Energy is one of the drivers of the global economy, and for many of us it has created a system of previously unsurpassed wealth and comfort. Deuteronomy 8:17-18 provides a necessary reminder: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God…”
Conversations about energy often revolve around the concept of scarcity. But the truth is that God has given us energy sources in abundance. We may have a finite supply of some sources of energy like coal and gas, but sun, wind, and water are examples gifts from our Creator with the potential to generate power in perpetuity. Creation is brimming with energy, and a Christian perspective on
energy involves acknowledging the abundance of God’s Creation and the call to care for Creation including our “neighbors.”
Energy is a gift from God, whether it takes the form of food that fuels our bodies, gasoline that fuels our cars, or electricity that lights our nights. God intends abundant life for all people, and energy is a critical part of that.
Unfortunately, we have not always lived out our call to be good stewards of energy. We waste energy in myriad ways. We fail to acknowledge that some forms of energy, like gas and oil, are finite. And, we fail to make energy available to everyone in order for them to meet basic needs. We also have not made good choices regarding how and where we get our energy. From extraction to
production to transmission, the decisions we make about energy have consequences, sometimes devastating, on God’s Creation and on the health and well-being of our neighbors.
The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it proclaims the psalmist
(Psalm 24). In order to make wise energy decisions, we need to
understand that ultimately the Earth is the Lord’s and our decisions
have an impact on each other and on Creation.
So, how do we, as Christians, fuel our families, communities, and world
in ways that are Christ-centered and honor God’s gift of Creation?
THE ETHICS OF ENERGY EXTRACTION
Whether our energy comes from coal, oil, gas, or wood, the process for “harvesting” that fuel source, called extraction, has an impact on God’s Creation. Some extraction processes have a greater negative impact on Creation than others. In addition, the extraction process for some types of energy has disproportionate impacts on low-income communities and communities of color. As Christians called to
seek justice for all people and to care for Creation, these issues pose a serious challenge.
Go Tell it on the Mountain: Mountaintop Removal Mining
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy
mountain; for the earth will be full of the
knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Coal is the primary source of electricity for much of the United States because coal is a cheap and abundant source of energy. Some of that coal probably comes from mountaintop removal mines in the Appalachian Mountains. Mountaintop removal coal mining is a practice that removes 500 or more feet from the tops of mountains in order to reach buried seams of coal. Earth from the mountaintop is then dumped as “fill” in the neighboring valleys. Fill from mountaintop removal mines has buried more than 1,000 miles of streams in the Appalachian region and the mines have leveled at least 500 mountains.
According to the National Mining Association (NMA),
there are more than 14,000 mountaintop coal miners in
the Appalachian Region, with the highest levels of coal
production in the area at the intersection of West Virginia,
Kentucky, and Virginia. The NMA estimates that for every
mining job, an additional 3.5 jobs are created through mining
services, sales, and other related business.
Coal mining in Appalachia is a complex issue. On the
one hand, coal mines provide well-paying work in a region
that has been systemically poor for most of its history.
Many families have worked in the mines for generations,
despite the difficulties and dangers of this work, making
coal mining an integral part of the history and rich cultural
traditions of the region.
On the other hand, the relatively recent practice of
mountaintop removal mining is destroying the mountains
and streams that are so much a part of the fabric of
God’s Creation in these ancient mountains. Once clear
mountain streams are contaminated with mine waste or
buried under rubble and mountain vistas are reduced to
grey-brown gravel pits. Families are either forced to leave
the land that has sustained their families for generations or
to suffer health consequences that can be life-threatening.
Communities that experience mountaintop removal mining
are twice as likely to suffer birth defects. In addition,
Mountaintop mines employ far fewer people than traditional
underground mines, so unemployment rises and
people who were already struggling to make ends meet are
forced to leave the land they love to find work.
In this complexity, how do we, as Christians,
discern how God wants us to respond?
Oil if by Land. Oil if by Sea.
God’s land and water provide rich and valuable
sources of energy—particularly oil. However,
in order to extract the oil from oceans or
land we often put the needs of ourselves over
the health and well-being of the whole of Creation
and in many cases before the needs of
Oil Drilling on Public Lands. Thousands of acres of public
lands define the western U.S.—wilderness areas, forest
service lands, and lands owned and run by the Bureau of
Land Management. All of these lands are given to us by
God and legally owned by the people of the United States.
However, the federal government often leases parts of these
lands to be developed for oil and gas below the surface.
Even though each of us is part owner of these lands and
minerals, we rarely have a say in which lands are leased,
how they are developed, or how the companies will compensate
us for their findings.
During the past 20 years, thousands of permits have
been granted to oil and gas companies allowing them to
drill on public lands. Oil and gas production has been
rampant on public lands throughout the Rocky Mountain
West especially Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana.
In Wyoming, companies have been drilling for natural gas
in the Wyoming Range, a mountain range in the western
part of the state. The infrastructure required for this process
is so intense that last year the area of Pinedale in the Wyoming
Range recorded higher ozone pollution levels than
Los Angeles. In addition to degraded air quality, energy
exploration is leaving permanent scars on the landscape and
destroying wildlife habitat.
Another serious threat that comes with energy development
on land is water use and contamination. Gas exploration requires large amounts of water, often pulled from
nearby aquifers and rivers. This reduces water available
for the surrounding community and wildlife. In addition,
drilling for gas has been known to contaminate fresh water
resources, threatening the health and well-being of those in
As Christians, how do we advocate for energy sources that provide
for all without degrading the very land that God so cherishes?
Ocean Oil Disasters. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater
Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring
dozens more. Oil gushed for 95 continuous days and
spilled nearly 200 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of
Mexico. The immense amount of oil that spilled—19 times
more than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill—was treated with
an equally unprecedented amount of chemical dispersants
(nearly 2 million gallons). The oil dispersant used, Corexit,
contains toxic chemicals known to cause liver, kidney, and
genetic damage, among other health problems.
The oil spill contaminated wetlands along Louisiana and
Mississippi and fisheries across the Gulf region had to be
shut down. Endangered sea turtles, migratory birds, and
marine animals such as dolphins suffered as their habitats
were coated in oil. Fragile coastal wetlands, already disappearing
at an alarming rate, were compromised with the
invasion of oil from the spill. These wetlands not only provide
habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife, but they also
provide critical flood protection for coastal cities during
hurricanes and other storms along the Gulf.
After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William
Sound, a similarly productive fishing area, many aspects of
the local economy were harmed. Businesses that are directly
and indirectly supported by fishermen, such as fish markets,
shipping services, marine equipment manufacture and supply,
tourism, and others suffered. The economies of Gulf
Coast communities, many of which were only just beginning
to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina,
will likely feel these impacts for years to come.
“And God said, ‘Let the waters bring
forth swarms of living creatures, and
let birds fly above the earth across the
dome of the sky.’ So God created the
great sea monsters and every living
creature that moves, of every kind,
with which the waters swarm, and
every winged bird of every kind. And
God saw that it was good.
Each of us bears some responsibility for the disaster that
occurred two years ago on the Gulf Coast. Each of us, when
we drive a car, take a plane, or throw away a plastic bottle,
make up a small part of our nation’s massive consumption
of, and dependence on, oil.
As we reflect on this and other disasters, as Christians we can ask,
“Am I doing all I can to ensure that this never happens again?”
Community Challenge: “Fracking” and Our Energy Future
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
Because of concerns about air pollution and climate
change, some experts view natural gas as a cleaner source
of electricity than other fossil fuels like coal and oil. Some
coal-fired power plants are already switching over to natural
gas, and this trend is expected to continue. However, easily
available sources of natural gas are dwindling, and many of
the largest remaining untapped natural gas reserves are in
hard-to-reach underground rock formations. To reach these
reserves, miners must use a technique called hydraulic fracturing,
commonly known as “fracking.” Fracking involves
injecting water mixed with sand and chemical fluids into
deep wells in order to break open the rock and force natural gas out.
Many claim, however, that fracking may be contaminating
local drinking water. Recent studies have linked drilling
and fracking for natural gas to groundwater pollution
from methane and other chemicals. In addition, the fracking
process uses large amounts of water (between one and
nine million gallons per well) and the storage, disposal, and
recycling of the waste water, which can contain hazardous
chemicals, may also threaten surface water supplies. Some
states, including Texas, Wyoming, and Arkansas, are now
requiring that companies disclose the chemicals they are
injecting into fracked wells. Other states, including Pennsylvania,
do not have disclosure requirements, posing a risk
to those who live nearby and to those who respond to emergencies
when wells explode or accidental releases occur.
Fracking poses some challenging questions for our
energy future. On the one hand, natural gas is far cleaner
than coal or oil, and shale formations potentially contain
a substantial supply of gas that could give us the time we
need to develop new, cleaner sources of energy such as wind
and solar. Drilling and fracking can bring revenue to rural
landowners and jobs to struggling rural communities.
On the other hand, the natural gas boom also comes
with risks. In addition to the potential to pollute ground
and surface water supplies, communities dealing with
fracking also may experience the “boom and bust” impact
that drilling a non-renewable energy source will have on the
long-term health of their local economy. Some recent studies
have also linked fracking and the underground injection
of fracking wastewater to an increased risk of earthquakes,
prompting some communities to ban these activities near
If we follow the advice of Paul in his letter to the Philippians
and consider the interests of others before we consider
our own, it raises questions about how we approach
fracking. How do we as Christians show that we value
the interests of others for clean air, clean water, and just
THE ETHICS OF ENERGY PRODUCTION
The ways in which we generate electricity have serious
implications for the health of our neighbors and all Creation.
Many forms of energy, when used to generate electricity
or power machinery, also pollute our air, land, and
water. Renewable sources of energy are cleaner and more
enduring but are still relatively expensive. And our methods
of transmitting energy from place to place waste this precious
Energy, Health, and Justice
Clean air is essential for human life. An average person
breathes in more than 3,000 gallons of air each day. At the
same time we inhale life-sustaining oxygen, we also breathe
in the byproducts of our energy choices. Our heavy reliance
on fossil fuels adds millions of pounds of harmful pollutants
to the air every day. Major contributors to poor air
quality include power plants and industrial factories, as well
as mobile sources such as cars, trucks, planes, and trains.
Poor air quality impacts human health, including increases
in asthma. With more than half of the country’s population
living in areas with polluted air, this problem is of growing
concern. A 2002 study by the National Institutes of Health
estimated that 30 percent of childhood asthma is caused by
In addition to air quality issues and the health problems
associated with them, our energy choices also impact our
water. According to the Energy Information Administration,
in 2010 45 percent of U.S. electricity was generated
from burning coal—the largest single source for power
generation. Unfortunately, burning coal releases a powerful
neurotoxin as a byproduct: mercury. Coal-fired power
plants are the single largest source of mercury in our air and
water. Mercury also ends up in our food chain—most states
have issued mercury advisories for fish caught in their lakes,
rivers, and streams—and in our bodies, posing a serious
developmental risk to children and pregnant women.
Smooth Transitions: Visions for an Energy Future
As we think about a more sustainable energy infrastructure—one that incorporates less pollution, better community health, and an improved caretaking of God’s Creation—we also need to envision an energy future that provides livelihoods for those who are currently working in fossil-based industries. As we envision more Creation-friendly energy practices, worker justice for coal miners, oil rig operators, and other such workers should be part of the vision. A smooth transition and true worker justice will provide training and assistance for workers so that they can also embrace a more sustainable energy future.
Energy production choices also raise questions of justice.
The people who suffer the most from the pollution generated
by our current modes of energy production are those
who live in low-income communities and communities of
color. Research by the Environmental Protection Agency
finds that neighborhoods with the most polluted air are
those with the highest percentages of African American,
Latino, and Asian American residents. While low-income
communities may also live in neighborhoods with poor air
quality, communities of color, regardless of income, live in
communities with poorer air quality than white communities
of the same income. This is particularly true in urban
areas where in every major city African Americans are more
likely than white to be exposed to higher concentrations of
air pollution. According to the Centers for Disease Control,
in 2007, African Americans were reported to be three
times as likely to die from asthma-related disease than the
As Christians, how do we reconcile ourselves
to the role our energy needs play
in harming God’s people and creating inequality?
TRANSMISSION AND WASTE
The century-old North American electric power grid,
according to the U.S. Department of Energy, consists of more
than one million megawatts of generating capacity and is
connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission
lines serving more than 283 million people. But because
energy is difficult to store, most of it must be consumed the
moment it is generated. Therefore, peak demand, or the
highest demand possible for a particular area during a specified
time period, is what drives production capacity. Peak
demand determines the number and size of power plants
needed to supply energy in a particular state or region.
Of all the energy consumed to produce electricity, only
a portion reaches consumers; the rest is lost during generation,
transmission, and distribution. According to the
U.S. Department of Energy, from 1988 to 1998, U.S. electricity
demand rose by nearly 30 percent yet the transmission
capacity of our power grid grew by only 15 percent, leading
to a growing energy supply problem as peak demand has
The current electricity grid also lacks the infrastructure
to carry wind and solar power from the more remote areas
where energy is produced to big cities where energy will
be consumed. Renewable energy sources like solar and
wind power are intermittent and difficult to store; thus the
energy they produce is not always available when demand
peaks. Reducing peak demand through better grid management
would help to alleviate this problem and allow more
of our electricity to come from renewable sources.
To more effectively deal with growing and changing electricity
demands our power grid needs to be updated so that
it can respond quickly and meet the needs of consumers. A
smarter electric grid would make it possible to reduce the
high cost of meeting peak demand by allowing a two-way
flow of electricity and information and the monitoring of
power plant output, consumer preferences, and even individual appliances plugged into the grid. Proposed smart
power grids will use computers and sensors to coordinate
the distribution of power, help optimize the use of electricity
from renewable sources, including solar and wind
power, enabling consumers and utilities to save money and
reduce power plant pollution.
How do we, as people of faith, work to embrace
appropriate emerging technologies that will allow us to
be better stewards of God’s Creation and decrease our
TRANSPORTATION: DRIVING OUR ENERGY USE
The transportation we use in our daily lives accounts for 71
percent of the total amount of petroleum used each year,
more than 13.5 million barrels per day. Compared to other
parts of the economy, transportation accounts for almost
28 percent of the energy we use—that’s almost one third of
our total energy use. To adequately address our energy consumption,
and ensure that we are good stewards of God’s
gifts of energy, we must address our reliance on transportation
and therefore on oil. While it is possible to walk more
and use public transportation, these activities won’t meet
our every need. Though hybrids are available to us as consumers,
it is not realistic for every family to go out and buy
a new car or outfit their old vehicle with solar panels.
As Christians, then, we must be vigilant about using less:
walking more, carpooling with friends, and combining our
errands into one trip. We must encourage our communities,
churches, and elected officials to build or enhance current
transportation systems. In urban environments, this
means more buses, light rails, and accessible communities
that provide neighborhoods with the necessary items. In
rural communities, this means making hybrid vehicles
more accessible to families and thinking creatively about
how we deliver food and other necessities.
We will always need some form of transportation in our
lives to move from place to place, visit friends and family,
and get to church on Sunday. We must begin to develop
a vision for the future that reduces our dependence on oil
while meeting the needs of communities around the country.
A FUTURE FOR RENEWABLE ENERGY
Today we have the technology to produce energy in renewable
or sustainable ways, using God’s gifts of sun, wind,
and water. Shifting away from an energy economy based on
scarce fossil fuels to more renewable and site-specific energy
technologies allows us to embrace an economy of abundance.
Renewable energy sources such solar, wind, geothermal,
and hydroelectric may also have negative impacts on
God’s Creation; however, renewables generally produce less
pollution than tradition carbon-based energy sources and,
unlike more traditional sources of energy, they will be available
as long as Earth endures.
In addition, renewable energy offers the potential for
local energy development. In the U.S. this has meant new
economic opportunities for struggling rural communities,
which are often the best locations for solar and wind farms.
In less developed countries renewable energy has the potential
to allow off-the-grid and mini-grid systems in rural
communities to support necessities such as irrigation and
food preservation, as well as aiding in the development of
a robust economy. And not all renewable energy development
requires highly technical solutions: in rural Malawi,
for example, a teenager built an electricity generating windmill
out of an old bike and pieces of plastic piping.
Cost is often cited as a barrier to large-scale development
of renewable energy sources. But by looking only
at the market cost of renewables, as compared to that of
fossil fuel-based energy, you may miss some other values
innate to renewables that deserve equal consideration.
First, the higher financial cost of renewable energy sources
is deceptive. In the U.S., the lower price of fossil-based
fuels reflects decades of support from federal and state
governments through tax breaks and other government
incentives for exploration, research, and other production
costs. Although renewables also receive support through
government-funded research and the tax code, fossil fuels
still receive the lion’s share of federal support even though
the industry is mature and established as compared to the
far younger and less-developed renewable energy industry.
Second, the lower financial cost of fossil fuels ignores
their steep social and economic costs. Burning fossil fuels
leads to air pollution that causes and exacerbates health
problems such as asthma, emphysema, lung cancer, and
heart disease. The process of extracting and refining fossil
fuels also raises health and environmental concerns—from
the communities in Appalachia dealing with water contamination
from mountaintop coal mines to the communities
in Pennsylvania worried about water contamination from
hydraulic fracturing for natural gas to the fishing communities
along the Gulf Coast living with the impacts of
decades of oil drilling and the 2010 oil disaster. The health
and environmental problems associated with water and air
quality issues come with substantial costs to our economy
in the form of increased health care needs, missed days of
work, and clean up costs. None of these factors is reflected
in the low price of fossil fuel-based energy.
One particular source of renewable energy—solar—is
expanding rapidly in the U.S. According to an industry
association, the solar industry employs more than 100,000
people in all 50 states and grew nearly 70 percent in 2010.
It currently provides enough power to run more than
630,000 homes. But despite the enormous potential of
solar power, there are still significant barriers to expansion,
including the current power grid.
How do we as people of faith ensure that the decisions
we make regarding our energy sources include our
Christian values—justice, stewardship, and love for our neighbor?
In the U.S., we have easy access to cheap and plentiful
energy. As Christians we are taught to be good stewards of
the gifts God has blessed us with. One way we can steward
God’s gift of energy is by using energy more efficiently and
more effectively. This will not only reduce our energy bills,
but will also help protect God’s Creation from the pressures
of energy extraction and production. Energy efficiency is
the cheapest way to increase the amount of energy available
to us as consumers. While efficiency programs do not actually
create new energy, they do reduce the amount of energy
that each person, household, and congregation uses.
Energy efficiency can be done in multiple ways including
using more effective energy appliances, weatherizing
homes and churches, and using energy efficient lighting.
If efficiency tools were put in place in our homes, our congregations,
the work place, and at the industrial level, we
could reduce our energy use to the point that we could
prevent the building of new power plants, thus reducing
our dependence on fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.
From using efficient appliances and automobiles to insulating
our homes and churches to installing energy efficient
lighting, opportunities abound for us to reduce our energy
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The coming of Christ is described in the first chapter of the
gospel of John using the imagery of light breaking through
the darkness of sin that plagues our world. Finding light to
alleviate actual darkness is a more prosaic task, but can also
pose challenges for those without easy access to energy. We
take for granted in our highly-developed country that we
can easily switch on a light, or turn a knob on our stove to
cook a hot meal. Many people live without easy access to
energy to light their way and feed their families.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics calculates that nearly one-third of the recent increase in poverty in the U.S. can be attributed to the rapid rebound in oil prices. The poorest fifth of Americans spend 10.3 percent of their income on oil compared to 2.4 percent for the top fifth.
The International Energy Agency warns that people living
in extreme poverty, particularly in Africa and the Indian
sub-continent, suffer from an “alarming” lack of access to
energy. Globally, about 1.4 billion people (about 20 percent
of world population) do not have access to electricity.
Without access to reliable energy sources, economic development
is difficult, and everyday life can be a challenge.
About 2.7 billion people (about 40 percent of global
population) rely on traditional biomass—mostly wood and
animal dung—for household cooking. Wood and dung
may be relatively easy to find and may provide for a family’s
basic needs for cooking and heating in the home, but they
come with some significant problems. Inhaling the smoke
from indoor cookfires can lead to respiratory problems and
related heart and lung diseases; the World Health Organization
estimates that illnesses related to cook stove smoke
could be killing up to 1.5 million people per year by 2030.
Reliance on wood for household energy needs means that
trees must be cut down, and wood gathered by someone in
a household. Deforestation also contributes to loss of biodiversity
and erosion of soil. Finally, wood used in cooking
is a source of “black carbon” which is second only to carbon
dioxide as a contributor to human-caused climate change.
The solutions to this reliance on wood and other biomass
are actually relatively low in cost, easy to implement,
and would not increase global reliance on fossil fuels. Stoves
that use fuel more efficiently, or run on low emission fuels
or renewable sources of energy, offer relatively low-cost
solutions to this problem.
For example, a Lutheran World Federation project is
working in Eastern Uganda to replace traditional wood-
burning cooking stoves with locally-sourced energy saving
stoves that still burn wood, but use significantly less of it.
This project is combined with local reforestation projects
that plant tens of thousands of new trees each year, including trees that produce both fuel and timber. By reducing
their consumption of trees, and replacing the trees they
consume, people in Eastern Uganda are working to achieve
environmental sustainability on the local and global levels.
How can we, as Christians, serve communities in need
so that they can experience the bounty of God’s good Creation?
Yet even in the U.S., some people struggle to pay their
utility bills or to buy gas for their cars. As people of faith,
we must recognize that the biblical call to justice means
caring for Creation and for our neighbors around the
world by justly and sustainably using energy.
How do we as Christians, who strive for justice, sustainability
and sufficiency, eliminate our own wastefulness while also
advocating for others who lack access to energy?
References and citations are available online at the NCC EcoJustice Website.