Wondering About Fossil Fuels

Published 6-29-2019

Christianity Today in June 2019 published a lengthy article about the fossil fuel resource of petroleum. The magazine cover background was a colorful depiction of an oil slick on water to backdrop the title “God Gave Us Oil—Should We Keep Using It?” Only indirectly did the article by Ken Bakke, associate professor of English and of the Climate Center of Texas Tech University, refer to other fossil fuel resources. The same concerns Bakke expressed about petroleum could apply to the other “big three” fossil fuels—coal and natural gas.

Bakke relates the story of Edwin L. Drake in western Pennsylvania in 1859 who drilled the first successful oil well. Drake discovered a landmark technology for oil well drilling. “What followed was arguably the most rapid economic and cultural transformation of the world,” according to Bakke. Many theologians and historians credited God for the gift of plentiful oil at this point in human history. In the next century, “…America had powered itself to world dominance—with oil fueling the engine of its growth and prosperity.” Coal had earlier launched the Industrial Revolution, supplanting the energy formerly supplied by wind, wood, and water power.

In the late 18th century, “when economic and and technological advancements, enabled by coal and then oil, lengthened life expectancies and sent the population soaring on a near vertical trajectory to 7.7 billion today,” many things changed in our energy outlook. Oil has, indeed, been a gift from God. In like manner, we may relate the same for coal and the recently enhanced vision of the role of natural gas which has been discovered in many new deposits such as the Marcellus Shale in the Northeastern US.

The term Creator of All Things (Colossians 1:16)applies to the actions of God over eons of time. His creative work in our early universe and later when our galaxy and Solar System became physical realities spanned billions of years as humans reckon time. The work of God is not time constrained. People are subject to time awareness, limitations, and restrictions. God is not limited by constraints of time as are humans. People tend to construct historical timelines along which events are pinpointed. Actions of The Creator of All Things may extend over millions of years. So it is with fossil fuels formed over a sequence of changing conditions over many millions of years.

Ken Bakke’s wide-ranging six page article in CT recounts the millions of years of geologic processes which formed present day petroleum deposits upon which our modern societal growth and prosperity is firmly anchored. His account, though brief, is accurate: “There is no denying oil’s awesome power, harnessed from solar energy sequestered in simple ocean organisms that sank over eons to the sea floor. Under intense pressure, this dead carbon formed deposits that when mined and refined have such pent-up strength—as petroleum engineers like to tell it—that a mere teacup of gasoline can move a 1,000-pound vehicle a mile up a mountain road.” Coal was formed from land plant deposits formed in swampy areas and buried under layers of sediment. Over millions of year, algae, zooplankton and land plants were transformed into petroleum and coal. Pressure and heat chemically altered the organic materials into a multitude of different products accessible by multiple modern refining processes.

One cannot read or listen to media reports without encountering a heavy dose of climate change discussion. The climate change topic has thoroughly suffused our modern awareness. We are aware that the consumption of fossil fuels has elevated the CO2 content of the atmosphere by roughly 35%. Most of this increase has occurred in the past 75 years since the mid-20th century. Most 70 to 80-year old residents do not recall a climate change or global warming discussion when they attended high school. Currently we are aware that global temperature elevation, sea level rise, and perceived increases in the potency of weather events, are a source of concern for many 21st century residents. Modern belief is that increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs) is causative. There is little doubt that some global temperature increase is related to this cause but the magnitude of cause is in hot dispute. The science of climate change does not settle the argument concerning magnitude. Climate issues are exceedingly complex. GHGs are but one of multiple causes. Judgment of the amount of effect is connected with sometimes errant scientific analysis, intense ideology, and powerful politics. This results in disagreements about which solutions are appropriate, not to mention disagreements concerning how to implement them.

Bakke highlights “…the late 18th century, when economic and technological advances, enabled by coal and then oil, lengthened life expectancies and sent the population soaring on a near vertical trajectory to 7.7 billion today.” Most people in our population recognize these advancements. Bakke continues with an outline of the main concerns of his CT article: “Unquestionably, for our forebears and for so many of us, oil indeed has been a gift of God. Why then, in the public square today are oil and other fossil fuels increasingly spoken of as the source of looming catastrophe, like an addictive substance from which we are anxious to wean ourselves?”

The 2019-20 presidential campaign in the US has triggered extreme attention for the candidates for solving the problems perceived to be looming ‘catastrophically’ over the human race. We do not minimize legitimate concerns about climate change but we decry unjustified unrealistic alarmist solutions such as making our energy use “carbon free.” It has become the cause célèbre of many activists.

In the same manner in which discovery, drilling, mining, and refining technologies have enabled scientists to utilize God-given resources and abilities, we may be confident that many new technologies will enable us to continue to use fossil fuel resources to drive world growth and prosperity. Above all, we need wisdom from the Creator of All Things, including the Creator of fossil fuels. 


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