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On climate, the pope is showing moral leadership. The Texas Railroad Commission, not so much.

On climate, the pope is showing moral leadership. The Texas Railroad Commission, not so much.

As the risk of unusually strong hurricanes this fall follows the exhaustion of strong heat waves this summer, signs of the climate crisis are all around us. Families trying to keep their homes and children safe have two visions of the future to choose from.

One vision can be found in the document that Pope Francis published today on caring for all those who share the planet. Another is promoted by Texas’s Railroad Commission, which oversees the state’s fossil fuel industry. It says that oil and gas are “literally the hope for the free world.”

The leadership of the Catholic Church should inspire the Railroad Commission to do better.

The pope’s new document is part of the long tradition of Catholic teaching on taking care of “our common home.” Stretching back to St. John Paul II, these teachings demonstrate that protecting the planet is not a fad, but rather integral to the Catholic faith. The pope is writing this new document now because he sees “an urgency to solve” the environmental challenges that threaten lives and livelihoods.

The Catholic faithful have been translating these teachings into action. In practical guidance, the Vatican has already urged Catholics to seek “affordable and efficient energy systems based on renewable energy sources.” In Texas, the Archdiocese of Houston-Galveston has secured 100% renewable electricity for its 140 parishes and all Archdiocesan buildings, and the Archdiocese of Dallas offsets 50% of its electricity emissions.

The Railroad Commission could learn from the Church’s leadership. The Commission is one of the most powerful bodies in the state. Instead of working with railroads, as the name suggests, it regulates oil, gas, surface mining, and alternative fuels like propane.

The Commission exercises tremendous authority over how the state’s fossil fuel industry is run. It has been unwilling to help the industry embrace the reality of renewable energy.

Rather than leading a transition that protects Texas families that work in fossil fuels, the Railroad Commission is spending its time trying to put the renewable energy genie back in the bottle. Rather than address the glaring insufficiencies of its own planning, it is blaming others for its shortcomings.

As the body that supervised the energy that powered the 20th century, the Commission could play a key role in the transition to new energy sources that will take us through this century. Renewable energy already makes up about 25% of the electrical grid in Texas, and renewables are projected to replace natural gas within the next few decades. This is a market trend driven by innovation and lower prices. It is very likely to continue.

Rather than deny progress, the Commission could ensure that the hard-working families in the oil and gas industry receive paid job training to prepare for high-paying jobs in the future.

That would be a moral position that the Catholic Church could support. In 2021, Catholic bishops made a point of noting that a transition to zero emissions should be a “just transition so that working families who rely on the energy sector are not left behind.”

The Commission may believe that it is acting in the best interest of Texas families. With nearly 350,000 Texans working in oil and gas, their livelihoods are a real concern. But the bigger picture is that all Texans face the risk of extreme heat and the consequences of storms and droughts exacerbated by climate change. The winter storm of 2021, likely made worse by climate change, killed 246 people. It’s no wonder that Texas Physicians for Social Responsibility call climate change a “slow-moving catastrophe for the health of Texans.”

The pope is joining with all those who believe that lives are more valuable than money. A more ethical approach is urgently needed to protect families from the tragic human consequences of a planet in crisis. As people of faith, we pray that the Railroad Commission will find its moral footing.

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