The Rev. Ball, retired Vice Adm. McGinn discuss faith's role in enviro policy

What role if any does religion play in environmental policy? Is energy conservation a moral or even a spiritual issue? Retired Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, a national security consultant, and the Rev. Jim Ball of the "What Would Jesus Drive?" advertising campaign join OnPoint to discuss faith-based environmental policy, energy efficiency and its effect on national security, and fuel-efficient technology.


Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. With us today is Reverend Jim Ball, the executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, and Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, retired Naval officer, and a current vice president at Battelle Strategic Planning. Also with us is David Leavitt, editor of Greenwire. Thanks for being here today. Admiral, I'd like to start with you. Can you explain why -- how you became so involved in the energy debate, and why it's so essential to national security that you're doing what you're doing?

Dennis McGinn: Even before leaving active duty, Colin, I was very aware of the tremendous amount of energy that this nation consumes, the fact that we didn't have the resources domestically to meet those needs, and also having deployed many times to the critical Persian Gulf region, I was quite aware of the dynamics of how we get our oil, from where we get it and how we get it. And it led me to do a little more research. I've worked with the Rocky Mountain Institute, and the CEO out there, Amory Lovins, and it was very, very clear that we were on a path, as a nation, that in which our consumption far outstripped any type of reasonable supply using the way that we've been going about supplying ourselves with energy for many, many years.

Colin Sullivan: Now, reverend, you've partnered with the admiral in this NRDC campaign called "Re-energize America." Can you talk about -- religion plays an important role in many different policy areas in Washington, D.C., but, traditionally, not a big part of environmental issues. Can you talk about why religion can play a role?

Jim Ball: Well, for myself, as an evangelical Christian, I've confessed that Christ is my Savior and my Lord, and that means that He's Lord of everything that I do, Lord of all the choices that I make. And so, for Christians, we need to be asking ourselves how do our energy choices -- how do the choices in terms of how we get around in life, our transportation choices -- how are those under the Lordship of Christ, and what are those choices doing in terms of the wider society, in terms of folks out there who are vulnerable to the impacts of pollution and to the impacts of global warming that's being created by our energy choices. So, for us, it's having to do with being good stewards of the resources that God gave us; but also understanding what are the impacts of the pollution that's coming about because of those choices.

David Leavitt: Reverend, I'll jump in here. Some religious leaders who usually support President Bush have sort of come out against his stance on climate change. Do you oppose the president's energy plan?

Jim Ball: Well, I am not an expert on the energy legislation that's before the House right now. But the little I know about it is that it seems like the vast majority of the money is going to the oil and coal industry. These are mature industries that are some of the most profitable industries on the planet. So I have to be asking myself, why do our tax dollars have to be going to support mature, profitable industries? Why aren't those tax dollars going to renewable technologies, helping renewables to get a foothold in the marketplace, and then let's let market dynamics take over after that.

David Leavitt: Right, now the reason I asked that is because often a lot of these initiatives have sort of broad activism, but they don't take a stance on a specific issue. For instance, McCain-Lieberman climate change bill or something like that. Now, is there a strategy of where you would take a position on a very specific bill maybe pending in front of Congress?

Jim Ball: Yeah, my organization is primarily an educational organization. We don't, as a normal practice, endorse bills; but we have worked with Senator Lieberman's office to strengthen the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, to have it become stronger in the area of caring for the poor. That is one of our primary concerns in terms of how does our -- how do our energy choices impact the most vulnerable members of society, whether it's mercury's impact on the unborn, or whether it's global warming's impact on the poor around the world. And so we've worked with Senator Lieberman's folks to strengthen that bill in terms of how it cares for the -- if the bill is enacted, how would some of its provisions -- how would they disproportionately impact low-income communities, for example.

David Leavitt: OK.

Jim Ball: And we've said, "Hey, we want -- we don't want that to happen while you're trying to help reduce the impacts of global warming on the poor in terms of reducing the pollution that's coming out of our tailpipes and our smokestacks."

David Leavitt: OK. As the majority of evangelicals are Republican, I think Bush-Cheney got 80 percent of the vote in the last election. How do you reach out to Republicans on these issues?

Jim Ball: Well, we're reaching out to ourselves, right? As you just pointed out, and so we as evangelicals, for those of us who are really starting to come aware of what is energy all about in terms of our society, how do the choices we make impact folks in terms of pollution, in terms of our dependence on foreign oil and our national security, in terms of the human health impacts on children and the unborn. So we're just now starting to reach out to our community to help them better understand, hey, these issues are issues that you actually have been concerned about for years. You just haven't understood it that way. And once our folks start to become engaged, then they're going to be reaching out to those folks in their pews that run a lot of these industry organizations, and they're going to start dialoging, and we're going to move this issue forward.

Colin Sullivan: Admiral, if I can have you jump in here. I mean you also come from a background that's traditionally pro-Republican, aligned with the Republican Party. How can you use your position as a retired Naval officer to influence the White House, and have you had direct contact with the White House?

Dennis McGinn: I haven't had direct contact with the White House, but let me just maybe adjust the perception a little bit. The military is apolitical. I know that military is usually associated with the Republican Party, principally because there tends to be a certain amount of conservatism by the people who go about fighting the nation's wars. But it's a very apolitical organization, and taking a position, particularly while you're in uniform, just isn't the right thing to do. It wasn't what the founding fathers had in mind. My contact, if you will, with the White House was I was a signatory to a letter that was sent to the president a couple of weeks ago by the Energy Future Coalition. This is a broad-based, across the political spectrum type of group that have come together for a common cause to make sure that people realize, from the president to our elected officials in Congress and in the states, and, in particular, the American people realize that continued dependence on oil, in general, and foreign oil, in particular, constitutes a clear and present danger to our national security, economically, militarily, and, really, diplomatically, as well, as we continue to sit on about between 2 and 3 percent of the known oil reserves in the world yet consume 25 percent of the oil consumption each year.

Colin Sullivan: Well, how do we change that dynamic? If Saudi Arabia, which it has most of the reserve capacity in the world when it comes to oil, I mean what are the alternatives? What are you talking about? You're talking about hybrid technology? You're talking about hydrogen technology, stuff like that. But the reality is, as these things aren't coming online as fast as you'd like to see them coming online --

Dennis McGinn: Right.

Colin Sullivan: So for the short term, how do you change in terms of international security? We're stuck with the Saudis, aren't we?

Dennis McGinn: I think certainly for the near to midterm, and I think we can't suddenly change our energy consumption practices overnight. But we can start right away, today. Technologies exist. Policies can be brought into the fore that do two things: that promote energy efficiency and, secondly, promote the discovery and the maturing and the deployment of renewable energy, things that are not petroleum-based products. We need to place more emphasis, for example, away from the hydrocarbons and into the carbohydrates, specifically cellulosic ethanol is a good source for transportation fuel, for example. And the key thing to remember is that we need to ask ourselves at every policy decision, whether it's in the private sector or whether it's in government, up to and including this energy bill that's on the Hill, does this increase our energy efficiency? Do we get more bang, more value out of a given unit of energy, whether it's a barrel of oil, a gallon at the pump, or a kilowatt hour in our home or business. Do we get more effectiveness from that by using it efficiently? And then, secondly, do we have to continue to simply rely on oil? I mean at what point will we decide, as a nation, we don't need to use oil anymore?

Colin Sullivan: OK, reverend, I'd like to bring you back in. I was looking at the NRDC Web site before the show. Your campaign is called "Re-energize America." From my perspective, it seems like some of the goals are pretty general, pretty vague. There's not a lot of specifics. And isn't it true that this is a -- I mean energy problem/energy demand/energy supply, isn't it a self-correcting problem in a sense? I mean you're going to have to wait until we have $5.00 a gallon gasoline before people are gonna finally say, "OK, I don't want to drive my Lincoln Navigator anymore." I mean how can you -- I mean how can you change that tone at this point other than just going out and trying to educate people? I mean what -- how can you get real results?

Jim Ball: Yeah, well, you know, without the corporate average fuel economy standards in this country, we'd be way behind in terms of our fuel efficiency. There needs to be a little bit of a government prod sometimes. I wish the marketplace could take care of the whole thing all the time, but it's the role of government to establish goals that meet public interest, principal -- what we need to do in terms of the public interest. And so if the marketplace can take care of all that by itself, great. Hands off. But there are times when we need to have government set the standards, set where the goal where we need to be, and then let's find a way to do it the most efficient way. Let's use cap and trade, use other types of market-based mechanisms. But sometimes we need a little bit of prod from the government, and to get industry moving in the right direction.

David Leavitt: Now your group wants a road tour to promote this "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign, and this is what you were talking about with fuel efficiency. What was the goal of that, and can we expect to see other campaigns in the future?

Jim Ball: Well, the goal of the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign was to help people understand a very basic thing -- that transportation is a moral issue. That all of our energy choices, including our transportation choices, are moral choices because of some of the things we've already talked about. The impacts on human health, especially the impacts on children and the unborn. Asthma is rampant in the country, and a study a couple of years ago showed that, not only does it -- is that -- does the air pollution exacerbate the problem for the kids, but actually is starting to cause asthma in healthy kids -- air pollution. So, you know, we're trying to help folks understand our choices that we make have consequences in terms of pollution and impacts on the vulnerable.

David Leavitt: Right now it seemed like the campaign was a pretty good success. You were able to get high-level meetings at the White House and Detroit automakers. But if your goal is something more vague like educating people on an issue, how can you measure something like that?

Jim Ball: Well, it is something where it's a little, sometimes a little intangible in the near term, but in terms of -- lots of folks that I've encountered in our tour and on our travels, they start to understand, "Hey, these are moral issues." But they have to make those connections. We have to help them make those connections, because when people turn on their light switches, they don't think that they're turning on a coal-burning power plant. And over 50 percent of the country is doing that. So we have to help them understand, no, you know, it's not just -- most people think it's nuclear and hydro. You know, they think that's how we're powering the nation. And once we help them understand, no, it's, you know, it's coal-burning power plants, and that stuff is causing, you know, problems in terms of particulate matter that gets into your kids' lungs and ozone or smog, and that these things are causing serious health problems, then folks think -- start to say, "Gosh, is there a better way for us to do that?" Is there a way that we can talk about, you know, biofuels and biomass, and how can we start growing our energy and giving the farm economy a big boost.

Colin Sullivan: Admiral, if we could talk about your strategy a little bit. I'm sort of wondering, I mean the House energy bill is on the floor this week.

Dennis McGinn: Sure.

Colin Sullivan: Are you meeting with members this week? Are you going up to the Hill, and what's your strategy?

Dennis McGinn: I personally am not, but there are members of the NRDC that are, and I think there has been for a number of weeks and months, a campaign to educate the legislators on some of these issues. I would say if there were a general thrust of this education, it would be simply to look at every tax credit, every incentive of behavior in the broad energy sector and ask yourself this question: Does it increase or decrease our energy efficiency? Does it increase or decrease the ability of the American people to have choices related to renewable energy, as well as the carbon-based energy, as well?

Colin Sullivan: And how open are you finding people traditionally in the defense and intelligence communities? We had Jim Woolsey on the show a few weeks ago, and he's also out there campaigning for energy security issues.

Dennis McGinn: Exactly.

Colin Sullivan: I mean how receptive are people that are traditionally not thinking about energy?

Dennis McGinn: Very receptive. I think that it's clear that the environment of $50-plus a barrel of oil, $2-plus a gallon of gas at the pump, increasing home and business utility bills are getting people's attention. And there's a tremendous cost associated with that, not only the direct cost to the consumer or to the American economy in whole, but there's a tremendous opportunity cost. If you're spending that much money to fill up your SUV, what could you be doing with that money besides just getting a form of transportation to get back and forth from home to work? So there is very, very great growing realization, and I think an honest willingness to take a look at this whole problem in a better way, to go to the point where Jim mentioned earlier, where you understand that it isn't simply a local action of turning on a light switch or filling up your car or truck at the gas pump. There's a -- that comes from someplace. That energy source, whether it's liquid gas or coal-burning electricity, it comes from someplace; and there are consequences of that choice.

Colin Sullivan: Now you were also involved in -- you were in charge of troop operations during your tenure in the Navy.

Dennis McGinn: Right.

Colin Sullivan: Seems to me -- I don't have any statistics -- but the Armed Services are probably one of the biggest consumers of transportation fuel, especially.

Dennis McGinn: Absolutely.

Colin Sullivan: What are the Armed Services doing to address energy efficiency?

Dennis McGinn: Well, let me give you one example, Colin. In September of 2004, just this past September, the Rocky Mountain Institute published a book called Winning the Oil End Game, which laid out a very, very good market-based strategy without too much involvement from the government in getting our energy efficiency up and our dependence on oil down. That study was funded about -- at the 50 percent level by the Department of Defense because of their interest in finding out better ways to use oil. One of the things that is ongoing now is a hydrogen fuel cell powered, auxiliary power unit for a Bradley fighting vehicle that the Department of Defense is working with the original contractor on that. There's increasing use of green building standards. In fact, if you look at it, the Department of Defense is probably one of the leading departments in deploying green building standards in any type of new construction or a renovation of a building. So there is that growing awareness. And I'll make the point also that, for the Department of Defense, fuel economy, fuel efficiency, energy efficiency, isn't just a way to save money. It is better tactically if you can reduce your dependence on those long lines of supply for fuel trucks, for even helicopters flying in fuel to a battle area, by 10 percent, 15 percent at the forward edge of the battle, it has tremendously positive compounding effects going all the way back to the source of that energy.

David Leavitt: Right, and, of course, money is one of the things that will get people's attention. I'm going to change subjects for a minute. Reverend, Tom DeLay, the majority leader, has been accused of promising a Kansas energy company a seat at the table at the energy bill negotiations. And, given the apparently ethical breach, have religious leaders been too quiet on this issue?

Jim Ball: I think religious leaders just haven't fully understood the issue yet, and I would say leaders in the evangelical community, in particular, are just now getting educated about our energy policies, as well as the impacts of those policies, like the problem of global warming. So we definitely need to have our voice out there more. But, at the same time, we want to make sure that it is our voice, not, you know, the voice of other groups, and that we just kind of take on their voice. We need to make sure that we understand the issue, and that we understand it from our own point of view in terms of our faith, and that then we go out and we articulate it. I started off the show by saying, "I'm here basically because Christ is my Savior and my Lord." And we need to know how we -- how do we tie that into this issue and understand it from that point of view and then be able to come into the public square, public arena, and talk about these issues from an evangelical perspective, not from some other perspective.

Colin Sullivan: Now, we're almost out of time. I'm sort of wondering. You're one of the architects of the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign. What car do you drive?

Jim Ball: Well --

Colin Sullivan: Hybrid?

Jim Ball: Well, what we said to folks is that -- see, the question "What Would Jesus Do?" that's what we took off on, right?

Colin Sullivan: Right.

Jim Ball: And Christians know that that really means, "Jesus, what You have me do?" Because we're followers of His, and so what would He do in this situation? So what would You have me drive, Jesus? And so what we say to folks is that, "Hey, you should choose the most fuel efficient, least polluting vehicle that truly meets your needs." So that we don't say to folks one size fits all. Myself, I don't have any children. I'm married. So we have one car. It meets our needs. It's a Prius. It's a hybrid electric vehicle, and we live close to public transportation, so that, when I come to work, I walk or use public transportation to come to work.

Colin Sullivan: I know I'm kind of tempted to ask you what kind of car you drive.

Dennis McGinn: I drive a Volvo, and I'm looking at a whole variety of hybrids. But my next car will definitely be a hybrid, and I hope that the technology comes along so that it can be a plug-in hybrid that also uses duel fuel, so that you can literally get upwards of hundreds of miles per gallon of gasoline. The other hundreds of miles comes from ethanol, for example, or from the electrical grid. One thing that really, I guess concerns me is taking a future look at this country. Imagine in the future, 15, 20, 25 years, and the people that come along then, looking back at this time in our history, and saying, "What were they thinking of? They had the technology. They knew what the problem was. It wasn't advanced math. It was pretty straightforward, and why didn't they act?" Or, in the alternative, which I am working very hard along with many colleagues like Jim to make happen, is to say, "We made the right decision. We, as a nation, recognized a problem that was brewing early enough to do something about it, and not simply have to react to some terrible national event, militarily or economically, in order to be a cause for action."

Colin Sullivan: OK, we're out of time. Admiral McGinn, Reverend Ball, thanks for being on the show. Hope you come back. Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then, I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.

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