Now Say 10 Hail Mary’s for Going to Work

A few weeks ago, I read a Twitter post announcing that my undergrad alma mater, a Catholic university in the mid-west, had decided it would divest all fossil-fuel related investments from its endowment management.
I found this to be incredibly annoying.
I have made a good portion of my career in public relations and writing focused on the environment and companies/industries with environmental complications. I’ve worked in government, activism and the private sector. Therefore, I am aware that this divestment trend swirling around institutions of higher learning is a campaign by extreme environmental groups attempting to hit companies and industries they don’t like in their pocketbooks. It’s not based on sound investment strategy, and in some aspects, its not based on realistic science. It’s based on activism.
Protecting the environment is an important endeavor. My husband and I strive to live more simply, recycle, reuse, compost, cut back on energy use, and practice good stewardship of our small farm. The country certainly needs to find a fuel and energy strategies that work better for everyone. I understand the goal of divestment is to make carbon fuels less attractive, but completely removing fossils from university endowment investing is short-sighted, especially in a Catholic atmosphere. Here’s why:
First, fossils are the least expensive form of energy available right now. The less-fortunate among us are better able to afford heating/cooling/ home energy with the use of coal and natural gas. As Catholics, caring for the poor should be a major concern when it comes to energy. Forcing more expensive fuels furthers the struggle many face to pay for all of their basic needs.
Second, fossil fuels are not only about energy. Fossils are used to make many of the products that keep us safe, healthy and extend our life expectancy. Petroleum products and derivatives are used in plastics and chemicals, particularly in the health care industry for items used during surgery and life saving procedures. Medicines, safety products, anti-bacterial items and countless other everyday necessities are made from or with petroleum and natural gas. Fossils actually do save lives.
Third, over 9 million Americans have found good-paying jobs in the oil and gas field. Engineers, geologists, laborers, skilled machine operators, accountants, attorneys, technology experts, construction workers and many others are paid generously with strong benefits by so-called greedy energy companies. They purchases homes, vehicles, etc and in the last few years have driven the economy in many places in our country, allowing them to avoid the worst of the recession. And those numbers don’t include all of the contracted workers who support the industry: people like heavy equipment rental firms, truck drivers, paving companies, tree removal specialists, environmental consultants, ad firms, caterers, security guards, reporters, court document experts and so on.
Lastly, when it comes down to reviewing the research and documenting claims, it’s been clearly shown that many of the cases put forth against industry are exaggerated or in some famous instances, just simply untrue. Some, particularly in contract law and land management, have brought real questions that must be solved and industry does indeed have accidents. But the majority of complaints boil down to people scaring others with scientifically unsubstantiated claims – ie, the idea that liquid will rise over 2 miles from the ground through numerous geological barriers when we need mechanical force to release gas from the same formation, or plain old “big oil” stories. In my parochial school, that’s what we called lying. That was sinful.
I’m concerned that we’re wondering into a world where we’re about to start petitioning the Vatican to declare things we don’t like to be sinful. Fossil fuels cause true challenges, but they also offer benefits. Like anything else, there is action and reaction. But the people who use them (uh, all of us) or work with them are not evil. Our consumer society drives us all to buy well beyond what we could ever need. But I don’t see anyone declaring it “wrong” to go to a shopping mall or to buy more shoes than you need. Or telling a heart patient it’s “sinful” to use the emergency room at a hospital that performs abortions. I’ve never heard a priest tell a teenager to go confession for trashing a plastic bottle instead of recycling it.
The people who work on fossil fuels, particularly those drilling for natural gas are mostly good-hearted people who love working in the outdoors. Most I’ve met are overly generous with charity because of the good salaries they receive. I know the amount my family gives in the church collection has increased since my husband started working for an energy company. Whole companies and drilling teams compete to give the most in contests sometimes. In Pennsylvania, one company built, equipped and staffed an entire hospital for a town that had none. They aren’t “bad.”
Fossil fuels are challenging, yes. But divesting those investments cheats your endowment of the biggest returns. In an economy like ours, where few industries are thriving, why sabotage your returns by rejecting an industry that offers regular gains doing things we all require be done? Is that something that’s ok with donors? It might not be. It won’t be ok with future students in search of financial aid.
My alma mater, so proud of doing this, is silly. In my time there, it turned out a lot of engineers. I’m sure it still does. I can imagine there are numerous alumni working in oil and gas or energy fields with some undesirable fuel source. By doing this divestment, the university is telling all of those alums that the work they do to keep our lights, heat and air conditioning on is “sinful.”
Protecting God’s Earth is noble, and it’s always useful to find cleaner, healthier ways to do things. But Gods people, their families, their needs and well-being are also important. Engaging fossil fuels to keep the world running and people working until they’re not needed – which will be quite sometime from now – is not sinful. It’s necessary.
I won’t be “investing” in my alma mater any longer. I don’t like being judged by environmentalists instead of God. I bet others don’t either.

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