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Coverage of energy that moves beyond polarized arguments and emotional debate to explore the points of tension, the tradeoffs and opportunities, and the very human consequences of energy policy, production, use and innovation.Inside Energy is a collaboration of seven public media outlets in the nation's energy epicenter: Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Reconciling Faith And Fossil Fuels In Wyoming Coal Country

Dan Boyce
Inside Energy
Congregants of Cheyenne, Wyo.'s Cathedral of St. Mary sing during Sunday Mass, June 21, 2015.

The walls of Donna Zofcin's humble Cheyenne, Wyoming, home are an homage to coal with framed watercolor prints of mining equipment. Living in the country's biggest coal state, it's a theme that runs throughout her life – even after her Kentucky coal mining husband passed away. So too, does her Catholic faith.

"Oh, we're very devout," Zofcin said of her and her family, "and we go to church every Sunday."

Pope Francis' recent encyclical on the environment has been both the biggest papal statement ever on the subject and a call for action on climate change. But for the faithful in western coal country, he is raising moral questions.

Back in June, Paul Etienne, the bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming, delivered a special homily at Zofcin's church. The homily focused on the Pope's headline grabbing encyclical. A challenging and bold teaching, Etienne said, which outlines humanity's responsibility to be good stewards of the Earth.

The document acknowledged the scientific consensus of man-made climate change and called for aggressively addressing its core causes -- primarily the use of fossil fuels. Etienne said the document may be disturbing for many people in his state, and that he is getting questions from his congregation.

"Is the pope saying that it's sinful to burn these fuels? And I would say no," Etienne said. "It's not sinful, but he's saying this is not sustainable."

That balance is a tough line to walk in states like Wyoming, where coal is the economic backbone. So, a lot of people in Zofcin's church end up sounding like Paul Phillips. He works for a heavy equipment company, and a good portion of their business is in the coal fields.

"I'll speak out of both sides of my mouth," he said "I think yes, on one side, we need to look aggressively at alternatives [to coal]. But, on the other side of my mouth, I think that's going to be a long time coming."

In the meantime, he believes these resources are a gift from God, to be used as cleanly as possible.

Conservative Catholic politicians' stances on the encyclical have ranged largely from avoiding comment, to accusing the pope of inappropriately wading into American politics. In fact, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona), a Catholic himself, has announced he will boycott the pope's congressional address due to the encyclical.

The church is no stranger to taking stands on controversial issues and Pope Francis is actually not the first pontiff to bring up human-caused climate change. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI urged action to limit its effects.

The popularity of Francis and the special theological weight given to encyclicals is bringing the church to the forefront of this discussion in a way it hasn't been in the past, said Jenny Kraska with the Colorado Catholic Conference, a state lobbying organization that works on behalf of the church. Kraska expects her organization will now pay more attention to environmental legislation.

And for the conservative Catholic politicians who deny climate change?

"I don't know if it puts them in a difficult moral quandary," Kraska said. "I think it gives them something to think about."

For other Catholics, like Donna Zofcin in Cheyenne, she is indeed left with difficult moral questions. Zofcin agrees with the pope that humanity needs to take better care of the Earth, to help the most vulnerable. Yet, she herself is vulnerable. The coal company has been paying her a pension and paying for her health insurance ever since her husband died. So, her opinion on fossil fuels doesn't waver.

"You have to see the way people live and how they live and what coal means to them before you can say, 'well we need to do away with it,'" Zofcin said.

As much as she loves the pope, she said he has his opinion on the matter and she has hers.

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.
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