Acton Institute Research Fellow and Executive Editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality Jordan J. Ballor was a guest on Austin Hill in the Morning in late January on the Faith Radio Network to discuss the morality of resource extraction and use. Should Christians support efforts to drill for more oil and the use of new techniques to draw more of these resources from the Earth, or should they push for a new approach to energy creation and consumption? You can listen to the interview via the audio player below.
Today is Earth Day, a great opportunity for Christians to confess with the Psalmist, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Ps. 24:1).
An immediate corollary to this confession that the world belongs to God is that whatever we have is entrusted to us by him. We therefore have a responsibility as stewards over those aspects of creation that we have control over, most notably our bodies, souls, and property.
Over at The Federalist, I take on Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s conception of stewardship, particularly as applied in the case of the Keystone pipeline. “Tutu’s depiction aligns with a view of the environment as a pristine wilderness which must be preserved rather than cultivated and developed, and is in this way the antithesis of responsible stewardship,” I argue.
One particularly fruitful discussion of the stewardship responsibility of the Christian is contained in Abraham Kuyper’s reflections on the Eighth Commandment in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. We published these remarks in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality:
In 2005, religious shareholder activists of various stripes jumped aboard the bandwagon filing resolutions against Chevron for an environmental disaster it allegedly caused. Chevron asserted its innocence, but the activist shareholders put the squeeze on:
Chevron’s Ecuador environmental disaster, considered by experts to be the worst oil-related ecological problem on the planet and currently the subject of a high-stakes law suit estimated to cost the company upwards of $6 billion, will be high on the agenda of the company’s 2006 annual shareholder meeting with the filing of three new resolutions asking Chevron’s management to take various steps to protect human rights, the environment and shareholder interests.
The resolutions were filed by institutional and socially responsible investors, including the New York State Common Retirement Fund, Trillium Asset Management, Amnesty International USA and members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), which together own more than $1 billion in Chevron shares. The resolutions increase the pressure on the California-based oil major to address the widespread toxic contamination left by Texaco (now Chevron) in the Ecuadorian Amazon during a 20-year period that began in the early 1970s.
This story has a twist, however. Over at the National Review, Kevin Williamson reports Chevron beat the rap on the $6 billion judgment rendered against it by an Ecuadorean court several years ago. Seems the judge who established the original fine was in cahoots with a cadre of nasty elements. (more…)
[This post was co-authored with Chris Horst, director of development at HOPE International. He is a This is Our City fanboy and is grateful that Christianity Today has given him freedom to write about manufacturers, mattress sellers, and solar product designers, all working for the common good in Denver, where he lives with his family. Chris blogs at Smorgasblurb, and you can connect with him on Twitter at @chrishorst. His first book, Mission Drift, will hit shelves this spring. The views expressed in this essay are his own.]
In a marvelous profile for This is Our City, Brandon Rhodes explores how a 25-member church is contributing to its neighborhood through farmer’s markets, block parties, and yarn-bombings. “They made a decision to radically localize how they practice being church with the common good and the gospel in mind,” Rhodes writes. “…They take a ‘nearby-first’ approach to living it out.”
James K.A. Smith responds at Cardus, and though he, too, celebrates the slow-and-artsy, he also emphasizes the importance of the macro-and-dirty. Decrying what he describes as “a sort of vague Anabaptism” among younger evangelicals, Smith challenges “Portlandia Christians” to consider the systemic challenges that either hinder or empower our cities. “We have scaled our expectations and our efforts as if the rejection of triumphalism means a retreat from systemic change,” he writes. “It’s like we’ve decided we should make lovely art not culture war.”
Turning his focus toward Detroit, which he describes as a “colossal disaster of municipal government,” Smith concludes that “farmer’s market’s won’t rescue the city” but “good government will.” Yet as he goes on to note, the solution is not either/or, but both/and: “It’s peach preserves and policy making. Coffee shops and court nominations. Block parties and bills in Congress.” (more…)
Gas prices are beginning to come down, but for many people prices are not falling fast enough.
The pain caused by high gas prices is spread widely, but it is felt intensely on the working poor and the unemployed who are trying to find a job.
A recent story in the Chicago Tribune highlights Alicia Madison, a resident of the Chicago suburbs who is unemployed. Madison is looking for a job, but because of high gas prices she, at times, cannot even afford to go to an interview:
Before a recent job interview, Alicia Madison climbed into her 2001 Ford Explorer and realized her gas tank was empty, just like her bank account.
Unable to afford gas for the 25-mile round trip from her Glen Ellyn home to the Naperville business, Madison was forced to reschedule. She now relies on gas vouchers issued by a nonprofit agency to drive to interviews.
Madison, a certified nursing assistant unemployed three months, is desperate to return to work, but not desperate enough to take a job too far from home with gas prices at record highs.
“I have to be conscious of where I’m looking and how far it’s going to be,” said Madison, 23, a single mother on food stamps. “I don’t want to work just to pay for gas.”
Her dilemma underscores the problem that steep gas prices have created for the unemployed: They need income to fill their tank but can’t afford to take jobs with long commutes.
Some job seekers say they are more selective now, curtailing face-to-face networking and ignoring some opportunities based on the high transportation costs.
As the article also points out, job seekers have to decide if the pay for a potential job is enough for them to make the daily commute. Is it worth working eight or nine hours a day when a good chunk of the earnings goes toward paying for the gas needed to get to work?
The hardships for low income workers are further explained by Greg McBride, Senior Financial Analyst at Bankrate.com. According to McBride, 72 percent of Americans who make less than $50,000 are cutting their discretionary spending. While cutting discretionary spending is what is needed to be a good financial steward when money is tight, McBride explains that higher gas prices hurt economic growth because they cause a decrease in consumer spending.
As Ray Nothstine argues in “High Gas Prices Devastating to Poor”, we should do everything we can to lighten the burden on the poor and lower gas prices. This will aid everyone, but especially those who are the most adversely affected by the high gas prices. One way to lower gas prices is to look no further than the free market, which is articulated again by Nothstine:
While we are bound to labor, 17th century Bible commentator and Presbyterian minister Matthew Henry reminds us, “Let not us, by inordinate care and labor, make our punishment heavier than God has made it; but rather study to lighten our burden.”
Similarly, John Paul II declared, “Besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied.”
This is good advice. The free market helps to sort out those effective alternatives, encouraging us to drill for oil responsibly at home, and protecting us from costly utopian schemes that drive up energy prices. The market is also our best hope for developing renewable energy technologies that are economically feasible.
In an article appearing on EWTN News, Acton Director of Research, Samuel Gregg, is interviewed on rising food prices and the effect on the developing world. In this article, Dr. Gregg contributed to a broad discussion on the many factors contributing to the rising food prices.
He advocates for a free market economy in agriculture by discussing the effects agricultural subsides in Europe and the United State, and how these market distortions contribute to stifling the growth of agriculture in the developing world. Furthermore, the effects of the oil industry on food prices is also discussed along with Pope Benedict’s call for the need to address the problems of food insecurity in Caritas in Veritate.
Developing world’s food crisis seen as a ripple effect of over-regulation
By Benjamin Mann
The dramatic rise in global food prices was high on the agenda of the 2011 World Economic Forum on Africa, held from May 4–6 in Cape Town, South Africa. According to a leading Catholic economist, excessive government regulations are to blame for the rise in prices.
A complex combination of factors – including natural disasters and higher oil prices, as well as a rising standard of living in countries like China, India and Brazil – have made food less affordable in recent months.
The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization has warned that the “food price shock” could have devastating effects upon the world’s poorest people.
At meetings in Cape Town, South Africa this week, African leaders discussed a “road map” to help the continent cope with rising prices through market-based approaches that would encourage local agriculture.
Some factors behind higher food prices, such as natural disasters, cannot be controlled. But Dr. Samuel Gregg, an economist at Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, said other factors – especially agricultural subsidies and the manipulation of oil supplies – were preventing poorer countries from bringing their productive capacities to bear in the global market.
The result, he told EWTN News on May 6, is an under-supply of food, and higher prices.
“All the subsidies that go into agriculture – through things like import taxes and tariffs, as well as direct subsidies – have the paradoxical effect of reducing the incentive for investment in agriculture in developing countries,” Gregg observed.
Without the ability to sell their products at competitive prices on the global market, these countries end up producing less food, and attracting fewer investors.
“They end up saying, ‘We can’t compete because of subsidies in the European Union and the United States.’ Consequently, the supply of food starts to be reduced, because there isn’t the incentive for agricultural investment.”
“This effort to protect American and European farmers has the unintended consequence of reducing the supply of agricultural products from other people.”
He said farm subsidies, going mainly to large corporations rather than individual growers, were a “very good example” of how “a government program can have a completely unintended negative effect” on a critical area of the world economy.
If the barriers to competition were lifted, Gregg said, developing countries could attract more investment and increase their own productive capacities, to cope with global demand and bring food prices down.
But agricultural subsidies have the backing of powerful interest groups, and are often perceived as vital to the national interest.
Gregg also holds oil-exporting nations of OPEC responsible for high fuel prices that translate into more expensive food.
“The energy sector of the economy is not a free market – it’s a cartel,” he stated. “That’s something to keep in mind with all discussion about energy prices. This is why we worry about what OPEC is going to set as the price for gas, or for the production of barrels of oil.”
“It’s not the market that is controlling the price, for the most part. Generally speaking, it’s a cartel – which means that OPEC and other oil-producing countries introduce a whole range of price-distortions into the energy sector, resulting in higher prices.”
Oil prices, he said, “don’t reflect the true state of supply and demand.” Rather, Gregg said, they tend to reflect the will of countries exporting oil, and the inefficiency of frequently nationalized oil production.
Elsewhere, government regulations surrounding the refinement of oil into gas also play a role in raising prices, when refining capacity fails to keep pace with crude oil supply.
“There’s plenty of oil,” Gregg stated. “The problem is, there’s a disparity between supply and demand.” Meanwhile, this imbalance in the oil market has a ripple effect. “Just as energy prices go up,” he explained, “so do food costs.”
Another obstacle to meeting rising demand for food may come from ideological opposition to genetically-modified crops.
“There are all sorts of restrictions in place around the world, upon the development of genetically modified food,” Gregg noted. Genetic modification is highly controversial, and skeptics worry such crops could harm local ecosystems or human health.
But Gregg said that these concerns had to be weighed against the world’s urgent food needs, given that genetic modification could enable crops to be grown “in conditions where they might not otherwise be able to be produced.”
Many of these crops are also designed to resist natural occurrences – such as droughts, floods, and disease – that destabilize food prices.
“There’s no question that if more countries were enabled by law to engage in genetically modified agriculture, the supply of food would go up, and prices would come down,” he observed.
Gregg’s advocacy of what he called a “true free market in agriculture,” geared toward attracting investment in the developing world, reflects priorities that Pope Benedict XVI outlined in his 2008 encyclical “Caritas in Veritate.”
In that encyclical, the Pope said that “the problem of food insecurity” had to be addressed by “eliminating the structural causes that give rise to it, and promoting the agricultural development of poorer countries.”
“This can be done,” the Pope wrote, “by investing in rural infrastructures, irrigation systems, transport, organization of markets, and in the development and dissemination of agricultural technology.”
Pope Benedict stated said the developing world’s most urgent need in this area was “a network of economic institutions capable of guaranteeing regular access to sufficient food.”
Gregg believes a general draw-down of government involvement in agriculture, as well as energy, would allow these kinds of economic institutions to develop locally and compete globally.
The result would be a boost in developing countries’ food production capacity, and more affordable food for the world.
“Obviously you need some kind of regulatory framework,” Gregg said. “But if it were a less onerous regulatory framework, and different groups weren’t trying to influence the process for political and ideological reasons, I think you’d find that the price of food – and the price of energy – would fall.”
The blame game in Washington is heating up on skyrocketing gas prices. Republicans are criticized as being in the back pocket of the oil industry and partaking in crony capitalism. The Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee is even cashing in by hosting a fundraiser that is based on what has been the House Republicans “decade long relationship of protecting Big Oil taxpayer giveaways, speculations and price gouging…” However blame is also placed on Democrats, with accusations of placing barriers to prohibit domestic drilling. The debate has also centered around how we can be better environmental stewards. We may find ourselves asking questions such as whether green energy promotes environmental stewardship, and if oil drilling results in a dramatic harm to the environment?
An article published by the Washington Examiner contains disturbing numbers that will not be received very positively. Oil production in the Gulf was lower than predicated by the Energy Information Administration (EIA); however, imports were up:
While oil production in the Gulf is down more than 10% from April 2010 estimates, net crude oil imports are up 5%. At $83 dollars a barrel (the approximate average price of oil in the fourth quarter of 2010) that means Obama’s oil drilling permatorium increased American dependence on foreign oil by about $1.8 billion dollars in the fourth quarter of last year alone. The numbers only get worse as Obama’s permitorium further cuts into production. A Wood Mackenzie study predicts that for all of 2011 the permitorium will result in the loss this year of about 375,000 barrels of oil a day.
More imported oil also means higher prices at the pumps. The EIA explains: “Retail gasoline prices tend to be higher the farther it is sold from the source of supply.” It costs more money to transport oil to your gas station from the Persian Gulf than from the Gulf of Mexico.
On April 26th, President Obama wrote a letter to Congress calling for “immediate action to eliminate unwarranted tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, and to use those dollars to invest in clean energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.” The tax breaks President Obama is asking to be removed are worth $4 billion per year. This isn’t the president’s first call to action. His 2012 budget proposal also calls for the removal of the “subsidies.” But some have pointed out that the oil industry does not receive direct subsidy payments in the way that some farmers do. The president’s proposal specifically states:
Eliminates Inefficient Fossil Fuel Subsidies. Consistent with the Administration’s Government-wide effort to identify areas for savings, the Budget eliminates inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that impede investment in clean energy sources and undermine efforts to address the threat of climate change. Approximately $4 billion per year in tax subsidies to oil, gas, and other fossil fuel producers are proposed for repeal.
Here at the Acton Institute we have spoken in opposition to true subsidies, such as subsidized farming (articles can be found here, here, and here) and health care policy (a related article can be found here). In the past we have articulate the problems with subsidization. The language in President Obama’s budget proposal appears to be vague and does not specify where the oil industry will no longer be, in his words, subsidized. Is it in drilling? Does it affect gas prices? Ray Nothstine notes in his commentary, “High Gas Prices are Devastating to Poor” our moral obligation to the vulnerable and how the high gas prices are affecting them. With gas prices continuing to climb precautions should be taken to prevent even higher prices.
Brian Johnson, the American Petroleum Institute’s senior tax policy advisor, provides insight on the proposal in the president’s 2012 budget. Johnson explains that the president is proposing to remove the intangible drilling cost provision, which is the oil industry’s ability to deduct drilling “costs associated with labor, architecture, design and engineering; basically the building of an oil rig, a platform or any structure that allows the industry to get into the ground and find oil or natural gas.” Johnson claims this process helps in planning for the next stage of development and construction. Furthermore, Johnson claims the oil industry is already paying its fair share in taxes with an income tax rate at 48 percent. Whereas other S&P Industrials average a 24 percent effective tax rate. Stephen Comstock, also from API, responded to President Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, articulating problems with the president’s call to end subsidies for the oil industry.
While the call to end the oil subsidies is being criticized by some, others are supporting such an action. Bill Becker, a Senior Associate with Third Generation Environmentalism and an energy and climate specialist at Natural Capitalism Solutions, argues the subsidies place the United States at a competitive disadvantage to China and India in the competition to champion alternative energy:
If we are looking for ways to chip away at the budget deficit, to keep America competitive and to use market-based mechanisms to build a competitive clean energy economy, then subsidy reform should be near the top of the list.
Think of it this way: Imagine an Olympic marathon in which the U.S. team has to run on a steep and continuous uphill slope, while the teams from China and India run on a level track. That’s what “winning the future” will be like for the United States if we keep our perverse energy policies. Direct and indirect taxpayer support for fossil energy, which far exceeds government support for emerging green energy technologies, almost certainly makes winning the future a futile race.
Becker also cites a report by the Government Accountability Office that claims “taxpayers are losing tens of billions of dollars in royalty payments in part because the Department of Interior doesn’t have sufficient capacity to monitor oil and gas production on public lands.”
In his letter address to Congress, the president calls to reinvest the $4 billion per year that the oil companies receive in subsidies into clean energy. The problem with current alternative energies is they are inefficient, not cost effective, and cause many unintended consequences (related articles on the inefficiency and unintended consequences of various alternative energies can be found here, here, here, and here).
Yes, we will need to develop good alternatives to oil over the long haul, but spending money on energy sources that are not effective is not a wise investment or a sign of being good financial stewards. If the tax provision and subsidies for the oil companies are to be cut, and taking into account the budget crisis the United States is currently facing, it may better serve the country to not reinvest the money and cut it out of the budget completely.