gas

A Burning Truth

BETWEEN 6:30 AND 7 nearly every morning, a dark rumble drifts up through the chilled air from the railroad tracks at the bottom of our hayfield in the Adirondack foothills of New York. A line of more than 100 black tanker cars, mostly full of fracked Bakken oil from North Dakota, rolls southward. They will pass the field where our neighbor’s kids play, then close alongside beautiful Lake Champlain, which defines this region, and on to Albany, where the oil will be put on barges and floated down the Hudson River to New Jersey, to be stored or refined.

Tanker cars like these have been blowing up recently. An accident north of us, over the Canadian border, flattened a downtown and killed 47 people. These cars carry a mix of crude oil and volatile compounds arising from the fracking process, making them dangerously flammable. I worry about my small town’s volunteer fire fighters, all of whom I know personally and admire greatly, who do not have the expertise or the equipment to deal with an accident like that.

Watching the tanker cars, I am also haunted by a scene seared into my memory five months ago. We are driving east along U.S. Route 2 in North Dakota, our small camper in tow, trying to pass through Williston, smack in the middle of the Bakken oil fields.

As the sun sets, we see hundreds of oil and gas rigs flaring excess volatile gases in huge plumes of orange flame. Processing plants spew fumes of God-knows-what. There are row upon row of metal trailers, boxes really, actually used as housing for people. Unrelenting traffic beats a path on the undivided highway under furious construction, with no breakdown lanes or turn-offs for miles. Huge water tankers and oil trucks force us to move onward at 60 mph; there will be no rest for us here, as all campgrounds, gas stations, and parking lots are filled with the rigs of the temporary workers.

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Obama's Energy Fail

I'D ALWAYS HOPED that the president’s “all of the above” energy strategy was a mere campaign slogan, a way to avoid riling anyone up as he ran for re-election. But he’s made pretty clear that it’s actually his guiding light.

“The all-of-the-above energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working,” he crowed in his State of the Union address. And indeed it is, if the goal is to drill, baby, drill. In Obama’s time in office, U.S. oil production has increased 50 percent; analysts estimate that by the time he’s gone in 2016, we’ll have literally doubled the amount of oil we produce in this country. The curve for natural gas production has been almost as steep, and though we’re burning less coal in our own power plants the amount we export has hit record highs.

In political terms, Barack Obama holds us environmentalists at bay with pretty words on climate change, but when it comes time to drill he’s the go-to guy. As he told a crowd of cheering oilmen in Oklahoma during the last campaign, “over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.”

Eighteen of the nation’s biggest environmental groups sent the president a letter earlier this year asking him to back off the all-of-the-above rhetoric, and to change his policies. The only reply came from one of his counselors, who fired back a peevish letter saying he was “surprised” that they would dare challenge the president, since he’d done more than his predecessors to fight climate change. But being better than George Bush is not the point—to do anything about global warming you need to meet the bar that physics sets. And that means leaving coal and gas and oil in the ground.

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Top-Notch Theology (or Not)

Rev. Bryan Fischer, American Family Association

DIVINING GOD'S intent is incredibly easy—all you have to do is seek out his representatives here on earth, like Bryan Fischer, director of "issue analysis" for the American Family Association, "where he provides expertise on a range of public policy issues."

Indeed, Rev. Fischer speaks for the Lord on any number of topics (badness of gay people getting married, badness of Barack Obama who nurtures a "hatred of the white man," badness pretty much of anything that's changed since Fischer was born in 1951). But in the autumn, he offered the authoritative assurance that there was one thing God thought was really, really good: fossil fuel.

Fischer said that not using all the coal and gas and oil we could find was an affront to God—it would hurt God's feelings. In fact, he offered an analogy: Once "I opened up a birthday present that I didn't like, and I said it right out, 'Oh, I don't like those,'" he explained. "And the person that gave me the gift was there. And it just crushed that person. And you think, that's kind of how we're treating God when he's given us these gifts of abundant and inexpensive and effective fuel sources," Fischer added. "And we don't thank him for it and we don't use it. ... You know, God has buried those treasures there because he loves to see us find them."

That's really top-notch theology, as other similar top-notch theologians would attest. Dr. Calvin Beisner, for instance, is a founder of the Cornwall Alliance, the premier faith-based climate-change-denial operation on the planet. Sharing the microphone with Rev. Fischer, Rev. Beisner pointed out that not burning fossil fuel is really "an insult to God"—and that Jesus, too, wants us burning coal. If we didn't take advantage of all the flammable rocks on the planet, Beisner said, we would be like the "wicked and lazy steward" who was given talents by his master but simply buried them.

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Cue the Math: McKibben’s Roadshow Takes Aim at Big Oil

Seth Butler / www.sethbutler.com
Bill McKibben Speaking at Waitsfield, VT Connect The Dots Rally. Seth Butler / www.sethbutler.com

It was game time. The Saturday night crowd on the Vermont campus was festive, boisterous, pumped. People cheered and whooped when told that one of their heroes, climate activist Tim DeChristopher — serving a two-year federal sentence for his civil disobedience opposing new oil and gas drilling in Utah — would soon be back on the field.

When the man on the stage, 350.org’s Bill McKibben, said it was time to march not just on Washington but on the headquarters of fossil fuel companies — “it’s time to march on Dallas” — and asked those to stand who’d be willing to join in the fight, seemingly every person filling the University of Vermont’s cavernous Ira Allen Chapel, some 800 souls, rose to their feet.

McKibben and 350, the folks who brought us the Keystone XL pipeline protests, are now calling for a nationwide divestment campaign aimed at fossil fuel companies’ bottom line. Beginning with student-led campaigns on college campuses, modeled on the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s, they’ll pressure institutions to withdraw all investments from big oil and coal and gas. Their larger goal is to ignite a morally charged movement to strip the industry of its legitimacy.

“The fossil fuel industry has behaved so recklessly that they should lose their social license — their veneer of respectability,” McKibben tells his audience. “You want to take away our planet and our future? We’re going to take away your money and your good name.”

Why Gas is Too Cheap

CHOOSING TO PAY more for a gallon of gas than the price at the pump sounds a bit crazy—but that is exactly what a couple of dozen members of the Community of St. Martin, a worshipping group of Lutherans, Catholics, Mennonites, and others in Minneapolis, Minnesota, have covenanted for more than a year. It’s one way they’re seeking to show commitment to environmental stewardship.

After committing to a voluntary “tax” rate (from $1 to $3 per gallon, depending on income), each community member keeps track of gas receipts. The Community of St. Martin (CSM) collectively decides in advance how their taxes will be spent each quarter. Every three months, the group gathers to write checks and conduct a lively discussion about changes in their gasoline usage habits. CSM borrowed the idea from a group in Goshen, Indiana, that started a similar campaign 10 years ago.

Why intentionally pay more for gas than it costs? According to CSM members, this is precisely the point: The price of gas in the U.S. doesn’t reflect the actual costs that U.S. society and the global community incur as a result of the country’s dependence on oil. Those costs include fossil fuel’s contributions to air pollution and global warming. Also hidden at the pump are the costs of U.S. strategies to maintain an inexpensive supply of oil, often through political or military interventions in oil-producing regions—not to mention $4 billion a year in tax credits and subsidies to Big Oil.

Sara Nelson-Pallmeyer, the group’s treasurer, says that “everyone is paying a different amount—from $10 to $385 per month. The fun part is that so far we’ve given more than $5,000 to organizations working on alternative transportation solutions and advocating for political change around climate-change issues.” She added that, ironically, “The real heroes of the group are the ones paying the least.”

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Born to Pedal...

THE FIRST BUG was a surprise, glancing off my front teeth to lodge in the nosepiece of my fashionable clip-on sunglasses. Note to self: When biking to work, keep your mouth closed. So the second bug was totally my fault, but I defy you to bike three whole miles without exuberantly singing songs from Broadway musicals. (“Oklahoma” is particularly susceptible to bug ingestion.)

Fortunately, the second insect was quite palatable: chewy, of course, but with an aftertaste of fresh clover and just a hint of oak, suggesting it might go well with a nice pinot noir or, on a particularly hot day, a carafe of iced sangria. (Note: When June bugs are out in force, replace wine with a mint-flavored mouthwash. And flossing is a necessity.)

I BIKE TO work these days because the District of Columbia has strongly suggested I do so, in lieu of spending a year in jail and up to $5,000 in fines. Frankly, I could use the time incarcerated to catch up on my reading, but it seems to me that in imposing a fine they’re just trying to punish me. (Although there’s a chance that was their point.)

This was communicated to me in a letter from the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles (SATAN). Using the terse and unforgiving language of a junior high school principal, it informed me that my license has been suspended for 180 days. But I can explain:

You know how it is when you’re northbound on I-95, a highway of mind-numbing flatness, like Kansas, but with more Starbucks. And you know how it is when you’re driving your hybrid electric car and feeling your oats—or, for younger people not familiar with that expression, feeling your Red Bull—and you want to see how fast you can go while STILL getting 58 miles per gallon.

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