fossil fuel

Exxon's Criminal Offense

sakhorn / Shutterstock
sakhorn / Shutterstock

TWO RECENT news items: 1) A new U.N. report finds that over the last 20 years, 4.1 billion people have been injured in extreme weather events—the floods and forest fires that are proliferating as the climate warms. The report adds that the total will keep steeply climbing in the years ahead.

2) Two teams of investigative journalists, following separate document trails, proved in the course of the fall that Exxon—now ExxonMobil, the world’s most profitable company—had known everything there was to know about climate change 25 years ago. And then lied about it, helping to set up the elaborate infrastructure of climate denial that has prevented serious international action on global warming.

I don’t know how to keep these two things in my head at the same time without giving myself over to hatred. I know I’m not supposed to hate, and much of the time I’m able to work on climate change without losing my cool. I can meet oil industry executives, understand the problems that make it hard for them to move quickly; I can and do sympathize deeply with coal miners and tar sands miners whose lives will be disrupted as we take necessary action.

But for Exxon? There have been hours, reading these reports in the Los Angeles Times and the Pulitzer-winning InsideClimate News, when I’ve just found myself in a blind rage, unable to comprehend how people—professed Christians, most of them, in that Texas hotbed of Christianity—could act this way. Their scientists told them quite straightforwardly that burning coal and oil was heating the planet and that it was going to be disastrous. By the mid-1980s, before any politician was talking about climate change, they had good computer models indicating (correctly as it turned out) how much the earth would warm. And they believed those predictions—they helped guide their actions in places like the Arctic, where they were bidding for leases in waters they knew would soon be free of ice.

But they also knew that serious action on climate change would cost them money—would force them to start switching their business from fossil fuel to renewable energy. And so they went to work, helping to set up front groups that hired veterans of the tobacco wars to open a new front of obfuscation. Their CEO, Lee Raymond, gave a speech in Beijing in 1997 insisting that the climate models were hokum, and that the earth was cooling.

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Divest!

This is an introduction to five-part series in Sojourner's June 2015 issue about divestment; to read the rest, click here.

IT WASN'T A HUGE surprise last year when Union Seminary announced that it would become the first seminary in the world to divest from fossil fuels. Union, after all, has long been a leader in progressive causes, and President Serene Jones said that “divestment of our endowment from fossil-fuel companies is one small step” toward stopping the catastrophic threat—the “sin”—of climate change.

But a few months later, the divestment movement reached an altogether different level when the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced that it was moving its money from fossil fuels, starting with the worst carbon polluters, coal and tar sands. The Rockefeller money, of course, came from oil—patriarch John D. Rockefeller was the co-founder of Standard Oil—and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund controls $860 million in assets. All in all, 180 institutions have pledged to divest more than $50 billion to defund climate change—and, as they say, with billions in assets moved, pretty soon you’re talking real money.

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Obama's Two Faces on Climate Change

PHYSICS IS IMPLACABLE—it won’t bend even to politics.

Which is why it comes as bad news to see the charts on U.S. production of fossil fuels. During the Obama years, even as the president has been touting his administration’s success in reducing our domestic carbon emissions, it turns out that we’ve been drilling, mining, and fracking for more oil, coal, and gas than ever before. In fact, we’ve passed Saudi Arabia in oil production and are about to pass Russia in oil and gas output combined; meanwhile our coal exports have reached new highs. We’ve become the world’s biggest fossil fuel producer.

Which means that, precisely in the years when it’s become clear how much damage climate change is doing—the years of Midwest drought, of Hurricane Sandy—the United States has been bucking physics. We’re going in exactly the wrong direction.

The White House might make two arguments in response. One, it’s not their fault: The oil boom in places like North Dakota is all private enterprise. But in fact Obama’s done much to grease the skids for this boom: He’s opened up big offshore tracts for drilling, and even let the oil companies into the Arctic. His Interior Department has held auctions for vast piles of Powder River Basin coal.

In truth, when he’s being frank, the president has acknowledged this. Obama, who made it through his re-election barely mentioning global warming, has boasted again and again about his efforts to boost oil production. Here he is in 2012 in Cushing, Okla., against a backdrop of oil pipes:

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Obama’s Climate Action Plan Paves a Road Ahead

Marchers take part in the Forward on Climate rally on February 17, 2013. Photo courtesy Rena Schild/shutterstock.com

Yesterday was a momentous day for the creation care movement: after years of inaction from Congress, President Obama announced a major, comprehensive plan of action on climate change. President Obama’s new “Climate Action Plan,” which he laid out in a speech at Georgetown University Tuesday, addresses the country’s largest source of climate pollution — carbon dioxide from power plants — as well as boosting energy efficiency standards, renewable energy production on public lands, and resilience for cities, towns and roads.

Come Hell and High Water

IF IT WASN'T the year from hell for the North American continent, it was the year from a place with a very similar temperature.

It's hard to remember, but it began with that bizarre summer-in-March heat wave that meteorologists described as one of the most anomalous weather events in the country's history. Before long there were record blazes burning in Colorado and New Mexico, and then a stifling heat wave moved east, triggering a "derecho" storm that raced almost 1,000 miles from Indiana to the Atlantic and left 5 million without power. July was the hottest month ever recorded in the United States; it was also when drought descended full force on the Midwest, stunting corn and soybeans and driving the world price of grain up by 40 percent (and making sure our hellish year became traumatic for poor people the planet round). By August it was clear we were in for a record melt year in the Arctic; when the long polar night finally fell, it was clear we'd essentially broken one of the planet's biggest physical features. And all that was before Sandy piled into our greatest urban area, leaving behind an indelible image of the future.

So the question becomes, what's an appropriate response? What even begins to match the magnitude of the trouble we face? What doesn't seem like spitting in the wind?

My sense is that the time has come to take on the fossil fuel industry itself—not the members of Congress they buy in droves each election season, but the real powers. Ignoring the damage they've already caused, these people spend hundreds of millions of dollars each day looking for new fossil fuels. And they spend hundreds of millions each year making sure no government stops them. They're like the tobacco industry at this point, except that instead of going after your lungs they're going after the lungs of the planet.

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The Thing From the Oil Company Board Room

The Global North and West is addicted to fossilized fuel. Myself included. And we are trying to push our addictions onto the Global South.

Everywhere we look the fossil fuel pushers are in our face, luring us into our next fix.

Not a week after the elections, the American Petroleum Institute launched ads in Alaska, Louisiana, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, Arkansas, and North Carolina targeting U.S. senators who are raising the issue of climate change; specifically, the ones calling into question oil company subsidies.

The oil and gas companies try seduction ("fighting for jobs"). They try fear ("we are too big to fail"). They accuse us of being unfair to them ("Discriminatory treatment of the oil and gas industry is a bad idea"). They try bullying and slandering.

Even when our court system recently convicted one of them killing (BP convicted of "manslaughter" for the 11 murdered on Gulf Oil spill rigs), they are not stopped.

What Not to Burn

Have you heard the old adage, “Just because you can say it, doesn’t mean you should”? Well, the same principle applies to the fossil fuels we scorch and torch each day for our own consumption: Just because you can burn it, doesn’t mean you should.

In his latest Sojourners commentary, “The Deadly Misnomer of ‘Fossil Fuels’” (September-October 2012), environmental scientist and ethicist Calvin DeWitt explains how we need to change the way we look at carbon substances. Petroleum, natural gas, and coal are not merely “fuel” sources. Rather, they are “fossil carbons” necessary to the sustenance of the earth. Read more here.

To illustrate what not to do, our staff shared some of their favorite things to—voluntarily or involuntarily—burn:

Office Printers and Fax Machines (Sandra Sims, Director of Sales and Advertising)
Tired of dealing with crappy computers, jammed printers, and finicky fax machines? Office Space offers their solution by pummeling faulty equipment. But Sandra would rather threaten the office machines with fire …

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Welfare for (Very Rich) Oil Companies

Of the many gifts that the 99 percent award to the 1 percent—the various tax breaks and tributes that have helped push inequality in America to record levels—none are quite as annoying as the subsidies awarded the fossil fuel industry.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill this spring that would trim $20 billion a year from those payouts to coal and oil and gas companies. Barack Obama, modest almost to a fault, has identified $5 billion in handouts that he’d like taken away before this year’s budget is finalized. Whatever the number, the principle is crucial. Because if we can’t agree not to subsidize the fossil fuel industry, I’d submit we pretty much can’t agree about anything.

For environmentalists, few things could be more important. Worldwide, it’s estimated that global warming emissions could be cut in half if all governments stopped subsidizing fossil fuel—something that won’t happen unless the U.S. takes the lead.

But let’s say for the moment that you don’t care about climate change. Let’s say you agree with Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma that global warming is impossible because it says in Genesis “that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.’ My point is, God’s still up there,” Inhofe said. “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.” (I can’t help myself: This is an exceedingly dumb theology. God allows war but prevents carbon emission from heating the atmosphere?) Even if you thought that way, you’d still want to keep the federal government from paying Exxon bonuses every year.

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Isn't the Keystone XL Pipeline in Our National Interest?

Won't it reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil? Won't somebody else develop the Alberta tar sands if the U.S. doesn't do it -- someone like China, perhaps?

I've been wrestling with many of these issues as I contemplate risking arrest as part of two weeks of sustained protest by leading environmentalists, climate scientists, and faith-based groups at the White House forth to pressure the Obama Administration to block the Keystone XL Pipeline. This pipeline project will connect Canadian tar sands -- containing the second largest and dirtiest oil reserves on the planet -- with the oil refineries in Texas.

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