fossil fuels

The Deadly Misnomer of 'Fossil Fuels'

COAL, NATURAL gas, petroleum. Thoughtlessly we call these substances “fuels”—fuels to burn for creating pleasant climates inside homes and offices; fuels to power appliances and engines. For years, like nearly everyone, I never thought beyond our mere use of these things. I neglected to consider their role in the Earth’s wider economy.

This all changed when my family moved to a Wisconsin peatland in 1972. Since then, conducting research there with my graduate students has produced four decades of discovery.

For thousands of years, wetland plants and algae in a bay of glacial Lake Waubesa took carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They transformed it by photosynthesis into the carbon structure of life, eventually adding their remains, page upon page, to the accumulating peat. Eventually, this peat filled the bay for an area more than a mile long, reaching a depth of 95 feet at the present lake edge. When first I walked here, I saw the vibrant surface of plants and wetland creatures; now, in my mind’s eye, I also see the deep-layered remains of creatures below.

Also standing and walking here (much more gracefully than I) are sandhill cranes. These stately creatures, as conservationist Aldo Leopold observed, “stand, as it were, upon the sodden pages of their own history.” Elsewhere, the sodden pages of peat deposits have been cut over the ages to be dried for fuel. The early Romans saw this practiced by conquered peoples of northern and western Europe. Peat was also used as fuel in Ireland, Scotland, and northern Europe after forests were cleared for agriculture. And peat is the precursor of coal, transforming under geologic pressure into brown coal, bitumen, bituminous coal, and anthracite.

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Plunging into the Political Fray. Or Not.

Rubber stamp illustration, Jason Winter / Shutterstock.com

THE TAR SANDS in Alberta, Canada, have been in the news a lot lately, since they appear to be a promising source of energy for the United States, a nation hungry for a fuel derived by despoiling pristine forests, fouling fresh water sources, and enriching oil executives. (Nobody said capitalism would be pretty. Cute and cuddly, perhaps, but not pretty.)

Actually, I’m not familiar with this new type of energy source. Is it the tar we want, or the sand? Probably not the tar, since it’s too sticky and is mainly used as a preservative for saber-toothed tiger skeletons in California, something I learned in an eighth grade history book with lots of pictures. (I like pictures.)

So it must be the sand, which one day our cars will run on, to which I must add: Are our scientists brilliant, or what?!

Unfortunately, extracting this energy source domestically could be a direct threat to our beaches, the nation’s principal source of sand. Which is why I plan to Occupy the Beach of My Choosing later this summer, and stand in powerful protest—or, after a heavy picnic lunch, lie on a blanket in powerful protest—against exploiting this valuable resource.

Come to think of it, Saudi Arabia has lots of sand. So maybe we can get it from them.

BUT ENOUGH ABOUT energy. It’s an election year and things are heating up. So let’s talk politics.

Sojourners’ attorney: Let’s not.

Me: Uh, who are you?

Attorney: What, you can’t read? And it’s in bold face, for crying out loud.

Me: Well, I’m trying to write a column here, so why don’t you go work on some legal briefs. Or are they boxers?

Attorney: Look, my job is to protect Sojourners’ nonprofit status, which is at risk if you show the slightest partisanship in your ... “humor.”

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Robert Redford: Quit Funding Dirty Energy!

Writing for The Huffington Post, actor and environmental activist Robert Redford argues:

"Every year, around the world, almost one trillion dollars of subsidies is handed out to help the fossil fuel industry. Who came up with the crazy idea that the fossil fuel industry deserves our hard-earned money, no less in economic times of such harsh human consequence? We fire teachers, police and firemen in drastic budget cuts and yet, the fossil fuel industry can laugh all the way to the bank on our dime? Something doesn't add up here.

We should not be subsidizing the destruction of our planet. Fossil fuels are literally cooking our planet, polluting our air and draining our wallets. Why should we continue to reward companies to do that?"
 
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Bituminous Coke Dirty-Coal Game Day

Polar bear on shrinking ice from the December 2009 issue of Sojourners
Polar bear on shrinking ice from the December 2009 issue of Sojourners

I know why those polar bears you're seeing everywhere look so pensive. They're thinking not just about coke (a byproduct of coal used in industry), but more generally about the massive use of dirty coal — used to make nearly half of all U.S. electricity (while renewable sources account for only about a tenth).

They're thinking about how the U.S. and the rest of the world's decades of reckless fossil fuel use keep ratcheting up greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, causing Arctic ice to melt even faster than expected, and threatening them and all their polar bear friends. They'd like a cold one, all right — a cold Arctic, the way their home should be.

Tom Wicker, 1926-2011

I am one of those who still prefer ink on paper to pixels on a screen.  But no matter how you get your news, the passing of a giant is worth noting. Tom Wicker, reporter and columnist for The New York Times for 30 years, died on Saturday. The Times described him as “one of postwar America’s most distinguished journalists.” 

Wicker was a meticulous reporter and a passionate advocate, so much so that he was sometimes criticized for overstepping the bounds of objectivity.  But when faced with the major events he wrote on, how could he not be?

Jim Wallis and Richard Land: Join the Great Conversation

People of faith -- including evangelical Christians -- will be voting both ways in the upcoming election. It is simply not true that they will be voting only on one or two issues.

And, if evangelicals focus on many of the issues central to their faith, rather than becoming partisan cheerleaders, they might be able to raise some critical issues in this election and to hold both sides more accountable, even in a campaign that both Richard and I suspect will be one of the ugliest in U.S. history.

At the end of the evening, Amy remarked that if the upcoming election debates were as civil and substantive as this evening was, we would all be very grateful.

Oil Addicts Anonymous

If the United States is a fossil fuel addict, then the Alberta tar sands are our next big fix.

The tar sands contain the largest oil reserves in North America and their extraction has been called "the most destructive project on earth". The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline would carry oil from the tar sands down to Texas refineries, making it available for our consumption and pushing a turn to green energy sources even further down the road.

Borrowing wisdom from the twelve step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous, theologian Ched Myers contends that addiction -- "the inability to say no because of captivity to pathological desires" -- names our spiritual and cultural condition. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in the case of fossil fuels.

Temptation in the Consumer Wilderness

In Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, the devil asks Jesus to convert stones into bread, to leap from a pinnacle, and to worship him. Living with this gospel story has inspired me to reflect on humanity's role in climate change. As a Christian and a historian of technology, I've realized that each of Jesus' temptations can reverberate for all of us living in the age of fossil fuels -- because there is a powerful analogy between those three temptations and the temptations humanity faces in using those fuels.

In Matthew 4 we read that the devil first tempted Jesus by saying, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." Jesus refused, but we have, in a sense, taken the devil up on the offer: "Petroleum" means "rock oil" -- and in our American agricultural system we now burn about 10 calories in fossil fuel for every calorie of food we produce and deliver to the supermarket.

Such inefficiency is far from the system of food production that God created. On the third day, according to the Genesis account, God created plants; on the fifth day, birds and fish; and on the sixth day, humans. All animals, including humans, depend for their livelihoods on the solar energy photosynthesized by plants into stored chemical energy.

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July 2011 Sojourners
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We Have the Technology

 Renewable energy packs a powerful punch. More solar energy hits the Earth's surface in one hour than is used by the entire global energy system in a year. In the U.S., Great Plains and East Coast off-shore wind could provide enough energy to meet the entire country's need. As nations seek ways to address energy security, air pollution, and climate change, they look to renewable resources such as solar, wind, and geothermal.

Now, researchers Mark Jacobson of Stanford and Mark Delucchi of U.C. Davis have calculated that it is possible to meet 100 percent of world energy demand using only energy from clean sources by 2050. They say we can do it -- and, what's more, we can do it using only off-the-shelf technology.

Jacobson and Delucchi did their projections based on only existing technologies that have no climate-disrupting-emissions and "low impacts on wildlife, water pollution, and land." Making the dramatic transition to using only such technology, they suggest, would require a combination of strategic policies and massively ramped-up manufacturing along the lines of retooling the auto sector to produce aircraft during World War II, only much bigger. Other studies, most famously by Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala, have shown similar results.

Take wind energy, for example. Jacobson and Delucchi's vision calls for production of approximately 3.8 million five-megawatt wind turbines to supply 50 percent of global power demand. They envision a similar scenario for various types of solar, and the rest from geothermal, wave, tidal, and hydro-power.

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July 2011 Sojourners
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