The Common Good
March 2011

Meet the Frackers

by Tyler Edgar | March 2011

A technique for natural gas drilling threatens drinking water and the environment.

Imagine you're a Colorado rancher. Times are tough; one day, a company approaches you about leasing a piece of your land, far from your house, for natural gas drilling. The company offers you fair compensation, royalties for any gas recovered, and many assurances that the impact on your land will be minimal. You agree to sign.

This scene, which has replayed many times in the last 15 years all over the country, is becoming more and more common. In some cases, it works out fine. In others, things go drastically wrong.

Hydraulic fracturing -- also known as "fracking" -- is a way of extracting natural gas locked in rock formations up to 10,000 feet below the surface. Companies drill down, and then horizontally, sometimes reaching pockets more than a mile away from the initial site. Then millions of gallons of fracking fluid -- a mix of water, sand, and chemicals -- is forced into the ground, literally fracturing the rock to release natural gas.

Fracking has some benefits: lease payments to landowners, a domestic form of energy, and the fact that natural gas, when burned, emits less greenhouse gas than coal. But is it safe? Drilling companies maintain that fracking takes place too far below groundwater supplies to pose a threat to drinking water. However, in communities around the country where fracking is taking place, nearby drinking water wells have been contaminated with toxic chemicals that may be present in fracking fluid, and with dangerous levels of methane (a highly flammable component of natural gas that can bubble through aquifers).

Drilling companies have largely refused to disclose what they are pumping into the ground -- and the 2005 federal energy bill exempts fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act's normal regulation of injection wells. However, many proprietary fracking fluid mixes contain chemicals, such as hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol, that are harmful to human health and the environment.

This is only the beginning. Fracking is on the rise as the technology enables deeper drilling, and as natural gas companies have begun to explore the Marcellus Shale gas field, which spreads through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. For the communities that live on top of the field, an energy boom -- and boon -- has come to town. But, for the populous areas that depend on these regions for drinking water, water safety has become a hot topic; for example, many are concerned that much of New York state's fracking is happening in and around the watershed that supplies New York City.

Fracking is currently taking place in more than 30 states around the country, making this an issue that churches, families, and communities will need to deal with. Rather than handing over our communities, God's earth and water, and the health of our children to a short-term energy boom, we should -- at a bare minimum -- seek the use of non-toxic fracking fluids. Looking to the long term, we must recognize that natural gas is both a greenhouse-effect-causing fossil fuel and a finite resource; we must shift to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

As people of faith, it is our responsibility to make decisions that reflect biblical teachings. The psalmist tells us, "In God's hand are the depths of the earth [and] the heights of the mountains"; the Earth is the Lord's, not ours. We are called to be stewards of it, to love our neighbor -- and to seek justice for the vulnerable, both those who are here now and those yet to come.

Tyler Edgar is the associate director and Climate and Energy Campaign manager for the National Council of Churches' Eco-Justice Program.

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