Balancing risks, rewards of hydraulic fracturing

CORNING, N.Y. — To frack or not to frack? That’s the question faced by U.S. communities all across the United States, such as New York’s Steuben County, where thousands call the lush beauty of the Finger Lakes region their home. But deep beneath the rolling farmland and scenic freshwater lakes, loved by tourists and natives alike, lie shale deposits rich in natural gas that could alleviate the area’s economic woes. 

Hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking,” is the key process in an energy boom happening across the United States. According to the American Petroleum Institute, 1 million fracking wells have helped produce 7 billion barrels of oil and 600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. 

For cash-strapped U.S. communities like Steuben County, fracking looks like an answer for the 11 percent of the population out of work. Just across the border in Pennsylvania, fracking for natural gas created an estimated 72,000 jobs between the fourth quarter of 2009 and the first quarter of 2011, according to the state’s labor department. And fracking for oil in the Bakken Shale fuels North Dakota’s economic boom, dropping the state’s overall unemployment rate to 3.2 percent. 

But the promise of fracking also entails risks to communities and local environments, a situation calling for Catholics to apply the Church’s social teaching on the dignity of work, care for the poor and care for the environment. 

“The framework we have to use is certainly the principle of Catholic social teaching: respect for the life and dignity of the person,” said Kathy Dubel, a justice-and-peace coordinator with the Diocese of Rochester’s Catholic Charities social ministry office in New York’s Southern Tier. “Next is how will this affect the poor and the vulnerable? How do we embark on this procedure? What happens to the community? What happens when some benefit, and others do not?”

How fracking occurs

Fracking extracts oil and natural gas from layers of shale thousands of feet below the surface. Oil and gas companies construct wells by drilling pipes that descend vertically a mile or more, and then turn horizontally into the shale area. Each well is then “fracked” by injecting under high pressure a cocktail fluid made of 99.5 percent water and sand, and 0.5 percent chemicals. This creates cracks or “fractures” in the shale, releasing the gas or oil for extraction. 

Bishop Monforton

Building the wells requires heavy-duty construction that can last almost a month at each site. The fracking process uses at least 4 million gallons of water, mixed with at least 20,000 gallons of chemicals designed to keep pipes clear of bacteria and mineral deposits. Once fracking is over, the well is sealed and connected to pipelines that transport gas or oil to suppliers. 

Shale gas and oil deposits are all over the United States, although the largest reserve of shale gas is the Marcellus Shale stretching along the Appalachians from Tennessee into New York. 

However, fracking poses potential challenges to health and safety, and state regulators are tackling concerns over the potential damage to aquifers and drinking water.  

Regulators and the Environmental Protection Agency have ongoing investigations, but so far have not found direct contamination of groundwater from fracking fluids injected deep underground. However, contamination has been reported from well blowouts and poorly cemented pipe linings, as well as spills from transporting fracking fluid or removing wastewater to storage and treatment sites.

Catholic principles at play

In Pennsylvania and Ohio, where fracking for natural gas is heavily under way, the Catholic bishops are beginning to add their voices. 

“Our responsibility is to care for the ecology of the earth,” said Bishop Jeffrey Monforton, whose Steubenville, Ohio, diocese lies in the midst of Ohio’s fracking boom. “In any participation by the Diocese of Steubenville in the leasing of land for natural gas or oil exploration, care for the ecology of the earth is a benchmark concern.” 

Monforton said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued guiding principles in 1981 outlining “the moral dimensions of energy policy” that hold true today. This includes upholding the right to life, taking appropriate responsibility for the welfare of creation, striving for a more just society, giving special attention to the poor, and involving the community in the decision-making process. 

Father Ron Lengwin, a spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said that while the diocese is waiting for the results of studies on health, safety and environment before staking out a position on fracking, it is drawing from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”). 

“That’s where we are looking to for a lot of our guidance,” he said. 

In the encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI called the environment “God’s gift to everyone” that entailed a responsibility “towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole” (No. 48). The pope stated that the environment can be used “responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation” (ibid). 

The New York State Catholic Conference has perhaps the most comprehensive modern analysis of fracking and Church teaching. Without taking a pro or con position in public comments provided to the state, the NYCC recommended officials take strict measures to protect sources of drinking water, ban the most dangerous chemicals in frack fluids, and mandate that oil and gas companies absorb the costs related to wastewater treatment, damaged infrastructure and emergency responses, such as spill clean-up.

Societal concerns

The oil and natural gas industry has made strides to solve the risks of pollution from fracking. Bloomberg news reports the industry has developed new techniques to reduce air pollution by using solar panels, and new fracking fluids, such as Halliburton’s Cleanstim, which replaces chemical additives with fruit and vegetable enzymes. General Electric has invented a new on-site wastewater cleanup process with a portable boiler called the Mobile Evaporator, which can clean wastewater at 50 gallons per minute. 

However, Chris Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, said the fracking boom poses other challenges that go beyond technology’s ability to solve. 

“We have a lot of good going on here,” Dodson said. “But we also have an increase in crime, we have roads that are terrible, we have probably incidents of human trafficking going on.” 

The Diocese of Rochester’s Dubel added that the poor and low-income residents also can face pressure from higher rent rates paid by temporary workers. She said the state ultimately should respect the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, and allow communities to look at the potential impact on their economies and then hold a referendum or a vote on whether to frack or not to frack. 

“We need to evaluate the risks in light of the common good,” Dubel said. “It’s always good for people to see objectively the pros and cons. They need to know how certain activities will affect them and how to spread the benefits fairly across their community.” 

Peter Jesserer Smith writes from New York.