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Oxford diocese takes wrong turning on fossil fuels

12 December 2014


From the Revd Michael Roberts

Sir, - Well! Oxford diocese is the first to vote for divestment, right under the nose of the Shell Geoscience Laboratory in my old Earth Sciences Department (News, 5 December). That caused a ripple when it was formed last year, with a designated Shell professor. Ironically, the vote for divestment coincided with the fall of oil prices, disarray in OPEC, and confusion in the oil market - all of which may or may not be game-changing for oil.

The call for divestment, however, seems to be more ideological than ethical, theological, or practical, as it seems more like a vote against sin rather than dealing with it. Every one of us will be using fossil fuels, either directly or indirectly, for the rest of this century. The important issue is, rather, how the whole world can move to cleaner energy production, not token divestment, which will marginalise the protesters. Thus green voices will be ignored.

Like any industry, fossil-fuel companies need ethical challenging both from outside and within, and investors should take firms to task when necessary. In both of these areas, Churches have an important part to play, as we are seeing with Archbishop Welby and foodbanks, provided the arguments presented are well thought out and grounded in theology and the real world, and not from a knee-jerk ideology.

Much of the divestment movement is not well thought out, and is marred by serious errors. Whether we like it or not, the whole world is dependent on fossil fuels, and they cannot be dispensed with in a few years or a few decades. The progress to cleaner energy can be either catastrophic or gradual. The two threats are doing nothing and accelerating climate change, or forcing the removal of fossil fuels, which will either be rebuffed, so that "fossil abusers" get the upper hand, or break down a society dependent on fossil fuels, creating hunger and fuel poverty on a massive scale. It seems that divestors have not considered any alternatives or ways of transition to cleaner energy.

This is not surprising, as one cleaner energy is demonised and rejected: shale gas. Operation Noah, the driving force of divestment in our churches, has fallen into this trap. It fails to consider alternatives, and is seriously inaccurate on shale gas, as can be seen in its report Bright Now, and in the writings of several of its patrons and board. One such document has been described by a professor of petrophysics as "perhaps the most erroneous document on shale gas I have ever seen". I found that comment embarrassing, but irrefutable.

It does raise questions of competence and bias, but it is common among those who oppose shale gas and repeat the common anti-fracking memes. There is little awareness that fossil fuels vary in their dirtiness, and that coal is by far the worst; or that least worst is sometimes the best. False claims that fracked gas is worse than coal do not make for a sensible dialogue.

Far better would it be for churches, and the Church of England, to consider all options rather than appeal for divestment. They also need to get their facts right. If not, the C of E will become a stranded resource.

35 Worcester Avenue
Garstang PR3 1FJ

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