“What’s Up?” “Look Down!”


Wells and roads built to support fracking in Wyoming’s Jonah gas field have caused extensive habitat fragmentation.
(Photo: Peter Aengst via SkyTruth/EcoFlight)

This above photo does not reflect the daily petroleum commercials that we’ve been subjected to several times daily on TV stations throughout our region. (http://www.ispot.tv/ad/77De/american-petroleum-institute-natural-gas-look-down)   Hopefully we know that, in “looking down,” our vision is definitely “obstructed” by a shaley/ murky mix of wonderments, worries, and an obvious infraction of care for creation and our natural environment. For a few years now, I’ve actively listened to the multiplicity of pros and cons around fracking, pipelines, and compression stations. I’ve reflected on the topic of shale gas development in Pennsylvania and throughout the world.  The “looking down” got much more complex in meetings with gas companies, shareholders, politicians, and activists but that was nothing compared to visiting local communities that have been affected by fracking sites, compressions stations, and miles and miles of pipelines. Residential communities and countryside residents are happy, confused, angry, and, for the most part, baffled because of mixed messages. My observation is that the industrialization of our landscape is evolving more rapidly than general public awareness and education.

In the Philadelphia region, commercials similar to the one listed above provide the only exposure some people have to the extensive gas development in many parts of the state and nation. Yes, there has been an economic boost to some local communities and a substantial stimulus to the job market through supply chain industries, housing, restaurants, etc. However, there is also definite evidence of social/environmental injustice and ecological degradation. The oil and gas industry as a whole has failed to measure up to best management practices and is very reluctant to disclose information that would benefit local communities and health departments. In essence major oil and gas companies have side-stepped their own human rights policies and are not standing by the call of the UN Guiding Principles to “Protect, Respect and Remedy.” (http://www.business-humanrights.org/SpecialRepPortal/Home/Protect-Respect-Remedy-Framework)  The “horse was out of the barn” in Pennsylvania before the state made attempts to regulate the industry and we fear that the state will continue to lack sufficiently trained regulators. With massive expansion of wells, pipelines, and other industrial complexes, we can expect more job opportunities but also more mishaps, conflicts, negative health impacts, and ecological problems.

Although hydraulic fracking for natural gas was not in vogue in 1990, Pope John Paul II reminded the world that “the ecological crisis is a moral one…The most profound and serious indication of the moral implications underlying the ecological problem is the lack of respect for life evident in many patterns of environmental pollution. Often the interests of production prevail over concern for the dignity of workers while economic interests take priority over the good of individuals and even entire peoples. In these cases, pollution or environmental destruction is the result of an unnatural and reductionist vision … On another level, delicate ecological balances are upset by the uncontrolled destruction of animal and plant life or by a reckless exploitation of natural resources. It should be pointed out that all of this, even if carried out in the name of progress and well- being, is ultimately to mankind’s disadvantage.” (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/messages/peace/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_19891208_xxiii-world-day-for-peace_en.html)

I live in a state that has relied on resource extraction since the first well was dug in Titusville in 1859. Today the oil and gas industry uses hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to extract greater volumes of gas. As of August 2013, 6,900 gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania alone and it is predicted that eventually that number will reach 100,000. In addition, 82,000 wells have been drilled across mainland the U.S. mainland.  The Environment America Research and Policy Center issued a report in October 2013 that contains some sobering information.

  • Toxic Wastewater Produced in 2012 – 280 billion gallons
  • Water Used since 2005 250 – billion gallons
  • Chemicals Used since 2005 – 2 billion gallons
  • Air Pollution in One Year – 450,000 tons
  • Global Warming Pollution since 2005 – 100 million metric tons (CO equivalent)
  • Land Directly Damaged since 2005 – 360,000 acres

Fracking produces enormous volumes of toxic wastewater, often containing cancer-causing and even radioactive material. Once brought to the surface, this toxic waste poses hazards for drinking water, air quality, and public safety.(http://www.environmentamerica.org/sites/environment/files/reports/EA_FrackingNumbers_scrn.pdf)

Don’t you wonder what has happened to all the toxic wastewater that has been produced in Pennsylvania for the last 10 years? Some of that briny mix was used to prevent ice build-up on many roadways this winter. What do we know about the remnants left on the grass and on the streets? What about the effects on young children who play in these areas?

Another recent study by http://truth-out.org/news/item/22407-contaminated-water-supplies-health-concerns-accumulate-with-fracking-boom-in-pennsylvania validates what some individuals and communities have feared. A significant number of homes and farms have been exposed to elevated levels of barium, strontium, chloride, and other groundwater contaminants. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has developed a comprehensive waste management system for the industry, with zero tolerance for liquid discharge into waterways. That does not guarantee, however, that there won’t be spills, accidents, and careless wastewater disposal. I ask myself these questions.

For four years shareholders, environmental scientists, and environmental activists have been working with companies to address the serious and unknown consequences resulting from shale gas development. In 2011 members of the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN) and Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) produced an excellent document called “Extracting the Facts.”http://iehn.org/documents/frackguidance.pdf  It was distributed widely to companies in the industry and has been used by many as a guide to best practices. IEHN and ICCR members have dialogued extensively with several gas companies related to Key Performance Indicators. We’ve filed shareholder resolutions that address key areas such as community engagement, water use, wastewater disposal, chemical use, and air emissions. Some companies are a little more transparent and provide tidbits of data such as grievance mechanisms and hot lines but there is little-measured disclosure and quantitative data related to the twelve indicators prescribed in the document. Many gas companies have been reluctant to go beyond the well-scripted aspirations on websites and references to fracfocus.org which still indicates that some chemicals are proprietary.

Economic development today does not lead to good health and a sustainable environment for tomorrow if we don’t have data indicating that all aspects of shale gas development are being monitored and measured including the impacts on communities and health. Are we willing to continue to permit the industry to deforest our land and establish industrial parks all over the countryside (photo above) knowing that shale gas development is altering climate, air temperature, soil moisture, microorganisms, plant life, stream chemistry, watershed sustainability, hydrology, animal habits, human habits, and whole communities?  It appears that the CEO of ExxonMobil has a little conflict here. He has taken issue with a water tower being built near his mansion and horse ranch. It could supply water for fracking and devalue his property.  http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/02/21/3316881/exxon-ceo-protests-fracking/

All citizens, governments, and the oil/gas industry need to reflect deeply on the momentous effects and cumulative consequences of shale gas development on human health, communities, and the environment. Signs indicate that it is having a profound impact on our changing environment and our natural world. Have we come to the point where we are depleting our natural resources so rapidly that we are causing  unsettling turbulences such as droughts, floods, fires, storms, earthquakes, rising sea levels, ozone depletion, and climate change? Earth is telling us that it is under much stress and it is calling us as St. Francis of Assisi called us to “love and respect” all creation. St. Francis may have been a nature mystic but his challenge to love creation for itself is our challenge today. We can meet this challenge by being in solidarity and relationship with Earth and pursuing justice that is accordance with the Gospel and our ICCR/Franciscan values.

Carpe Diem!

Sr. Nora Nash, OSF

Read a previous article on hydraulic fracturing and the Marcellus Shale!