The Earth is the Lord's (and just look what we're doing with it)

WONDERFULLY, WE FIND ourselves very much alive in “a large and beautiful house,” as Cicero called it in his day. We know it was built not only for “the sake of mice and weasels,” or “immortal gods,” but for the entire array of life on Earth.

As we behold the remarkably habitable abode we call Earth, we are left to wonder: What is this grand house in which we live, move, and have our being? What makes it such a habitable abode?

The answer is written elegantly before our eyes in creation itself. And when we join this with reading God’s word, we find the foundation of the answer: “The [geophysical] earth (ge) is the Lord’s and its fullness, the [biosphere] (oikoumene) and everything that lives in it,” as it says in the Septuagint translation of Psalm 24:1.

We discover as grateful dwellers in this most habitable abode that we also are its housekeepers. If we mess it up, it will teach us something about proper housekeeping. And from scripture we learn that we are its Earth-keepers, commissioned, as the Anglican Communion puts it, “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”

In the beautiful architecture of Earth, we find the foundations of life in the geophysical earth as well as keystone species in its biosphere. In the architecture of our houses and churches, we find structures of our own crafting, such as foundations, cornerstones, columns, arches, domes, and keystones.

Significantly, one of these architectural features appears in the name “Keystone XL,” the proposed tar sands oil pipeline. Architecturally, a keystone locks together two legs of an arch. If completed, Keystone XL would do much the same.

Of Keystone XL’s legs, the Canadian one is the most apparent—on grand display as devegetated expanses in the landscapes of northern Alberta (as in the photo at left). Spanning bogs, fens, peatlands, and marshy conifer ecosystems of the taiga, the forested regions circling the pole, these landscapes reside above carbon-rich peatlands and soils they helped create from carbon they extracted from the atmosphere.

Beneath these peatlands and forest soils also reside sands impregnated with carbon-rich bitumen. Bitumen also was extracted from the atmosphere, ages ago by aquatic life that thrived here in and around myriad tidal estuaries at the interface of land and an epi-continental sea. Here, ancient life took carbon dioxide from the air, transforming and sequestering its carbon in organic sandy silts—reducing high atmospheric concentrations of this greenhouse gas, unthinkingly helping to maintain a supportive atmosphere and a habitable Earth.

Carbon accounts for some 82 to 84 percent of this bitumen, and if extracted it could produce some 1.7 trillion barrels of tar sands oil, a heavy sour crude, of which an impressive 169 billion barrels can be tapped using present economics and technology. And the carbon it sequestered and other carbon-based fuels used to extract it would be returned to Earth’s atmosphere.

THE CANADIAN LEG of this petro-architecture connects to the U.S. at the international port of Morgan, Mont.—the north face of the keystone. If it is ever completely scribed across the U.S., it would meet its south face at another port, connecting with the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.

On the south face is the Port Arthur Refinery, the largest oil refinery in America. Impressive in expanse, it is also impressive in its capacity to receive, process, and export petroleum overseas. The refinery was established by the Texas Company in 1902, later called Texaco, which sold half its interest in 1989, forming a Texaco-Saudi joint venture.

Today, two giant companies remain. One is Motiva, a joint venture of Royal Dutch Shell and Saudi Aramco, formed to secure a petroleum outlet for Saudi Arabia and a reliable stream to Shell. The other is Valero, a participant with TransCanada’s Keystone expansion, whose vast enterprises make it ninth ranked among Fortune 500 companies. At Port Arthur, significantly, Valero has developed the capacity to process heavy sour crude.

Valero owns 16 refineries, 15 in the Americas. Its only across-the-Atlantic enterprise is Pembroke Refinery on the coast of Wales, one of the largest refineries in Western Europe. Its linkages with the rest of the U.K. are also impressive, as it has interests in four major U.K. pipelines, 11 fuel terminals, an aviation fuel business of 14,000 barrels per day, and a network of more than 1,000 Texaco-branded dealer sites across the U.K.

The proposed XL pipeline carrying oil sands bitumen through the international port of entry at Morgan, Mont., and then to Port Arthur, would, if permitted by President Obama, form the first of two keystones. The other is found bridging Texas to Wales—15.3 days away. When we connect the dots, we discover a keystone arch—in Canada and the U.S.—followed by another spanning the Atlantic to Pembroke. No wonder the U.S. State Department, rather than the EPA, has been assigned analysis of this international petro-architecture!

This connecting the dots generates some key questions:

Is Keystone XL being pushed by TransCanada to gain U.S. independence from foreign oil? Is Keystone XL aimed at increasing U.S. jobs? How does the Royal Dutch Shell-Saudi venture enter the picture? And the crucial question before the State Department: Is Keystone XL in the national interest of the United States?

But there is more. A keystone locks the two legs of an arch together—if it is bifaceted. But is our petro-architecture multifaceted, with many legs—as in an architectural dome? There are the bitumen sands of Utah and the Bakken shale of North Dakota. Also factoring in here are more legs formed to re-route increased oil and gas supplies realized from increased fuel efficiency vehicles and buildings, and from reduced petroleum use due to increasing solar and wind energy.

Discovery of other legs is easily accomplished by finding their key supporters, proponents, propagandists, lobbyists, beneficiaries, and protesters. And we find that Keystone XL is developing as a multifaceted keystone, supporting many legs of a petro-architectural dome—developing the capacity to move petroleum wherever it brings the highest price.

Yet the owner of Keystone XL, TransCanada, claims that “This pipeline is a critical infrastructure project for the energy security of the United States and for strengthening the American economy” and “Along with transporting crude oil from Canada, the Keystone XL pipeline will also support the significant growth of crude oil production in the United States from producers in the Bakken region of Montana and North Dakota.”

IF WE OVERLOOK the great provision for maintaining Earth as a habitable abode and build things in this house that deny, neglect, and disparage this great gift, we find ourselves putting the author of both books—creation and the Word—to the test. Building on the San Andreas Fault, erecting a church without a lightning rod, or pressing Earth’s atmosphere to a dramatic increase of “doorkeeper gases” are such tests.

To so proceed is folly, “for a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Moreover, to deny we are putting God to the test denies the truth of Galatians 6 and Romans 1, to act without deception or misrepresentation, not allowing ourselves to exchange God’s truth for a lie. If there is a message coming from both books, it is, “Let the oil sands hold on to their dilute sand-sequestered carbon; let the peatlands and forest above continue to their work of carbon sequestration,” and, in short, “Let it do” and “Let it be!”

The words of Secretary of State John Kerry, in an address delivered in Indonesia in February, are appropriate here. “We just don’t have time to let a few loud interest groups hijack the climate conversation,” Kerry said. “And when I say that, you know what I’m talking about? I’m talking about big companies that like it the way it is, that don’t want to change, and spend a lot of money to keep you and me and everybody from doing what we know we need to do.”

In the name of gaining U.S. petroleum independence, more jobs for American workers, keeping U.S. oil at home, reducing injection of carbon into Earth’s atmosphere, and supporting the national interest—the Keystone XL does just the opposite. We know what we need to do. 

Calvin B. DeWitt is an environmental scientist at the University of Wisconsin, author of Earthwise: A Guide to Hopeful Creation Care and Song of a Scientist, and president of the Academy of Evangelical Scientists and Ethicists.

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