CMR, Oil, and Climate Change
God-given entitlement vs. Stewardship
Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-CD5, Eastern Washington) and, it appears, the entire Republican propaganda machine, are busy using the Ukraine crisis to lobby for the petroleum industry. Simultaneously, in a gross rejection of any understanding of the workings of the free market they claim to favor, they dismiss market forces and cast blame on Biden, environmentalists, and every Democrat for the rise in fossil fuel prices.
Many have accused McMorris Rodgers and the united Republican propaganda machine of cravenly doing the bidding of the oil industry because the fossil fuel industry has bought them off. That interpretation is not unreasonable given the facts, but it is not the whole story. McMorris Rodgers and many (or most) of her fellow Republicans are doctrinally incapable of acknowledging that climate change is a man-caused existential threat, doctrinally incapable based on a Fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian message.
There are a number of modern day Christians, particularly among Evangelicals, who are led to believe that God gave man dominion of the earth and all it contains at the time of Creation. According to this belief system, fossil fuels stand as an unalloyed good put in the ground by God for the benefit of man. Such a God certainly would not have offered man such a boon as fossil fuels while also making the use of such fuels a threat to life on earth. Such an idea is simply incomprehensible. It must be dismissed. Furthermore, if God put fossil fuels here for our use and if burning them does somehow wreak havoc on the earth then that would just be part of God’s plan. True Christian believers, after all, can look forward to being raptured into heaven in the coming End Times.
Conversely, another segment of Christian belief quotes the Bible to argue that men must be stewards of Creation, that the science of climate change actually is real and convincing. In this line of thought, although God created all this that we see around us, He also gave us free will to make (or not make) intelligent choices that will help preserve His Creation. In this line of thought stewardship of Creation is one part of the effort for humans to do their best in encouraging the Kingdom of God on earth.
McMorris Rodgers was educated in private Fundamentalist Christian schools in which dominionist theological principles were articles of faith. Her commitment to fossil fuels as a God-given boon put here on purpose for our exploitation is genuine and heart felt. In a town hall McMorris Rodgers stated her conviction that the Earth was created by God in seven literal days. She sidesteps the question: “Do you believe the earth is more like 6000 years old or four and a half billion years old?”. That orientation renders her doctrinally incapable of comprehending the scientific evidence for climate change. Furthermore, it explains why, every time climate change is mentioned, she can only pivot to “Save the dams” while mumbling something about renewable energy. She knows better than to admit that she believes based on her religious convictions that climate change, if it is happening at all, has nothing to do with fossil fuels.
I am indebted to Dan Rather’s and Elliot Kirschner’s Substack column “Steady” from March 13 for the stimulus to write today’s post. We are at a crossroads facing an existential threat while “our” smiling Rep. McMorris Rodgers is incapable of seeing it. It is not just simply a matter of being bought by the fossil fuel industry, she is a “True Believer” in a doctrine that blinds her to reality.
Keep to the high ground,
What will it take?
Here we are again. We’ve been here before — trapped in what seems like an endless circle of petro-imprisonment. The United States economy is being threatened by high gasoline prices, exacerbated by the Russian assault on Ukraine and the resulting suite of economic sanctions. And we aren’t alone. Oil is a global commodity, and price spikes reverberate everywhere.
Vladimir Putin’s power to threaten the safety and stability of the world lies in two main areas: fossil fuels and nuclear weapons. Both can be considered remnants of the last century, left to fester and menace our present age. Of the two, arms control is the trickier to resolve, because it requires agreement between two hostile powers. But oil and gas? We have no one to blame but ourselves.
The dangers of running the world on a non-renewable resource that just so happens to be pooled in some of the globe’s most repressive and dictatorial countries have long been evident. From a geo-strategic and economic viewpoint, we have put the wellbeing of our nation at risk. We have invested trillions in our national defense but remain addicted to a product whose price and global supply can be in large part determined by our enemies, or at least by less-than-ideal “allies” like Saudi Arabia.
We, of course, are not alone. Western Europe has long been tethered to Russia for its oil and gas needs, to an extent that has shaped the strategic decision-making on the continent for decades. And every country that belongs to the world economy, in ways big and small, is vulnerable to shocks around oil.
It would be bad enough if this were purely about energy needs and the economics around them. But there is a much bigger element to this story — the ominous immediate and long-term harm fossil fuels are inflicting upon our climate. The more we burn, the more the ticking time bomb grows bigger and the fuse shorter. We can already see escalating damage, disruptions, and displacement. For example, while the world has been preoccupied with Ukraine, another natural disaster has been unfolding in Australia, almost assuredly exacerbated by climate change:As flooding from record rainfall inundates Australia’s eastern coast, at least 20 people have died and tens of thousands have been ordered to evacuate. The prime minister declared a national emergency. nyti.ms/3HUBb1n
We need to move beyond fossil fuels, as fast as possible. And I say this as a proud son of Texas, a state that has built its reputation and wealth in large part through the extraction of black gold. My father worked in the oil fields, and so did I, during summers growing up. I have nothing but respect for those who toiled in difficult and dangerous conditions helping make America go. We never would have defeated Nazi Germany if it weren’t for the roughnecks and coal miners.
But times change, and we must change with them. We have decades of data — from the fields of economics, geopolitics, public health, and environmental science — that point to one conclusion: The only future that makes sense is one fueled by alternative and renewable energy.
It is to be expected that Republicans looking to attack the Biden administration would hone in on current gas prices. But their goal is much bigger than merely scoring political points. They want to do the bidding of their deep-pocket backers in the oil industry, who are eager to leverage this crisis to push long-cherished objectives of more drilling, more pipelines, and a whole lot less environmental regulation.
So you end up hearing a lot about the Keystone XL pipeline, oil and gas leases on federal lands, and all sorts of other buzzwords that might as well be (and probably are) pulled directly from an ExxonMobil lobbyist cheat sheet. Some of these are so outrageous that The New York Times felt the need to fact check them:The primary reason for rising gas prices over the past year is the coronavirus pandemic and its disruptions to global supply and demand. It's not because of the Biden administration’s policies on the Keystone XL pipeline, as some Republicans claim.
(The Times called these claims “incorrect assertions;” I would prefer a blunter characterization.)
What is actually causing the jump in gas prices? It is often difficult to pinpoint exact cause and effect behind the movements of the oil markets. Certainly the pandemic has played a role. But according to Austan Goolsbee, an economic adviser for the Obama administration, and others, even before the invasion of Ukraine, the pain at the pump might have been partly attributable to Putin.Russia began massing troops on the Ukraine border the first week of December and oil prices soared. On Dec 3, oil was $66/barrel. Prices rose 40% to $95/barrel before the invasion began.
We are now mired, once again, in an energy crisis, and we must look at both short-term and long-term solutions. It is impossible to pivot from fossil fuels overnight; they are far too ingrained in our world’s basic functions. In the short run, we need to find ways to counter the shocks from Russia. And the Biden administration has noted that domestic production of oil has been constrained in recent years, as oil companies have focused more on stock buybacks and burnishing their financial health than in investing in greater supply. With oil company profits soaring alongside the rising price for crude, President Biden warned, "Russia's aggression is costing us all, and it's no time for profiteering or price gouging." Democrats in Congress are stepping in with their own response:Oil companies never let a good crisis go to waste. My windfall profits tax will make them share the excess billions they are charging American drivers, and put that money back into Americans’ pockets.
While the immediate focus should be on ensuring that high oil prices don’t wreck the U.S. economy, we must also end this destructive cycle once and for all. There is a reason why President Jimmy Carter’s name often trends on Twitter at times like these. More than 40 years ago, he famously installed solar panels on the White House to demonstrate his commitment to renewable energy. Imagine where we would be if the United States, and the world, had built on that instinct. All the innovation that would have taken place — and potentially an alternate history. Would there have been war with Iraq? Would Putin have been able to solidify his grip on power? What would be the health of the climate?
Tragically, we are where we are. But that can’t become an excuse for inaction. We are better prepared than ever for a post-carbon future. Technologies around solar panels are light years away (no pun intended) from the ones Carter installed. We have also seen breakthroughs in wind power, geothermal, and other renewable energies. And the electric vehicle market is surging, with new options in many categories, including pickup trucks.
These shifts must be global. Perhaps the threat posed by Putin can encourage other countries to act. And, encouragingly, there is already a sense that this is happening:
Those who are beholden to the dirty energy of the past would want to convince us all that we can’t have a healthy economy powered by new energy. They point to the short-term struggles and use them as rationale for shackling our future. We do need to solve the immediate challenges. We also need to recognize that any shift to new energy will be most disruptive to those who can least afford it. Many Americans are barely hanging on financially and have an old, gas-guzzling car as their only means of transportation and an uninsulated home as their residence. The change to a green future must work for them, too.
But how many times will we need to ride this merry-go-round of oil dependency, bouncing up and down on the rig pumps, before we realize that we need to get off? Let us absorb the shocks of the present as best we can. And let us also do the transformational work that will put us on the path of their never recurring.