Monday, June 27, 2011

Living Earth June 2011 Reflection

From the ELCA e-Advocacy Network's June issue of the Living Earth e-newsletter

"Fracking" Poses Challenges for Communities and our Energy Future
By Mary Minette
ELCA Director for Environmental Education and Advocacy

Due to concerns about air pollution and climate change, many view natural gas as a much cleaner source of electricity than dirtier fossil fuels like coal and oil. Some coal-fired power plants are already switching over to natural gas, and this trend is expected to continue. However, easily available sources of natural gas are dwindling, and many of the largest remaining untapped natural gas reserves are in hard-to-reach underground shale formations. A technique called hydraulic fracturing injects water mixed with sand and chemical fluids into wells drilled deep in the shale in order to force natural gas from the rock.

If you live in states like Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Texas, you've probably already heard of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" as it's often called. Each of those states sits on top of shale formations that contain significant reserves of natural gas. Drilling and fracking are happening at an accelerated rate as demand for natural gas continues to grow.

But in many communities with shale formations that show potential to produce natural gas, some are questioning the spread of fracking. They claim the demand for cleaner natural gas is making their communities dirty.

And they may be right: a recent study linked inadequate safety measures in the drilling process to groundwater pollution from methane. In addition, the fracking process uses large amounts of water (between one and nine million gallons per well) and the storage, disposal and recycling of the waste water, which can contain hazardous chemicals, may also threaten surface water supplies. Some states, including Texas, Wyoming and Arkansas, are now requiring that companies disclose the chemicals they are injecting into fracked wells. Other states, including Pennsylvania, do not have disclosure requirements, posing a risk to those who live nearby and to those who respond to emergencies when wells explode or accidental releases occur.

So what's the solution?

Our country needs energy. Natural gas is far cleaner than coal or oil, and shale formations potentially contain a substantial supply of gas that could give us the time we need to develop new, cleaner sources of energy such as wind and solar. Drilling and fracking are bringing revenue to rural landowners and jobs to struggling rural communities.

But the natural gas boom also comes with risks. In addition to the potential to pollute ground and surface water supplies, communities dealing with fracking see other risks and problems. They worry about the impact the "boom and bust" of drilling a non-renewable resource will have on the long-term health of their local economy. They see neighbors in conflict over fracking contracts and who got a better deal, or over whether to allow fracking in the first place. They are concerned about the strain that gas development and population growth is putting on community resources such as schools and social services and roads. And they worry about what comes next after the drilling is done, the wells are played out, the jobs and the money are gone and their communities are left to clean up their land and water.

Some questions to ponder
If we follow the advice of Paul in his letter to the Philippians and consider the interests of others before we consider our own, how do we answer the questions raised by fracking?

Does clean air outweigh clean water?

Are the energy needs of our country more important than the long-term health of rural communities in another state such as Pennsylvania?

Do we really have to choose between these things or can we find a way to make fracking safer for our communities and for the environment?

A prayer for the journey
Loving and compassionate Creator, you sent us your only Son to teach us to love our neighbors and to consider their needs. Help us to find our way through complexity to care for our neighbors and our world. Amen.

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