Sunday, January 24, 2010

Franciscan Sisters Focus on Hydraulic Fracturing

from Franciscan Life
Sr. Nora Nash, Director
Office of Corporate Social Responsibilty
Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia

In the children’s book, The Arm of The Starfish, Madeline L’Engle wrote: “If we are going to care about the fall of the swallow, then we cannot pick and choose among the birds. We must stand for all of them.” The same is true for Corporate Social Responsibility. We must care about all the issues as we seek a more just and sustainable global community—whether it’s here in Pennsylvania or thousands of miles away in the Amazon.

Over the past several months, the issue of hydraulic fracturing has become a very serious one for residents of several states, especially Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia. The landscape is changing before our very eyes and as citizens we have an opportunity and a responsibility to challenge our legislators as well as oil and gas companies before there is a seismic crisis. Multi-national gas drillers from around the world are coming to Pennsylvania to extract one of our most valuable natural resources—the natural gas that exists in the vast Marcellus shale formation found under most of the commonwealth, especially the Western area of the state. The trade off is deeply troubling because the scars on the land and the contamination of our drinking water are inevitable.

What is hydraulic fracturing, (hydro fracking or frac’ing)? It is a process used to extract oil and natural gas from tight rock formations. Under high pressure, a mixture of water, chemicals, and sand is injected into the ground to create fractures through which oil or gas can then flow to be collected. Every time a well is fractured, it requires pumping massive volumes of water from our streams and watersheds—one to five million gallons per well. Hydraulic fracturing fluids are laced with chemicals known to include those that are toxic and carcinogenic. The process of frac’ing also generates millions of gallons of polluted wastewater and has the potential to contaminate enormous quantities of groundwater. While required to dispose of the waste, gas drilling companies are not required to release the components of drilling fluids. Disposal of wastewater has raised several new concerns, even for those not living in the areas being explored and fractured. Our local wastewater plant in Delaware County was a candidate for this waste until local citizens protested.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 hasn’t helped. It essentially deprives the U.S. EPA of its right to monitor hydraulic fracturing under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act. According to the Washington Analysis Energy Update of October 2009, the EPA will begin a new study on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and safe drinking water. However, according to Abrahm Lustgarten (Pro Publica, December 27, 2009), “The government faces stiff pressure from the energy industry to maintain the status quo—in which gas drilling is regulated state by state—as companies race to exploit the nation’s vast shale deposits and meet the growing demand for cleaner fuel. Just this month, Exxon announced it would spend some $31 billion to buy XTO Energy, a company that controls substantial gas reserves in the Marcellus—but only on the condition that congress doesn’t enact laws on fracturing that make drilling “commercially impracticable.”

As of January 2010, we know that 2.1 million acres of state forest in Pennsylvania sit on top of the Marcellus shale and 660,000 acres have been leased to drilling companies. The impact on homeowners, roads, forests, and watesheds is not yet fully known but deserves our urgent attention. We urge you to please write to your governors, state legislators, senators, congress, and President Obama to encourage more scientific-based study on the damages of this industry. Our office and other Investor Environmental Health Network members are pressuring the major oil and gas companies for greater accountability and transparency, especially related to the chemicals being used.

Daniel Ruben (Philadelphia Inquirer, (9/25/09) quoted Andy Losa, executive director of PA Landtrust, saying “Companies are going to come, they’re going to take gas, make a fortune and Pennsylvania will be left to clean up the mess for many decades and prehaps centuries to come. These woods belong to all Pennsylvanians.”

As Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, if we’re going to care about “these woods” and the misuse of our precious resources, then we need to make this issue known in all our local communities and beyond Penn’s woods.


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