Today, critics of the petroleum industry want us to believe that current events in the Gulf of Mexico are the natural consequences of following such advice.
What they forget is that drilling for oil—on land or off shore—has been a reality for many decades, and it has occurred more often than not without incident.
In addition, our cars are fueled by, our lives are festooned with conveniences made from, and abundant technologies exist because of our ability to locate, extract and use reservoirs of this fossilized organic goo that lurks underground throughout the globe. All of this provides jobs for millions of middle class mothers and fathers. Most importantly, increased domestic petroleum use is good not just for our nation’s security, but for the lives of soldiers yet to be born.
Even with full-scale use of alternative energies and maximized energy conservation, we would still need petroleum pumping through the arteries of our infrastructure. And so the question isn’t “should we drill?” Rather, it’s “how do we drill best—and where?”
Here we benefit from the Holy Father’s wisdom in his last letter to the Church, Caritas in Veritate:
“The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole ... In nature, the believer recognizes the wonderful result of God’s creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation. If this vision is lost, we end up either considering nature an untouchable taboo or, on the contrary, abusing it. Neither attitude is consonant with the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God’s creation.” (48)
Catholic ecologists seek a balance between the needs of nature and the needs of man. But we recognize that in our fallen world these needs are often at odds. We lost our harmony with nature when we assaulted that forbidden tree in Eden. It will now be up to the Triune God to restore relations to their proper natural order. Until then, it’s up to us to proceed with life cautiously—but proceed we must.
Yes, the effects of this catastrophe are beyond words. It will take decades—many of them—before ecosystems and economies return to normal, if, indeed, they can. But a series of human decisions preceded this fiasco. Blame is shared with both an oil company that, it seems, didn’t heed safety, maintenance and contingency planning, as well as the federal government—both this administration and ones prior—that didn’t regulate rig owners with requirements to, at the very least, have some idea of what to do when an oil rig collapses, leaving a gushing stub stuck in Earth’s crust.
This is not to say human governance can prevent all tragedies—large or small, natural or man-made. That would be a denial of our fallen human nature. But acknowledging our fallen nature doesn’t mean we resign ourselves to corporate idiocy and sloppy government. We can do much better than the charade unfolding along the Gulf Coast.
This gets back to what the Holy Father has been trying to tell us. Nature is a set of systems and resources that has its own innate dignity while at the same time is available for our proper use. How we use the gifts of Creation is up to us. That we can use these gifts with care for the benefit of all should be self-evident. That we can not always do so perfectly is a tenet of our faith. That we have taken our imperfection to absurd depths in the Gulf of Mexico—and have thus irreparably damaged the lives of many people, creatures and eco-systems—is criminal.
But let us not cower before this man-made disaster. Because for the foreseeable future we will need petroleum. It is there for the taking and the taking can be done with enough care and planning to avoid a man-made disaster as incredible and prolonged as this one. Or, to put it another way, “Drill wisely, baby. Drill wisely.”
William Patenaude is an engineer specializing in environmental regulation and a graduate student of theology at Providence College. He is a parishioner of Sts. Rose and Clement Church in Warwick.