Acton Institute Powerblog

Transcendence and Obsolescence: The Responsible Stewardship of Oil

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In this week’s commentary, “Transcendence and Obsolescence: The Responsible Stewardship of Oil,” I ask the question: “Why did God create oil?” I raise the question within the context of debates about global warming and the burning of fossil fuels, including Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth and the work of the Evangelical Climate Initiative.

I argue that nonrenewable resources, especially fossil fuels, “have the created purpose of providing relatively cheap and pervasive sources of energy. These limited and finite resources help raise the standard of living and economic situation of societies to the point where technological research is capable of finding even cheaper, more efficient, renewable, and cleaner sources of energy.” Nuclear power is one source that meets these criteria. The NRO blog Reconcilable Differences passes along this NYT magazine story about the potentially bleak future for nuclear power in America, “Atomic Balm?”

The point about nuclear energy is important because the burning of coal accounts for over half of the domestic use of electricity, and that high-profile campaigns like “What Would Jesus Drive?” paper over this key fact. I wonder “just how many coal-powered SUVs have you seen lately?”

Well, it turns out that there is technology that allows us to turn coal into oil, although it is costly and potentially ineffecient. Even so, the high costs of oil are currently turning this into a more feasible economic possibility. For more on this, see this NYT story, “Mining for Diesel Fuel; The Search for New Oil Sources Leads to Processed Coal” (TimesSelect required).

Read the entire commentary here.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Dr. Ray Mitchell

    In your artcile you state, "Fossil fuels were created by God as a natural resource for human beings to use wisely and to steward well in the culturing of the world, as mandated in Genesis 1:28. It would be much more difficult to “fill the earth and subdue it” if we didn’t have cars and planes and ships to carry us about, and furnaces to warm our homes in intemperate climates."

    Have you considered the population growth in the Pre-Noahic era or in Jacob’s line? Conservative estimates place the population at the time of the flood at 235 million people–over a period of approx. 1600 years. In just 400 years in Egypt, Israel grew from 70 people to 600,000 men plus women and children. I do not recall the use of fossil fuels or the invention of automobiles.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not against the refining of fossil fuels and the use of them. I am also not against responsible reasearch to maximize our resources. I am against junk science (such as the global warming theory) that leads people into hysteria.

    This one aspect of your argument for the use of that which God has created is not what I consider very strong. Mankind has never had a problem, regardless of the environmental conditions to multiply. We do not need cars for procreation to occur–although some might argue for the importance of the back seat!

  • Ed Brown, Care of Creation Inc.

    I think you’ve allowed yourself to perpetrate a couple of fallacies here:

    1) Affirming that God made oil for man to use does not necessarily mean that we human beings have made the best possible use of it. You extol "long haul trucking" as an example of the benefits – this is but one example of a transportation system that is enormously inefficient, miserable for those who have to labor in it, and terrible for the environment. Rail simply works better. Likewise with our vaunted "love affair with the automobile". Every major city in the world is drowning in the fumes and sinking under the collective weight of millions and millions of private vehicles. Using oil responsibly might mean admitting that we’ve made some poor choices in the systems we’ve designed to use it.

    2)Nuclear power is a legitimate dilemma. As an avowed environmentalist, your points are accepted (though oe does wonder why you make these points if climate change really isn’t a concern? :) ). The problem with nuclear is quite simply disposal. 10,000 years is a long, long time. Pushing nuclear as an alternative without acknowledging and proposing a solution to the disposal problem is sort of like, um, those who insist that we do away with oil without showing how we can live and feed the globe without it. Wouldn’t you say?

  • James Schaeffer

    Then I suppose that you are all for Iran building a nuclear reactor, too.

  • Jeremy Peet

    Great comment Dr Ray. And funny, too!

    What is failed to mention is the mounting evidence that oil is less of a ‘fossil fuel’ than first thought. There is the growing evidence that oil continues to be generated by forces in the earth. In other words, oil is not just generated by dead organic matter. It continues to be generated by natural forces – further strengthening the argument that oil is given to us by God to use.

  • Jimmie Lloyd

    About God creating oil for us to use… I have a very old & close friend (75) who is a Geophysist. he is also an Atheist. His position is if there is a God, he must be a mean S.O.B. because he created Tyranasauris Rex & kept that dinasaur around for thousands of years eating eveything that moved. Most of our oil tody came from that era. About Christian stewardship of that oil, read the book "The Templar Revelation" by Lynn Pickett & Clive Prince.

  • Mike Mathea

    Ed Brown started down the correct path. The issue is one of stewardship. In this area as a society we have been terrible. We have minimized the use of rail and water while using oil. In regard to pollution a terrible choice.
    We continue to use coal for electric production when all I read tells me we should be using wind, water and maybe nuclear.

  • Brandon Zylstra

    Dr. Ray, you seem to be arguing as though filling the earth only related to procreation. But the author is clearly taking the phrase "fill the earth" to include spreading out over the earth, which seems very reasonable to me. If you take issue with this interpretation of this phrase, please give your reasons. But to argue against something he never said (that is, to argue against his statement as though filling the earth only meant populating) doesn’t seem to accomplish anything.

  • D.Thurman

    The best means available for dealing with spent nuclear was quashed by Jimmy Carter, re-refinement and breeder reactors. Actually, storing it in the ground is really a good answer it’s just that people expect too perfect a risk free proof that it could never be a concern. If we put the same requirements for being totally risk free on transportation that we want for spent fuel storage no one would get on a plane or walk across a street. I always thought we could fire it into the Sun.