Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Oil, Money, and Politics
distributed 3/15/19 - ©2019

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by John and Renata Smathers, of Boulder, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

In my home state of Colorado, oil and gas is big business. The fossil fuel industry pours lots of money into state politics to protect their interests.

Similar factors are at play on the national level, where policies of "energy dominance" align with the goals of fossil fuel industries.

It is easy to slip into a cynical perspective, and decry "greedy business" that is interested only in its own profits, and "corrupt politics" where campaign donations control votes. There's validity to both of those complaints, but the real world is considerably more complex than that.

Today, I'm going to take the unusual step of acknowledging a grain of truth in the oil and gas message. There's a strong financial consideration in energy policies that has nothing to do with corporate profits, and lots to do with community interests. Any effort to address climate change, reduce carbon emissions, and leave fossil fuels in the ground will have to take this economic issue seriously.

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I need to start with a bit of Colorado background. Last fall, there was an initiative on the state ballot which would have put dramatic limits on new oil and gas drilling. Proposition 112 lost -- but amazingly it received almost 44% of the vote, even when the grassroots campaign was outspent 40 to 1 by the industry-funded opposition.

This spring, the Colorado General Assembly is fast-tracking a piece of legislation that addresses some of the same issues as Prop. 112. Among other things, Senate Bill 181 will revamp the membership and the mission of the state commission which regulates oil and gas drilling, and remove the provision that says the commission needs to "foster" oil and gas development. The industry, again, is spending big on advertising against this legislation, claiming that it would shut down their operations.

Here's where I see the bit of truth that goes beyond self-interest: when oil and gas gets pumped out of the ground, it also pumps a lot of money into state and local government.

An op-ed against SB 181 rattled off the statistics: "The oil and gas industry in Colorado creates over one hundred thousand jobs for hard-working Coloradans, provides over one billion dollars to fund our schools and roads, and is responsible for 11 percent of the state's gross domestic product."

A billion bucks for schools and roads is a big deal to government operations. When oil and gas production winds down -- and it will, sooner or later -- that's a budget shortfall that will be hard to make up. I can see why legislators and commentators are grateful for that income, even if they recognize the urgent need to address climate change and other forms of pollution.

It isn't just Colorado that hits this dilemma. I saw a report a month ago about booming oil production in our neighboring state of New Mexico. The story (which carried on the journalistic pattern of describing record production as marvelous news), noted, "Overall, the industry provided more than $1 billion for public schools and the state's universities" in the 2018 fiscal year. From what I know of New Mexico finances, that's a really, really important part of the education budget.

In the work for climate justice, there's been a growing recognition of the need for a "just transition" away from fossil fuels. There are many communities and individuals whose livelihoods are tied to those fossil fuels. Ethics and compassion insist that there must be justice for those who are impacted or displaced by our bold climate action.

Because I see the rapid end of oil and gas as a practical necessity in limiting climate change, I advocate strongly for strong transitional assistance to those who are most impacted. The point is not to preserve those thousands of jobs, and devastate the climate in the process, but to provide a relatively graceful way of helping those impacted shift to a different economic base.

What we haven't addressed, though, is the need for a just transition for the government and community services which are funded by oil and gas revenues. How do we pay for education if severance taxes and royalties have been a significant part of those budgets?

There's a grain of truth in the industry-funded advertising against oil and gas regulations in Colorado. Yes, there are lots of jobs, and there's a lot of tax money involved. But the ads -- which never, ever mention climate change -- call for maintaining and expanding fossil fuel production as the way to preserve that money for the state. That's the big lie around the grain of truth.

Protecting oil and gas operations is not the way to meet the needs of the state for the long term. Oil and gas has to stay in the ground, and those jobs have to shift some way. The health and vitality of the community depends on an expanded commitment to a just transition -- for workers, for communities, and now for the services like education that have been funded by oil and gas revenue.

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A very long time ago, Jesus spoke words of truth: "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:21)

When fossil fuels are pouring lots of money into state budgets, it is challenging for politicians to suggest laws that would cut off such funding. That's not a case of bought-off politicians (well, not necessarily). When a legislator cares deeply about education, she or he will want to protect the money that is critical for schools.

If we're serious about addressing climate change, if we're really going to transition off of fossil fuels, then we need to make a break from the money that industry generates for governments.

Letting go of a billion dollars a year will be a tough political challenge. But if oil and gas is where our treasure is, then our heart will be there also, and we'll never turn off the tap.

Let's expand the notion of a just transition to include the transition of governments away from fossil fuel money.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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