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An oily blog

Due to some recent comments and conversations, I’ve been reflecting on my part in our oil extractive economy.  It’s undeniable – we live in a petroleum based society.  It hasn’t always been this way; putting fossil fuels into products is a fairly recent phenomenon.

I have recently been intentionally reading a lot about oil.  And it strikes me that there are numerous dimensions to consider when we discuss oil and its uses within our lives.  So this is NOT a ranting blog – I have no basis for ranting – I live within and support the petroleum industry, as does almost all of ‘western’ society.  What this will be, I hope, is a conversation starter on the topic.

There are many things we need to consider for this conversation, and I think we’re called to be educated before we speak out.  These are complex issues which call for reflection and consideration.

Fossil fuels come out of the earth in three forms – crude oil, natural gas, and coal – and their quality and intended purpose varies depending on the source.

Where this stuff is coming from makes a difference too. Oil and gas are drilled and pumped, coal is mined.  Some of these practices are safer than others; we saw the problems of deep sea drilling with the BP Gulf spill; there are calls for more studies before Arctic drilling continues or expands; sourcing from the tarsands is an increasing practice in Canada.

How the fuels are transported also matters – the issue of pipelines have recently brought to discussion land rights and justice concerns; cargo routes may not be as direct as companies suggest.

Fossil fuels are also now used in and for just about everything.  Look around you; I’m willing to bet at least 10 things in your immediate view are made or derived from the petroleum industry – and not just the by-product from fuel production.  From cosmetics to clothes, pills to paint, IV bags to ice cube trays – the list goes on and on, often without us even realising it.

There are many people who are employed within the industry as well – from folks working rigs to engineers designing high-tech machinery, scientists developing new methods to PR people selling us gasoline.  As with any industry, there are good, hard-working people supported by the societal demand.

And, of course, there are proposed alternatives to the fossil fuel industry.  Things like solar and wind energies are better known, other ideas like biogas and algae for energy use are still lesser-known.  Whatever innovations may become commonplace, however, no one thing will fully replace the use of fossil fuels.

As I mentioned, these are just a few of the issues to be considered.  When we engage these issues from a Christian perspective, we must do so with full recognition that we are part of the society that accepts and supports the industry: we fuel our cars or transit sources, we eat foods made with crude oil or grown in its derivative fertilisers, we weave it into the fabrics we wear.

So as part of the Christian community, as part of the petroleum extractive economy, what are we to do?  What choices can we make that are true to ourselves and true to God?  How are we called to use this resource in such a way that we are demonstrating our faith to the world?  A good resource for discussion is “Our Oil Dilemma: Reflections and Queries” published by KAIROS a few years back – what else can we use to faithfully guide this conversation?

About Laura Marie Piotrowicz

I’m a high-energy priest, now serving in the Diocese of Niagara, catching glimpses of the kingdom in daily life. I consider church to be a verb, and I’m passionate about prayer, eco-theology, and social justice. I love travel, reading, canoeing, camping, gardening and cooking, playing with my dogs, and drinking good coffee.
http://everydaychristianityblog.blogspot.ca

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0 Responses to An oily blog

  1. Interesting post. I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about our fossil-fueled culture and how it intersects with the church. I’ve heard it said that we’re all hostages to our own time, which has very much been the petroleum era, but our church occupies an interesting place in society as a pre-industrial vestige. So, even though we don’t remember a time before the incredible industrialization of everything, our church has existed in that time. And, thus, it can be an interesting place both for conversation and for change.

    What has your reading led you to conclude about the time we’re at now? A lot of people claim we’re at an inflection point, that fossil fuels can really only increase in cost, as we’ve extracted all of the easy stuff. Some point to the tar sands and to shale extraction and say there’s lots to be had, but others point out that such fuels aren’t, in fact, easily had. The scale and environmental cost of the tar sands project points to the desperation we have for cheap fuel, for the dependence we’ve developed on free-flowing oil. It’s not just gushing out of the ground in Texas, anymore.

    My view is that this petroleum society of ours is starting to unravel. This is very apparent in the United States, where suburban expansion has been so total and the impact of even slightly higher fuel prices is felt like an earthquake. The fuel price shock of 2007 kicked off a real nightmare, here – one from which we’ve yet to wake up. Our food system is also extremely dependent on cheap fossil fuel inputs, though there are movements afoot to make food production more local. So, we’ve made very few other arrangements for living here, save for the Amish and a few other cultural isolates.

    So, what should the church say and do about this? What should we do? And what is our responsibility to the future?

  2. Thanks Matt, this is exactly the type of conversation I think we need to be having.  I’ve read some about ‘peak oil’ and I think those terms are now a bit dated – there was the huge public scare in 2007 and then no immediate apocalypse – so we (society) seemed to settle down again into ignorant complacency.

    I think there are changes that have to be made – fuel costs will continue to increase as supply decreases. Environmental damage will continue as fossil fuels continue to be used.  (Did you know that Shell has applied to extend it’s Arctic drilling allowance, because climate change has helped cause less polar ice? Sad irony.) And small changes are happening all the time – people are carpooling or taking transit; some airlines have extended flight times by about 10% to save about 20% of fuel, various food movements (local, organic or pesticide free, seasonal, slow food, etc.) are all having an impact. But again – knowledge is power, and willingness to become aware of the issues and then to engage with them remains part of our challenge and responsibility.  I’m often frustrated by people ranting (even when I agree with their position) who have not got any basis for that position.

    On the church topic, however, I think that we have the possibility to offer leadership in areas such as this.  While the church existed before the petroleum-based era, it also existed before the computer era – yet here we are.  Some changes we have adopted better than others.  But what does remain the same is the ability and the forum for the church to be a voice for the future.  We gather together as people of God to listen to a message of good news; a message that is a call to action of celebrating and sharing God’s love for all the creation.  I believe we’re called to care for that creation because we are Christians; to harm the created order is to harm that which God made – and that’s an insult to our creator.

    Matt – does this adequately respond to your questions?

  3. Mark Perrin

    I can’t think of a better place to add to this conversation than from my office at one of Canada’s largest natural gas producers, in an office tower in downtown Calgary. And the keys on my keyboard are not made of stone or wood either.

    My first thought about this is gratitude. I am thankful that we live on this beautiful planet and have been gifted with these energy resources that have enabled us to develop in so many ways. I agree that we must be responsible about how we use them. I am also thankful for the work I’ve had in the patch. I started as a teenager pumping gas. That was 40 years ago. It has provided an incredible variety of rewarding work and a wonderful standard of living for me and my family.

    The patch has also given me a perspective on where mankind fits in the whole history of our amazing planet because I had to learn geology to work as a petroleum engineer. So, based on what I’ve learned, we haven’t been around very long – a couple million years perhaps? Some of the oil fields I’ve been involved in are around 300 Million years old. One of them, the Redwater Devonian reef, dates from a time when Alberta was tropical and mostly under water. Now its 1500 m underground but back then it would’ve been a great beach vacation destination. I find it humbling to realize we’re not a big part of earth’s history.

    From a human historical perspective, I’ve read a couple books that I found helpful: “The Prize” by Dan Yergen and “The Upside of Down” by Thomas Homer-Dixon. Petroleum has been used for a long time. My understanding is that baby Moses’ basket was sealed with bitumen so it would float. The Upside of Down draws parallels between our current situation and the end of the Roman empire. For them, like us, it was taking more and more energy – in the form of agricultural products – to produce and distribute their energy as the Roman empire expanded. I agree we are going after more difficult energy sources. A couple of things are different from the Roman days IMHO. We have developed technology to help us find more difficult petroleum deposits and we have much more fuel efficient vehicles. I don’t think the Romans could modify their horses to run on less grain. I remember driving a car that used 25l/100km.  It wouldn’t sell well today IMHO.

    Some thoughts on your points.

    IMHO, the big BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico shouldn’t have happened but it did. Hopefully, the lessons learned will help operators avoid a similar incident in the future.

    I spent five years working in the Arctic in the early 80’s on exploration drilling. It is an incredibly beautiful and fragile environment. I’ve tried to add a picture from Tuk Peninsula.


    I agree we need to be careful there. An issue on my mind is there isn’t enough time in a season to drill a relief well from a floating or jack-up drilling platform if there’s a problem. I’ll be interested to hear how that is addressed.

    I worked at Syncrude in the late 70’s. I lived in Ft. McMurray for part of that time. I noticed as I walked along the Athabasca River on a hot summer day, that oil was flowing out of the tar sand river banks in lots of places and into the river. That “oil spill” was natural and had been going on for a long time. There apparently are bugs in the Athabasca river that live on the oil. I also had an opportunity to drive around the first settling pond at the Syncrude plant. It was huge. I trust my colleagues in heavy oil are working hard to minimize the environmental damage.

    For some of my clients, transportation of heavy crude out of Alberta is an issue. Some are switching to rail transportation, which uses existing infrastructure.

    I realize this is getting long but I have to share a story about societal demand. Many years ago, I was hitch hiking through the gulf islands on the west coast. A fellow gave me a lift in his not-so-fuel-efficient pickup truck and we talked. When he found out I worked for an oil company, the rant started. I suggested that if people stopped buying fuel we’d go out of business and the problem would be solved. It was quiet after that.

    And on alternative energy I think we need to step back and look at the whole picture. An electric car IMHO just relocates the problem. The electricity is coming from somewhere. In Alberta, that’s probably a coal-fired power plant. For hybrids, I think it’s worth considering the environmental impact of producing and disposing of the batteries.

    Ok, time to stop.

    As a Christian, I give thanks for the amazing gifts of this planet and feel responsibility for stewarding the use of these gifts. There are lots of simple things I can  do: turn off lights when I’m not in the room — that power is likely coming from a coal fired plant, avoid taking unnecessary trips in the car or use the small car or my motorcycle — less fuel, minimize the air-conditioning or furnace use by  managing the windows and blinds in the house.

    Thoughts on my thoughts?

  4. Mark, I’m glad you’re part of this discussion. The simple truth, I think, is that there are no easy answers. The global economy, as well as the systems that feed, shelter, govern, and entertain us are so integrated that a quick and dramatic change could have devastating effects. On the other hand, we all know that change needs to happen–and that it’s going to be a bumpy road, because it’s likely going to affect everything from the places we work, to the groceries we buy, to all those living in the developing world.

    I’m just as concerned about the phenomenon know as “greenwashing”: the tendency to market alternative means of consumption as somehow being better for the earth (I mentioned that briefly in one of Laura Marie’s earlier posts.) While alternative sources of energy are both exciting and hopeful, energy storage remains problematic, especially when it comes to the production and disposal of batteries (“ebikes” are a great example of greenwashing, though perhaps not as questionable as ewaste recycling).

    All that to say that I think you’re right. All of you. So where do we go from here? What do we do now? @ms_perrin , I know that the big energy companies are funding a fair amount of environmental research, as well as alternative energy projects (though one suspects they are kicking and screaming the whole time). Can you give us any encouraging news on that front? @lauramarie, do you see any hopeful movement where change is happening quickly enough to have a positive impact, but slowly enough to avoid devastating effects in the areas of development and social justice?

  5. There are oodles of ways we can make a difference.  Our communities can install walking paths and bike routes (like Copenhagen’s new bike highways); we can utilise other forms of technology once they’re tried and true (and most are, just not in North America – for some innovative ideas see http://www.treehugger.com/renewable-energy/9-energy-innovations-make-future-brighter.html ).  Individually we can change our transit habits, make wiser more educated choices, examine what our intentions and purposes are when we are considering purchases, including what our money is supporting (the product itself, the company’s ethics and CSR and environmental track record &c.)  The basic things from the ‘good old days’ make a lot of sense – put on a sweater when it’s cold instead of turning up the temperature, that sort of thing.  Reduce consumption and re-use things, recycle only when necessary (a lot of what we put in our blue boxes gets tossed in a landfill anyway, depressingly).  Compost.  Plant something.  Go to a farmer’s market.

    Most importantly – I propose that we pray.  There are abundant resources available inviting us to engage with God’s creation in our spiritual practices.  (For example, the World Council of Churches provides annual “Time for Creation” materials – http://www.oikoumene.org/en/events-sections/countdown-to-climate-justice/time-for-creation.html?print=1%3Fprint%3D1print%20CWME%20Pre-Assembly%20Mission%20Event )  Consider the Earth as one of the neighbours we promise to love as ourselves when we make and affirm our baptismal vows.  Respect the planet for the miracle that God made it – realising that there cannot be healthy humans supported on an unhealthy planet.

     

  6. Dawn Leger

    Thanks for this, Laura Marie.

    All of this! I lean towards advocating for affordable, safe and accessible alternative energies, especially wind and solar. We will always be consumers. There is no way for energy to be a zero sum game. We can never have 100% sustainability, especially when we are considering economic development as part of the equation. We need to stop putting up roadblocks to new sources of energy.

  7. @Dawn: I think you have some valid points here. Wind and solar power can certainly play a part in the future, though they suffer pretty serious drawbacks. Dependence on batteries is a serious problem, as batteries just can’t store the same amount of energy that fossil fuels (especially refined gasoline) can. There was a great article about this on the Oil Drum, recently: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/9436

    I would forget worrying about economic development, honestly, and figure out how we’re going to keep society moving forward at all under higher fuel prices. Fossil fuel moves almost all of our food around in North America, it keeps planes flying and it gets us from place to place in our cars. The more expensive gasoline becomes, the farther away places are going to become.  I can walk 20 miles over moderate terrain before I become really disheartened. And I can’t do it very frequently or in winter.

    The earth is a pretty closed system. We’ve got lots of sunlight, which helps us grow food (original use of solar power). And it can provide some electrical power. But I think we’re going to have to think outside of the box of economic development if we want to make it out of this century intact.  There are alternatives, and we need them, but the time to start building them was 30 years ago. What I really fear is reaching a point where we don’t have infrastructure in place to support alternative energies and alternative living arrangements, and we find ourselves unacceptably pinched by fuel costs. That could be an ugly time. For the poor, this time is pretty much here.

    One final point, and back to the issue of the church in this: I think the best thing we can do is start seriously working on localization. It is much easier for people to organize a farmer’s market and to build hoop houses to reduce daily long-distance transport of food, for example, than to convert that food transport system to liquified natural gas. The age of oil has really confused us about the difference between low-hanging fruit and high-hanging fruit, because all of the fruit has already been picked for us  and is at the greengrocer. An infrastructure shift is very high-hanging fruit, and it becomes higher the longer we wait. Supporting local farmers and reducing local trash is very low-hanging fruit. I think the church should do be a major force in this, so much as it can. We can do this now, and it may help save us from great pains. It’s also, I think, a nicer way to live.

  8. Mark Perrin

    To the discussion about our energy consumption and impact on the planet, I’d like to offer another perspective. From many things I read on this topic, I get the impression that we think we’re pretty important to the life of the planet. What if, from the Earth’s perspective, mankind is no big deal? My geological background and some exposure to fractal mathematics is behind this. One simple aspect of fractal math is patterns repeat at different scales. I said in another comment that man hasn’t been around long compared to the Earth. How about we scale time as if the roughly 2 billion year old Earth is a 40 year old person and look at some events based on a time scale we are more familiar with. (I’m personally having trouble remembering being 40 but it’s kind of middle ground)

    If humans have been around for 2 million years, scaled to the Earth as a 40 year old, we arrived about 2 weeks ago (2,000,000/2,000,000,000 X 40 years X 365 days/year).

    If we actually got organized and started agriculture about 10,000 years ago, our 40 year-old Earth would have noticed that about 1 hour and 45 minutes ago.

    Say the industrial revolution got going about 200 years ago, from our 40 year-old Earth’s perspective that would have been just over 2 minutes ago.

    So let’s look forward – and I mean way forward – 350 million years from now, or when our 40 year-old Earth is 47.  Assuming the geological processes that have been working for a long time continue, all our current stuff, our blackberries, i-phones and garbage dumps (and all those disposable diapers), will probably be solid rock and could be 1500m below the surface.

    I don’t want to imply that we can abdicate our responsibility for caring for the planet because we’re just a temporary guest. I do suspect our beautiful planet will be here long after we’ve gone or evolved into something else. And I believe God will be in all of whatever transpires.

  9. Mark Perrin

    To the discussion about our energy consumption and impact on the planet, I’d like to offer another perspective. From many things I read on this topic, I get the impression that we think we’re pretty important to the life of the planet. What if, from the Earth’s perspective, mankind is no big deal? My geological background and some exposure to fractal mathematics is behind this. One simple aspect of fractal math is patterns repeat at different scales. I said in another comment that man hasn’t been around long compared to the Earth. How about we scale time as if the roughly 2 billion year old Earth is a 40 year old person and look at some events based on a time scale we are more familiar with. (I’m personally having trouble remembering being 40 but it’s kind of middle ground)

    If humans have been around for 2 million years, scaled to the Earth as a 40 year old, we arrived about 2 weeks ago (2,000,000/2,000,000,000 X 40 years X 365 days/year).

    If we actually got organized and started agriculture about 10,000 years ago, our 40 year-old Earth would have noticed that about 1 hour and 45 minutes ago.

    Say the industrial revolution got going about 200 years ago, from our 40 year-old Earth’s perspective that would have been just over 2 minutes ago.

    So let’s look forward – and I mean way forward – 350 million years from now, or when our 40 year-old Earth is 47.  Assuming the geological processes that have been working for a long time continue, all our current stuff, our blackberries, i-phones and garbage dumps (and all those disposable diapers), will probably be solid rock and could be 1500m below the surface.

    I don’t want to imply that we can abdicate our responsibility for caring for the planet because we’re just a temporary guest. I do suspect our beautiful planet will be here long after we’ve gone or evolved into something else. And I believe God will be in all of whatever transpires.

  10. Perhaps a little off topic, but the last few posts brought this to mind:

    Chernobyl aftermth-Ghost city

    This is the land surrounding Chernobyl, some 25 years later. The forest has reclaimed the city.

    Makes you think.

  11. Great pic, Jesse.  Nature has an amazing capacity to heal – herself, her surroundings, and us – when she is given the chance to do so.

  12. Mark Perrin

    Yes this photo is very encouraging to me too. Lets think about what — hopefully — will happen here. Over the next few thousand years, assuming the forest continues, the deposition and accumulation of organic material on the forest floor from leaves falling and trees dying naturally of old age, will bury all these buildings. It will look like a regular forest with no obvious indication that man was ever there.

  13. Hey, did anyone catch this CBC story? A Whitehorse recycling company has purchased a machine that turns plastic bags into crude oil.

    Promising? Ironic? What do you think?

  14. Afra Saskia Tucker

    I’m really pleased to see this blog post and the ensuing discussion. Mark: I especially appreciate your contributions; they illustrate a perspective I seldom come across in my local context. The earth as a geological specimen is much more spectacular in its history and operation than we acknowledge in our everyday dealings. For me, these everyday dealings highlight the role of personal responsibility in relation to the planet. I find the human population’s over-extended consumer growth desires and practices, and the resulting massive exploitation of the earth’s resources to satisfy those desires and practices, extremely disturbing. If nothing, this subject is important for the purpose of examining our relationship to others, whether human or other (animals, plants, soil, water, air…).

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