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This Month's Scripture Verse:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
2 Timothy 3:1-5


Friday, March 7, 2014

What The Frack Is Going On

In a Christianity Today article, Fracking Isn't A Four-Letter Word, Chris Horst wants to correct the image of fracking which has been sullied by films like Gasland and Promise Land. These films have both disturbed the American public and made some associated with fracking apprehensive in admitting their connections to the oil industry. Since Horst has friends in the industry and has admiration for past Christians who have had ties to this industry, he wrote this article to persuade Christians to rethink their previously conceived notions and consider supporting fracking.

In defending fracking, Horst gives a few reasons why the benefits of the practice outweigh the costs. These benefits revolve around economics and nationalism. But such is not the concern of this blog because in giving a Christian defense of this practice, we should first determine the morality of the practice both in principle and its current implementations. The reason for the distinction here is that if an energy company is doing something right in the wrong way, then correction involves changing how the energy company does its work. However, if the practice itself is in question, then tweaking how fracking is implemented becomes moot. In that case, Christians must challenge the practice of fracking itself.

While Horst spends most of his time itemizing the benefits of fracking, he provides little to no information regarding the problems of fracking. The quote below consists of the attention he paid to the problems with fracking
Experts debate whether fracking can lead to earthquakes, though scientists at the United States Geological Survey said there is no connection. Some suggest fracking contaminates drinking water, though critics acknowledge their fears are due to suspicions, not hard evidence. The Department of Energy study released recently found no evidence that fracking contaminates groundwater. We need to weigh these potential risks against fracking's alternatives. Despite the risks, I believe the case for fracking is stronger than the case against it. As Jeffrey Greenberg, geology professor at Wheaton College, said, "Do it and do it carefully if all reasonable and pertinent variables are considered honestly. Fracking isn't perfectly safe, like living itself. It is still a good option under the right circumstances."

The earthquake risk aside, Horst's comment regarding the contamination of drinking water as being the sole source of pollution is rather disingenuous. Why? First, the article he links links here mentions the fracking chemicals as being the only contaminant that could harm our water . Second, contaminated water is listed as the only resource that is polluted. And third, pollution is not the only environmental hazard associated with fracking. 

Before addressing the first reason mentioned above, we should note that the claim that fracking has never contaminated groundwater is false. We can determine this by a relatively pro-fracking article in Popular Mechanics (click here). We should also include the recent explosion in Pennsylvania of a Chevron well (click here and there). What we should note is that such pollution has occurred through accidents. And though accidents are suppose to be aberrant to the practice of fracking itself, that they have occurred provides an indicator of the future and what we can expect if fracking continues on its present course.

Mark Schrope, writing for Environment Yale, lists several ways by which ground water can be contaminated by accident-free fracking (click here). It is possible that cracks made by fracking can connect with already existing cracks above the fracking to provide passageways for both the chemicals and methane gas to migrate upwards toward our water supplies. Here we should note that the article Horst had cited made the claim solely about pollution from fracking chemicals. The article stated that it was still not determined whether the higher methane levels in water around drilling sites were due to fracking. But back to the chemicals, the article mentioned something that Horst did not. Quoting a Duke scientist, the article stated that one could not rule out the leakage of chemicals into groundwater from one case as Horst did. 

But regardless of the above hypothesis, what is known is that improper installation of a well can cause a leakage of the chemicals used or methane and this can contaminate our water. Also, the transporting and handling of fluids either used in or are produced by fracking can spill into the ground water. There have been accidents like this transporting oil including tar sands oil. And considering the amount of liquid used during each instance of fracking, which will be covered later, the risk becomes significant.

But drilling is not the only time where contamination of ground water can occur according to Schrope. As time goes on and the concrete casings and pipes deteriorate, fluids and methane can leak upwards and can even cause a geyser as what happened in a Pennsylvania well. Considering that Pennsylvania has over 100,000 abandoned oil and gas wells, this does not bode well for adding more. We might ask at what point is it no longer feasible for energy companies to guarantee that they can monitor and maintain obsolete wells in order to prevent future leaks.

Schrope reports on a Duke University study that found higher levels of methane in New York and Pennsylvania water wells that are near fracking operations. And in some cases, the chemical makeup of the methane indicated that the methane was from deeper levels of shale rather than from shallower levels. All of this almost more than indicates that Horst's description of water supplies being contaminated by fracking as being merely "suspicious" as being grossly understated.

We should note that ground water is not the only target of pollution in fracking. There is the air pollution that comes with the normal practice of fracking. Because of the amount of water and chemicals need for each incidence of fracking, up to 2,000 tanker trucks might be used and this will be needed up to 20 times per well according to Joe Hoffman (click here).  With the fracking operation and leaking of methane gas, a number of pollutants are either released in the air in quantities that would normally not be released. Hoffman cites an Associated Press report in stating that the air pollution near drilling sites in Wyoming can produce worse ozone levels than in Los Angeles at its worse and much higher than what is deemed healthy by the EPA (click here). 

In addition, Hoffman cites another report predicting that Montana will see a 310% increase in Nitrogen Oxide (click here). In addition, Hoffman cites a report from the National Institute For Occupational Safety that stated that the sites it collected information for showed that the amount of crystalline silica, a kind of sand which can cause the incurable lung disease, silicosis, in the air was greater than what health standards permit (click here).  

There is also a problem with polluted soil. Hoffman cites an Associated Press report telling about the vast increase in chemically polluted soil, which was a result from drilling, over a 10 year period (click here). Air pollution is then increased from the trucking needed to dispose of contaminated soil.

In addition, the amount of water needed to conduct a frack can, according to the context of the location from which water is drawn, cause additional problems. Hoffman reports that each well can require up to 8 million gallons of water let alone the water needed to produce 40,000 gallons of chemicals. Certainly, some areas can afford to produce this water but it has become a source of concern in those areas that are suffering from drought (click here). 

So what is the point here? The point is that Horst spends so much time, space, and energy in focusing on the advantages and benefits of fracking that his article in Christianity Today has almost become dishonest concerning the tradeoffs and what is required in the future if we are to continue with fracking today.

Schrope quotes Duke University environmental scientist Robert Jackson's concern of not whether fracking can be done safely, but whether it will be done safely. If we look at the track record of our energy producers, such a question is what Horst should be asking here. The corruption that preceded and the lack of resolution that followed BP's oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, the problems with transporting and using tar sands oil, the host of environmental and health related problems that come with mountain top removal to mine coal all point to a disturbing trend that extracting energy resources is not being done conscientiously in enough cases. Consider the number of oil drilling spills, over 1,000, that occurred in 2011 alone and this did not include the number of unreported illegal dumping of pollutants. (click here). Also consider some of the legal loopholes given to energy producing companies.

Towards the end of Chris Horst's Christianity Today article on fracking, he writes:
Christians have a rich history in the oil and gas industry, and Howard Pew is perhaps the most prominent Christian to work in it. The Pew family founded Sun Oil—today known as Sunoco, a Fortune 100 company. Compelled by their Christian faith, the Pew Family became a major force in supporting the abolition of slavery and advancement of Christianity.

The above should be trusted because since the days of Constantine, Christianity has often aligned itself with those who have wealth and power. And this is especially true with many of today's American Conservative Christians. They major in emphasizing personal holiness and the need to repent from individual sins, but they seem to have skipped most, if not all, classes that lectured on social sins and corporate responsibility. Horst's one-sided persuasive article does the same here. The downside that he scantily refers to in the abstract is lost when he tells us to consider the benefits of fracking. And if he does that with the general public in articles the this one in Christianity Today the what is his message to the workers and residents who must live with the negative consequences of fracking and other means of extracting energy resources?

So the question we must raise with Horst and others like him is not necessarily whether we should support fracking. The question is, should demand that our government holds energy companies accountable for the means by which they extract energy resources? And perhaps we should step back from supporting fracking until we get an answer.

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