Energy choices are moral choices

Energy-related disasters have been front-page news in recent weeks. On April 5, 29 coal miners died in West Virginia in the worst U.S. mining accident in 40 years. Two weeks later the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded in flames killing nine rig operators and two engineers. Located approximately 50 miles from the coast of Louisiana and almost one mile below the surface of the ocean, this ruptured well continues to spew vast amounts of oil and methane into the Gulf of Mexico. It now appears certain that the social, economic, and ecological consequences of this oil “spill” will far eclipse the Exxon Valdez disaster, which was the worst in U.S. history.

Both of these disasters stem from the fact that the United States is addicted to fossil fuels. Unlike virtually all other species, most human beings in the modern era have not learned how to live in harmony with current solar energy that we receive each day from the sun. Instead, human communities have grown, and some have prospered, over the past three centuries by tapping into banked solar energy in the forms of coal, oil, and natural gas that has been buried for millions of years beneath Earth’s surface.

James Martin-Schramm

Today, heavy reliance on these fossil fuels is producing grave threats to justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. For example, coal-fired power plants generate nearly half of the U.S. electricity supply, but they also produce two-thirds of all sulfur dioxide (the leading cause of acid rain), 22 percent of all nitrogen oxides (a major contributor to smog), approximately 40 percent of carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas), and 40 percent of all emissions of mercury (a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in body tissues). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in twelve women in the United States have an unsafe level of mercury in their blood, and the Environmental Protection Agency has issued advisories in 44 of the 50 states regarding high mercury levels in various kinds of fish.

Heavy reliance on fossil fuels is producing grave threats to justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.

Our addiction to petroleum is also taking an enormous toll on human health. The American Lung Association estimates over 150 million people in the U.S. live in areas where the air quality puts their health at risk. Vehicle emissions are the leading cause of this air pollution and over 96 percent of our vehicles are powered by petroleum products. The 240 million cars, trucks, and buses on U.S. roads today emit a noxious cloud of pollutants consisting of large and fine particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, ozone, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide.

These pollutants are a leading cause of asthma, lung cancer, and other respiratory diseases, cardiopulmonary disease, low-birth-weight babies, and increased infant mortality. Each year, diesel exhaust alone is responsible for over 125,000 cancer cases in the United States, and nearly 100,000 Americans die annually from causes attributable to smog.

The deeper costs of petroleum addiction

Today, the United States imports approximately two-thirds of the oil it consumes. Net imports of crude oil in 2008 cost $354 billion and represented more than 52 percent of the nation’s $677 billion international trade deficit in goods and services. These are dollars the United States could use to reduce serious and unjust deficits in health care coverage or to invest in inner-city education and poverty alleviation.

There are other significant costs related to U.S. oil supplies. Various studies estimate the United States spends between $55 billion and nearly $100 billion each year on the military to secure its oil supplies around the world. These estimates do not include more than $100 billion spent each year since 2003 for the war in Iraq, which has the world’s third largest proven reserves of oil. When these costs are added to the cost of federal and state subsidies to the oil industry, and combined with estimates of health care costs related to fossil fuel pollution, some analysts argue that the true cost of a gallon of gasoline at the pump ranges from $8 to $11 per gallon.

These statistics are daunting. The challenges they represent appear insurmountable. Empowered, however, by a just, good, and gracious God, Christians at the outset of the 21st century must work with others around the world to find new ways of living in harmony with Earth’s energy resources and in solidarity with all of God’s creatures.

This moral obligation involves our commitment to the poor and marginalized among the present generation, but it especially includes our responsibilities to future generations. Actions taken or not taken today will affect the welfare of the planet for centuries. More than ever, energy choices are moral choices.

James B. Martin-Schramm is a Professor of Religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where he also serves as the Research Chair in the Center for Ethics and Public Life. These remarks are drawn for his new book Climate Justice: Ethics, Energy, and Public Policy (Fortress Press, 2010). For more information about collective action, visit the Lutherans Restoring Creation Web site:

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