Reliable, relatively inexpensive electricity allows almost everyone in Southeastern Pennsylvania to retreat from summertime heat to the comfort of air conditioned cars, homes and workplaces. This availability is driven by cheap energy. But recent events force a reexamination of the true price of the energy we use.

The first of the most recent examples is the catastrophic oil spill resulting from the wrecked Deep Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to the 11 men killed in the explosion in April, thousands of fishing families and oil industry workers are adversely affected by the massive despoliation of gulf waters – and untold effects on wildlife likely extending for years. {{more}}

Perhaps forgotten in our own region is the collapse of a coal mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners in April. Safety in the mines has improved over the decades but it remains hazardous for workers and residents in coal mining states.

In Pennsylvania concerns are rising for people living in areas beneath which natural gas is being extracted. The main concern is for local drinking water supplies because the extraction process involves fracturing shale rock and using water and chemicals to force the gas to the surface, where it is recovered.

In each instance, consumers pay for the natural resources that are extracted, refined and delivered for our use. But do we examine the human costs of energy use?

Catholic teaching holds that humanity ought to use the goods of the earth responsibly and in service of everyone, ultimately for the glory of God. Further, Church teaching affirms the economic partnership between owners of capital and workers who produce goods, each ideally striving for mutual benefit and the common good of the community.

When workers in energy industries and the residents living near them suffer, it is time to weigh the economic benefits against the costs in human life and health. Since oil, coal and gas will continue to be used extensively for the near future, at least two objectives ought to dominate public policy in the near term. First, enforce federal, state and local environmental and safety regulations through more than sternly worded letters, but by on-site visits by competent officials. Second, tighten loopholes in regulations that may allow abuses. This is an area in which lawmakers from all parties should find agreement.

Catholic teaching helps to inform the decisions that energy companies, governments and consumers make to use natural resources wisely. As Americans ponder the true costs of cheap energy, the United States Catholic Bishops’ 1996 statement on economic life remains prophetic: “Economic choices and institutions must be judged by how they protect or undermine the life and dignity of the human person, support the family and serve the common good.”