipeline. Do not permit due to impacts on Canadian First Nations and habitat, as well as other communities, water and land.  The project also makes a tremendous contribution to global warming and pollution from the tar sands extraction, processing and finally burning the of the fuel produced.

4)    Coal Export. Coal export terminals and use of transportation corridors for the shipment of coal overseas, especially to China, pose environmental and health threats. Require thorough and broadly-scoped cumulative impacts analysis, also known as a Programmatic Environmental Impact Assessment (PEIS) through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 
The latter is just beginning to engage the policy at the federal level. Coal trains and have many impacts on air, water, land and human health but terminals tend to be permitted on local basis. Senator Ron Wyden (OR) called for a timeout on coal exports in April 2012. The Bureau of Land Management owns most of the land leased for coal in the Power River Basin of Wyoming. 

Together with the four ethical norms, PEC is adopting the energy guidelines of the Power to Change (pgs 13-14). The committee has adopted its twelve ethical guidelines to evaluate energy options:

  1. Equity concerns the impact of policy decisions on various sectors of society with special concern for the poor and vulnerable. Burdens and benefits should be assessed and distributed so that no group gains or loses disproportionately.
  2. Efficiency is the capability of an energy policy or alternative to provide power with the input of fewer resources. It also means frugality in consumption and a decrease in pollution. New technologies are essential to satisfying this guideline.
  3. Adequacy addresses the complex problem of supply. Policies and energy alternatives should be sufficient to meet basic energy needs. The meeting of basic needs takes priority until they are satisfied, then gives way to other guidelines, especially frugality and conservation.
  4. Renewability refers to the capacity of an energy option to replenish its source. Reliance on renewable sources should take priority.
  5. Appropriateness refers to the tailoring of energy systems to (a) the satisfaction of basic needs, (b) human capacities, (c) end uses, (d) local demand, and (e) employment levels. Energy decisions should lead to a variety of scales and level of technical complexity.
  6. Risk concerns the measurable potential of an energy policy or alternative to harm human health, social institutions, and ecological systems. Low risk options are preferable.
  7. Peace points to the potential of an energy policy to decrease the prospects of armed conflict. While international cooperation is essential to a sustainable energy future, energy dependence should be avoided to prevent disruption of supplies.
  8. Cost refers to monetary costs as well as other social and environmental costs. All costs should be included in the prices consumers pay for energy.
  9. Employment concerns the impact of a policy or alternative on employment levels, skills, and the meaningfulness of work. Policies and systems should stimulate the creation of jobs and new skills.
  10.  Flexibility points to the capacity of policies and options to be changed or reversed. High flexibility is preferable, and systems subject to sudden disruption should be avoided.
  11. Participation and timely decision-making refer to the processes used to set energy policies and choose alternatives. Processes should allow for those affected to have a voice without leading to endless procrastination.
  12. Aesthetics points to beauty as one aspect of a flourishing life. Policies and alternatives that scar the landscape should be avoided.
When these guidelines are applied, it is clear that many fossil fuel proposals and projects  have serious ethical deficiencies.  PEC’s Advocacy Committee provides the following background and analysis of each of the four problems. We encourage PEC members to become informed on one or more of the issues, educate their congregation and others and to take action, including through presbyteries and General Assembly.

General Resources: The National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Program has a wealth of faith-based resources on energy ethics, global warming and a variety of energy issues. They include worship, sermon, study and action information. PEC especially commends the 2012 Earth Day Ethics of Energy Guide. This and many other excellent resources may be found at

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