Unnatural Gas: The spiritual implications of fracking

The word greater is a tricky one. We frequently hear the phrase, “for the greater glory of God,” for example. As the de facto motto of the Society of Jesus, the expression appears across Jesuit institutions in the United States. I grew up around the Jesuits at Saint Louis University, went to Jesuit schools and am now a Jesuit brother. I try to find God in all things and strive for the greater glory of God.

There are plenty of things that work for the glory of God in the world. But greater is sneaky. It forces me to go deeper in my faith, to break past the surface. Building a world of justice—the kingdom of God—demands a radical depth. The quick answers and easy solutions may reach some glory, but usually not that “greater” one.

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Fracking in Our Future?

In New York State the issue of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a a sensitive one. Fracking is a method of drilling for natural gas. Supporters of the process favor natural gas as the clean energy of the future, a “bridge energy” to renewable solar and wind power. City buses tout natural gas on traveling billboards, and television commercials sing the benefits of the resource’s clean burning and low emissions. The very name even has natural in it! I was an early believer. But how do we go about retrieving this resource? That involves going a little deeper as well.

Fracking demands the use of millions of gallons of water, blasting sand and a scary cocktail of lead, benzenes, volatile organic compounds and other chemicals—many of which remain publicly unidentified because they are considered industry secrets. Companies drill down thousands of feet, below the water table. There the drilling continues in a horizontal direction, and the high-pressure injections of water, sand and solvents fractures rock and releases pockets of natural gas. The gas then rises to the surface along with about half of the chemicals and water that had been sent down. The recovered material must be carefully retained and restored. It sometimes is not.

Fracking advocates praise the new industry as an opportunity for job creation and energy independence. Television commercials supporting fracking promise new jobs, environmental sensitivity and a bright future. But fact-checks by Food and Water Watch, an organization with which I am a volunteer, reveal a far bleaker story of long-term minimal job growth and the potential for massive environmental degradation.

North Dakota is undergoing a fracking boom that is drawing thousands of workers and displacing current residents. National Geographic reports that “thousands of people are converging on the area, looking for work, looking for redemption, looking for trouble.” All this leaves me wondering—is hydraulic fracturing leading toward the greater glory? Is it contributing to building God’s kingdom or just a temporary, earthly one?

I find the beauty of the kingdom in nature. I discerned my vocation while hiking the Missouri River bluffs. My best family memories come from state and national parks. Heaven must be spectacular if it is more beautiful than the mysterious American mountains, plentiful lakes and bountiful plains I hold so dear. I can imagine few things uglier than roaring tanker trucks and gas burn-off spewing chemical pollution and soot in the Catskills the way the semis do that currently crowd North Dakota’s landscape. We would be fracking the Promised Land.

Unnatural Gas

Amid the promises of jobs, environmental stewardship and economic growth, I have to ask, “Is this truly for the greater glory of God?” Given the non-industry-funded studies I have seen, the answer is absolutely not.

The gas-burning required and encouraged by fracking contributes to climate change. A study in Nature reported that up to 9 percent of the methane produced in the Uinta Basin drilling fields in eastern Utah was lost through leakage into the atmosphere. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that “pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2.” With an international water crisis looming, the waste of water required by fracking is disturbing, and the many possible health impacts of the industry are disconcerting. We cannot afford to take the route of hydraulic fracturing.

After a decade-long expansion of fracking, we have already begun to see direct and indirect effects across the country, both on the environment and on people. Chemical and gas spills haunt the land, endangering the very livelihood of farmers and ranchers. On some rural properties, residents and their livestock must drink water brought in by tanker trucks because fracking has contaminated the ground water.

We cannot afford to lose the farms, the ranches or the water. We cannot afford the burning of more fossil fuels. Where does this leave us then? How do we search out the greater glory? How do we build the kingdom?

I do not have all of those answers. I look toward a clean energy future of solar and wind power and know it will take real commitment and dedication. Other countries have begun making this commitment. In the United States, we have found excuses to lag behind, to develop “transition fuels” and exhaust every last drop of oil before we open up to other forms of energy. The greater glory demands that we put effort, research and sacrifice into clean energy.

These big changes can be somewhat scary and daunting; they can be difficult. But they are also necessary, good and just. I refuse to give a broken world to the next generation, a world in which we might one day hold up a photo of a beautiful dairy farm knowing the land it once rested upon is now littered with rusting rigs. I will not frack the Promised Land. I will fight for the greater glory of God.

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Robert Klahn
4 years 3 months ago
Amen!
Robert Klahn
4 years 3 months ago
BTW, when all your competitors are using the same technology to do the same thing, how does that begin to qualify as "industrial secrets"?
Tim O'Leary
4 years 3 months ago
Even the reliably environmentally sensitive Church of England has come out in favor of fracking. They liken opponents of fracking to scaremongers about the MMR vaccine (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10248468/Fracking-protesters-like-MMR-scaremongers-says-Church-of-England.html) and they believe the economic benefits will help the poor. From what I have read on fracking, it seems to deliver a fantastic economic benefit, a net environmental benefit, and better prospects for global peace (with less US reliance on Arab oil). As regards the economy, many blue collar jobs are already being created in fracking regions and people should be able to heat their homes with cheaper natural gas. The US should be able to reduce its reliance on foreign oil and on coal-burning electric generators. On the environment, 1) natural gas is better than coal or oil, 2) the evidence for water contamination is very weak and can be monitored, and 3) horizontal drilling should result in less topsoil displacement.
Tim O'Leary
4 years 3 months ago
One more point. According to the NYT's Joe Nocera, the Environmental Defense Fund supports fracking and focuses on making sure it is done in the most environmentallly sound way. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/28/opinion/nocera-how-to-frack-responsibly.html
Ken Homan
4 years 3 months ago
Thanks for you comments and concerns, Tim. You bring up some good points that I think are worth addressing. I'll comment on them numerically as you did. First, though, I'm going to quickly point out that the Environmental Defense Fund has been called to task by several other environmental agencies for accepting large donations by the carbon fuel industry. One could definitely say, "Well don't lots of groups accept money from wind and solar companies?" To that I reply that they do, and so I question them as well. I particularly like Food and Water Watch, however, because they do not accept corporate donations so to remain as strong and unpolluted a voice as possible. Much of their work has pointed out the dangers of fracking. They have some excellent fact sheets, found here http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/water/fracking/. As to jobs/economy, many of them follow a boom and bust cycle that is harmful to wider economies. All people have the right to work, but I contend that we can create better blue collar jobs with less adverse health effects. As to geopolitics, water is the most vital resource on the plan and rapidly increasing in scarcity. Water shortages will have a high chance of starting resource wars, so it's probably best if we do not waste it when there are other options. To your environmental questions: 1)Natural gas may sometimes be better than coal and gas, yes, but my question in this piece is about the greater glory of God, not just the OK glory of God. I dream of a world where we use very little of any carbon fuel. 2) Check out the fact sheets I posted earlier--water contamination is widespread. Places we don't hear about it are sometimes due to gag orders (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/aug/05/children-ban-talking-about-fracking). 3) Gas drilling likely causes less topsoil displacement than coal. I won't debate that. But those drilling pads for gas aren't tiny and have a much larger footprint than other possible energy sources. Thanks for your great questions and concerns. I hope I responded in a helpful and polite manner! Sincerely, Br. Ken
Tim O'Leary
4 years 3 months ago
Br. Ken – You bring up the potential impact of money on biasing one’s judgment on fracking. I agree, but I also note that there are many other sources of bias that need to be considered, including philosophical or ideological ones. So, any organization that has long opposed the use of fossil fuels, or the free market in general, is unlikely to suddenly warm to fracking, no matter what the data say. But, when thinking of the Greater Glory of God, one should be especially wary of the views of organizations that have a disordered (non-Christian) view of humanity, seeing humans as one more animal species, with a temporal destiny (rather than an eternal destiny), as evidenced by their positions on, say, population control, contraception, abortion, China’s one-child policy, etc. I think it is best to read across the spectrum, including the industry sites, to see what their arguments and philosophical biases are. I went through your links as well as the pro-industry site (energyfromshale.org), and the EPA site, including a progress report on a major study they are conducting on fracking (http://www2.epa.gov/hfstudy) that should provide a lot of data for this discussion. They will be looking at the chemicals used, the impact of leaks on the water supply, etc. As a practical matter, no source of energy is free of negative effects, and the practical result of banning fracking or pipelines will be more dependency on coal (esp. in China), and certainly longer US reliance of foreign oil. The deficit will not be taken up by nuclear power plants (75% energy in France) or windmills or solar energy any time soon. It reminds me of the European absolutist aversion to genetically modified crops, which was unsupported by the science but hurt African nations economically. On a minor note (pun intended), there is no “gag order” on the Hallowich children (See Aug 7 report: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/local/washington/hallowich-children-not-part-of-gag-order-698343/) Finally, I was a little surprised that the Foodandwaterwatch site was opposed to desalination, which would seem to offer a permanent solution to global water supply, particularly for desert areas, if powered by photo energy. But that is probably an argument for another time.
Stanley Kopacz
4 years 3 months ago
The center of frackland, PA is only 1.5 hours drive to the north. When my present period of diy home improvement is over, I plan to pay a visit. I'm sure there are ways to do fracking that are nearly safe. But energy corporations only care about profit and doing things right cuts into the profit margin. I cannot see well integrity tests coming up negative and the company holding back from starting the fracking process. And it's not just what happens conveniently underground, but the fresh water that's used and the large pools above ground. This is a complex, messy process performed by profit-ueber-alles entities under the supervision of corporate controlled governments. As for the pipeline, it has nothing to do with energy independence. Parts of the US are already using tar sands oil. But the pipeline will allow for export with global competition driving up the prices for the American consumer. One must always remember. There is no patriotism in modern corporations. It's all about their profits.

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