Demonstrators against hydrofracking rally in front of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's New York City office, June 25, 2011.

The effects of hydraulic fracturing is a conversation governments, organizations and churches in mid-Atlantic states have been having recently as oil companies increasingly look to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale area, a shale field extending through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking” or “hydro-fracking,” is not a new practice, but it has garnered attention as of late as new drilling methods open up the Marcellus Shale to drilling and the environmental and health impacts of fracking become more widely known.

Oil companies believe a great amount of natural gas can be extracted from the Marcellus Shale formation. A report by Pennsylvania State University researchers titled “The Economic Impacts of the Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Play: An Update” states, “Fully developed, the Marcellus Shale has the potential to be the second largest natural gas field in the world.”

According to the report, this means “the natural gas found in the Marcellus could be equivalent to the energy content ?of 87 billion barrels of oil, enough to meet the demand of the entire world for nearly three years.”

The benefits to be gained from gas drilling include payments for property use and tax revenue. Supporters of gas drilling also believe domestic energy will reduce the country’s reliance on foreign oil and bring jobs to local communities. According to America’s Natural Gas Alliance, in New York the natural gas industry creates about 36,000 total jobs: 7,772 direct jobs, 7,929 indirect jobs and 20,946 jobs created by the expenditures of the natural gas industry, based on 2008 data.

The industry alliance reported $4.3 billion is earned in total labor income and $8.35 billion is created in value added economic output. According to the Penn State researchers, “The spending planned by Marcellus producers in 2011 could generate more than $10 billion in value added, nearly $1 billion in state and local tax revenues, and more than 100,000 jobs.” 

Hydraulic fracturing and the environment

Fracking involves drilling a well into the ground and injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals — called “fracturing fluids” — at a high pressure into the well to break up the rock below and release natural gas. It is also known as “horizontal drilling” since the drill moves horizontally once the shale formation is reached, creating a nonvertical well, which is then perforated with targeted electric currents to create small cracks in the shale that the fracturing fluids can break open. The fracturing releases the natural gas in the shale. 

The fracking process involves three to five million gallons of water per well, with water withdrawn from nearby streams and rivers. The used fluids must be properly disposed of to avoid contaminating surface water, and well casings must be adequately durable to prevent gas and chemicals from leaking into the water supply since all wells are drilled through the water table.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, sponsors of the Penn State research, report natural gas produced from the shale is a “clean-burning energy resource” and that Marcellus Shale gas producers “operate under rules and regulations established by state environmental agencies, covering every aspect of planning, drilling and completing a gas production well.” Some environmentalists even support natural gas use as it is considered to burn cleaner than oil or coal and will slow climate change in comparison.

Besides the unpleasant aesthetics that come from well drilling — heavy truck traffic to transport equipment and water and drilling equipment looming over otherwise serene fields, yards and farmland — the natural gas and the chemicals used in the fracturing fluid pose health risks should they enter the water supply during drilling or disposal. Wastewater left to evaporate in pools, a common disposal practice, contributes to air pollution, and ineffective pit liners lead to groundwater contamination.

A May 2008 USA Today article on the effects of gas drilling cites the small Wyoming town of Boulder, which has a population of 75 but ground-level ozone levels rivaling that of large cities because of its natural gas drilling. The carbon dioxide emitted from the trucks at the site contributes to the air pollution as well.

Despite a February New York Times exposé on the lack of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation and the numerous fracking violations by the oil companies, in July New York lifted its moratorium on fracking, stating the regulations established by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation were sufficient to ensure the health of state residents. Permits for natural gas drilling can now be obtained for private property owners in New York. Drilling in the Syracuse and New York City watersheds in state-owned lands is still prohibited.

This same New York Times article reports internal EPA documents indicate the effects of fracking on health and the environment are greater than previously documented. The EPA report revealed wastewater from fracking contained radioactivity levels higher than what sewage treatment plants treating the water are equipped to handle. This inadequately treated water has made it into rivers and streams used for drinking water.

The fear is that these unequipped treatment plants will continue to process radioactive fracking wastewater without regulation or help from government agencies.

An August 2010 report by the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association documented 1,435 violations from 2008 to 2010 by drillers in Pennsylvania based on EPA reports, 952 of which were judged as having the most potential for direct impact on the environment. Breaches include:

  • Violation of the Pennsylvania Clean Stream Law
  • Improper discharge of environmental waste
  • Improper construction of wastewater compound
  • Faulty pollution prevention practices
  • Improper erosion and sediment plans (the most common violation)

Because of these risks, the state of New Jersey currently bans hydrofracking.

United Methodists respond

United Methodist Women at Beach Lake United Methodist Church in Beach Lake, Pa., cosponsored an annual conference resolution encouraging dialogue on the issue of fracking. In partnership with the conference’s Eco-Justice Ministry Team and the Beach Lake United Methodist Church, United Methodist Women called on the conference to “be intentional in engaging . . . faith principles, respectfully and constructively, in conversations and decisions about hydraulic fracturing in their churches and communities.”

The conference adopted the resolution along with another urging lawmakers to put a hold on all new wells until wastewater treatment regulations were in place and calling for a tax on natural gas drilling to fund upgrades and improvements. Susquehanna Conference also voted to petition the denomination’s 2012 General Conference convening in Tampa, Fla., to take similar action to promote conversations and decisions about hydraulic fracturing based on the church’s faith principles.

“Insofar as we pay attention to the purpose of the United Methodist Church — to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world — following through with the resolution fulfills the ‘transformation of the world’ part of our reason for existing,” said the Rev. Mark Terwilliger, pastor of Beach Lake United Methodist Church. “Entering into dialogue is a way of inviting the community to consider the golden rule, the fracking version being, ‘Do to those downstream as you would have those upstream do to you.’” 

Marie Sullivan, a member of Beach Lake’s United Methodist Women, said her circle cosponsored the resolution because the human impact on the environment is a topic the church should discuss.

“I think of dialogue as a frank exchange and discussion of ideas while trying to reach a mutual understanding,” she said. “Hydrofracking is an issue that many people have strong opinions on, both positive and negative. What is very important is that as stewards of God’s world we have a responsibility to educate ourselves as to the facts of the matter, whatever they may be, and to use as a guide the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, which call for ‘a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.’”

Eastern Pennsylvania Conference and Western Pennsylvania Conference also adopted resolutions on natural gas drilling. Eastern Pennsylvania petitioned its bishop to send a letter to the state’s governor and leaders of the state legislature calling for a drilling tax. “[The tax would] position Pennsylvania to better protect our natural resources for future generations, help our local municipalities cope with economic losses due to drilling activity, and lessen the impacts of deep state bud get cuts in the coming year,” the conference petition stated.

Western Pennsylvania called for “A Reasonable Approach to Marcellus Shale Drilling.”

“We urge lawmakers to put a temporary hold on all new wells until there are regulations in place to properly treat the wastewater from the wells,” Western Pennsylvania’s resolution stated. “We also urge lawmakers to take the steps necessary to reinforce the roads and bridges being used on a daily basis by large trucks going in and out of drilling sites, so residents in the area may travel safely . . . . Funding for these upgrades and improvements need not come directly from the communities, but can be found by implementing a tax on the natural gas drilling, since other states which have been in this position have successfully implemented appropriate taxes to deal with natural gas drilling and its impact on the environment and infrastructure.”

The Upper New York Conference considered two fracking-related resolutions but, acting under time constraints, tabled the measures, delegating them to a conference leadership team.

“One resolution dealt more with educating ourselves as people of faith about hydrofracking and using the church as a place to come together in dialogue,” explained Anna Blinn Cole, Upper New York’s Methodist Federation for Social Action’s coordinator for ecological justice and author of the resolutions. “The other resolution dealt with the issue of increasing setbacks from surface water of natural gas wells. This arose out of concerns from those of our conference camps that rely on their lakes as a focal point of the natural environment and ministry.”

Ms. Blinn Cole is currently working on a study guide on fracking to resource local churches through their district offices.

Mr. Terwilliger said mobilization around the fracking issue aligns with the United Methodist Church’s history of faith and action.

“It is not the first time in history that the church has become involved with an issue around which people hold diverging opinions, even to the point of dividing the church,” Mr. Terwilliger said. “Often in the past Methodists have been drawn into the question of seeking financial gain where it has conflicted with biblical values. The debate over slavery comes to mind.”


Posted or updated: 10/31/2011 11:00:00 PM
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