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"Fracking: Injecting Ethics Into the Process" - By Robert Gronski

The question of hydraulic fracturing -- or “fracking” -- has come before the public and even reached people of faith. Church leaders typically avoid stating a position either supporting or opposing a particular technological process, but they have begun to raise moral questions about who is bearing the risks in localities where fracking takes place.

In January 2012, the New York State Catholic Conference submitted public comments to their state’s high-volume fracturing of the Marcellus Shale and other gas reservoirs. On behalf of the Catholic bishops of New York State, the Conference offered comments not to approve or disapprove of fracking, but to rely on Catholic Social Teaching to help guide in establishing a fair, just and prudent process of this kind of resource extraction within their state.

The ethical points they raised began with the ability of the public to review regulations regarding fracking. Such public review requires transparency of the entire technological process, including the identification of chemicals mixed with the water. Next is the concern about socio-economic costs, both immediate and long term, so that the public isn’t sold on short-term gains without awareness of long-term risks and problems. This begins with who pays for wastewater reservoirs and the whole range of environmental impacts? Following that, who then pays for any adverse consequences when these come to light, not only to the environment but to human health and any dislocation of families and communities?

What is Fracking?

Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, a method to recover oil and gas from shale rock. Oil companies drill deep into the earth and, using great pressure, inject millions of gallons of water mixed with brine or chemicals into oil and gas-rich shale rock. The resulting pressure fractures the rock layers and releases natural gas or oil. Sand is also injected into the fractures to “prop” or keep the fissures open and allow the oil or gas to flow.

Fracking is controversial because the chemical-infused water may find its way into fresh water aquifers. Oil companies assure area residents that fracking and its wastewater are safe and pose no threat to drinking water. Many public interest and environmental groups want companies to issue full disclosure about individual fracking operations and the chemicals used during the process, but companies counter that they already abide by environmental laws and regulations.

What Can Go Wrong?

1. Blowout: Pressurized fluid and gas can explode out the wellhead.

2. Air Pollution: Exhaust from trucks, methane burnoff and wastewater evaporation can foul the air near a drill site.

3. Wastewater Overflow: Chemicals used in the fracking fluid are sometimes stored in open pits that can overflow during rain, leach out, and emit noxious fumes.

4. Home Explosions: Displaced methane can collect in homes and lead to explosions.

5. Gas Leak: Methane can travel through cracks in the cement around the well and enter the water table.

6. Other Leaks: Some worry site-specific geology could allow fracking fluid to flow up into higher strata and contaminate the water table.

While these questions are posed along the lines of a cost-benefit analysis, the overall concern of the New York State Catholic Conference opens the door to a wider ethical discussion of fracking. Whereas promoters of this technology hail the relatively cheaper energy source this provides to the public at large, there are adverse impacts to local areas and families.

Dioceses in Ohio sponsor forum on fracking

Last summer, the dioceses of Cleveland and Youngstown co-sponsored a forum about this controversial practice, and more than 100 concerned Catholics attended. Invited speakers from industry and academia highlighted both the promises, such as abundance of natural gas, creation of jobs, and revenue for leasing private property, and the perils of fracking: heavy equipment on rural roads, high-volume water use, injection of toxic chemicals, and potential contamination of ground water supplies.

Dr. Jame Schaefer, associate professor of theology at Marquette University, provided an ethical framework to help attendees discern how they might judge the issues using Catholic social justice principles. She specifically identified stewardship of creation, rights and responsibilities of individuals and groups, solidarity, and the common good. She also highlighted the virtue of prudence.

The Catholic Conference of Ohio subsequently issued a statement acknowledging that fracking can be an important asset to Ohio's economy and job development, but it needs to be done safely and fairly. In that vein, they clearly urged a cautious and prudent approach to hydraulic fracturing:

“We encourage strong regulatory oversight, continued research and dialogue, and appropriate public transparency. Such is needed to ensure that environmental damage does not occur and ground and surface water sources are not contaminated.
“In light of recent earthquake concerns, prudence would dictate that all measures should be taken to monitor injection wells and shut down any that may pose a threat to the safety of communities.
“In addition, future hydraulic fracturing should only proceed with strong assurances that disposal of resulting waste waters can be done without causing environmental damages.”

Farm and food concerns

Farm and food groups are also expressing deep concern about the fracking process and risks to water supplies. They know that any contamination will eventually reach farm animals and the food supply.

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association has been tracking reports from rural communities where oil and gas companies have signed leases with landowners in parts of Ohio containing Marcellus, Utica, and Devonian shale formations. Although many have welcomed fracking as an opportunity for economic growth, others point to evidence that suggests this new drilling technology could contaminate the air, water, and soil and have impacts on public health and the food supply.

Because of their primary reliance on land and clean water, farmers are among those most at risk to suffer from the negative impacts of fracking. As the fracking industry grows in farm states like Ohio, these concerns are likely to mount.

So, blessing or curse?

Rev. Peter Sawtell, Executive Director of Eco-Justice Ministries, argues that there needs to be much more in-depth debate about fracking, and much more stringent controls. “Local communities need to have more voice about what happens inside their town,” he strongly urges.

If fracking is to continue, then we need far better systems to store, clean and reuse fracking water. Sawtell does not call for an outright ban, but he is clear that a more cautionary approach is needed. “The polar choice between blessing and curse is far too simplistic, because there are some aspects of each. The very large and very real dangers of fracking, though, must be addressed more quickly and clearly than we see in current policies.”

Hopefully, most will agree we must not lose sight of the real goal in energy development: transition to renewable energy. That requires steadfast will among politicians and the public for a more comprehensive, long-term energy policy beyond fracking.

References & Links

New York Catholic Conference (Our News > Testimony > DEC hydrofracking proposal)

Ohio Catholic Conference (Issues > Environmental Justice > Hydraulic Fracturing)

Bill Paternaude: Catholic Ecology blogspot

Challenges that four Ohio farmers are facing

Spewing Forth guest blog by Christiana Peppard, Ph.D., Asst. Professor of Theology & Science, Fordham University:

Rev. Peter Sawtell, Executive Director, Eco-Justice Ministries: “Fracking Ethics 101”


This article first appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Catholic Rural Life, "Life-Giving Water: Sustaining Creation and Communities."

Attached File: FrackingArticle.Spring2013.CRL.pdf


Senior Representative Brother David Andrews, CSC | Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Thanks for this fine article, the title is great and the information too often lacking in Catholic reporting. Your graphs are helpful and your supportive articles are helpful.Thaniks

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