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Friday, June 29, 2012

Cracking open the depths


The price for cheap natural gas is, in part, the slow destruction of the lives of many throughout the United States, including those who feed their families with salaries from an employer that may not seek the best in human nature.

In places like Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, people are allowing companies to drill under them, inject water mixed with proprietary chemicals—which means that no one really knows what’s in it—and capture the released gases.

This process of extracting natural gas from shale deposits is known as “fracking.” And, as the name itself sounds, it is not a pleasant process. Search YouTube for fracking and see what you find.

Because government laws and regulations are not yet able to adequately protect landowners and the wider public (which will be the subject of another post), the companies seeking natural gas have wide latitude to go about their business.

For now, let’s focus on how the Church has trumped the state in the matter of fracking. On Wednesday, June 27th, the Diocesan Social Action Office of the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio, and the Officeof Social Action for the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, sponsored a unique forum on fracking—and it was an event that other Catholic institutions should abundantly replicate. Indeed, this gathering did what Catholics do in such times of crisiswhat we've been doing for 2,000 years: incorporate faith, reason, and a call for a virtuous life.

Speaking at the conference was Mr. Peter MacKenzie of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, Dr. John F. Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University, and Dr. Jame Schaefer, an associate professor of theology at Marquette University and author of Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic and Medieval Concepts.

I spoke with the event’s diocesan coordinators and Dr. Schaefer on the morning after. While much of the forum will eventually be available in some form of video and in news reports, there are a few key areas that need addressing on this page.

First, it cannot be stressed enough that this event serves as an example and a reminder of what it means to be Catholic: to foster dialogue, to build up virtue, and to help those who cannot help themselves. 

It must also be noted that the issue of environmental ethics is one that needs more attention—which is why Dr. Schaefer’s work and her book are so valuable in times when companies put profit over people. 

Lastly, Catholics must be aware of how our understanding of sin and virtue really do have meaning—especially when our technologies multiply the good and ill that come from our actions.

In speaking with Dr. Schaefer, I was struck with her genuine concern for a people she referred to as “oppressed”—and rightly so. The stories shared at this forum were from ordinary folks who had their drinking water contaminated and their dreams dashed because of an immoral response by energy companies to a demand by many of us for cheap supplies of natural gas.

The oppression comes from choices made by having few apparent options, especially in a time of need. In the case of fracking, that means being offered a contract and promises of money during a time of economic recession so that strangers can burrow deep below your home for buried treasure—and they promise to not make a mess. Or there’s the family that shared their story at the diocesan forum: They did not succumb to the promises of fracking. They would not lease their land for the taking of buried treasure. But their neighbors did. And now their groundwater—which does not abide by property or zoning boundaries—is contaminated. And so the dream of a family’s small farm in Ohio is now poisoned.

Because of stories like this, Dr. Schaefer and diocesan social action offices in Ohio are helping to spread the news about fracking and what it means to sign leases to allow it to occur on your property, as well as the impacts all this can have as energy companies prowl across the shale deposits of America to seek the treasure that they then sell to people like you and me. The goal is to prevent others from suffering the same ills from fracking as those suffering now. But there's another side to this coin.

Dr. Schaefer recounts that at the forum, after Mr. MacKenzie of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association gave his talk on the safety of fracking, she rightly responded that it was morally and ethically necessary for such companies to not wait for regulations, but to proactively mitigate the release of pollutants and to prevent the damage done to peoples’ lives—and to do this now. These words of Dr. Schaefer brought the loudest applause of the evening—and it resulted in something else: The oil and gas association representative had no verbal comment to this statement, or to the reaction from the now emboldened crowd.

Such a response in this sort of situation tells me that something important was going on. Like water forced deep underground to open shale and unlock ancient natural gases, truth, spoken clearly and heard, has a way of penetrating our deepest selves—our souls—and unlocking something of who we truly are as human beings. And so I wonder just how comfortable that energy company representative was when faced with the suffering spoken of at that forum. I would imagine it wasn't easy.

Now, I may have a degree in theology, but I am not a pastor. I am an environmental regulator. And so I should write more on the nuances of government regulation and the problems that result from current fracking methods—about which I will eventually post. But my training in theology and by virtue of my Baptism, I cannot help but focus for a moment on the issue of the human beings that work for companies that sometimes do bad things. Because sometimes companies can do very good things—and do so out of sincere love of neighbor.

The other day at work I helped provide a workshop for my fellow wastewater engineers and scientists on climate change. The presenters were experts in their fields and the maps of projected sea-level rise in the Ocean State were hard to ignore. My fellow regulators—who were getting much of this information for the first time—were stunned. The workshop facilitator then asked, what’s next? Part of the answer was to help educate the design community—the engineering and contract operations firms that propose, design, and manage many of the state’s wastewater treatment and stormwater facilities in Rhode Island.

Later, one of my office’s chiefs shared with me this story that the day's climate change workshop brought to mind: When he was a young man, at his first job, working for a private engineering firm in the 1970s that did water supply drilling, his industry came face-to-face with two new realities: groundwater contamination at Love Canal and breakthroughs in water-testing technologies. While there were no government regulations at the time—no demands from Big Brother to dictate how such water-supply companies went about their business—he said that the firm’s managers felt a “moral responsibility” to factor this new information into their clients’ designs, even if there was a cost to the company. And so for no other reason than to protect strangers—to love thy neighbor—the company self-regulated and self-sacrificed itself.

Could this not occur today among companies that engage in any aspect of fracking?

Here, we must listen to Dr. Schaefer, who reminds all men and women of good will that the Catholic virtues—especially the Cardinal virtues of prudence, moderation, and justice—must, as always, be factors of our age. As she writes about, virtuous individuals and virtuous communities must become a greater part of the fabric of  twenty-first century America. Our use of energy and all resources must be tempered and efficient. And we must actively educate our neighbors about the dangers of fracking as we actively demand  companies to act responsibly—that they love thy neighbor—and do so immediately. But we must also love the people that are causing the harms from fracking.

Will this be easy? No. Is it wishful thinking? Not for people of faith. Which is why for Catholics, prayer and the Church's prophetic voice must both be in play—in this issue as elsewhere. Indeed, as technology increases our ability to crack open the depths of the earth, so Catholics must help each other search the depths of who we really are, what we really need, and how we should go about treating, and loving, our neighbor. 




1 comment:

  1. Patrick MulliganApril 3, 2013 at 6:05 PM

    There is no safe way to frack the earth. It is the destruction of the earth's crust and the poisoning of its water. We are of and from the earth. All that we are we owe to her. This proces, with the dismantling of mountains in West Virginia to extract coal is a sin of the highest, ot lowest, order.
    Read Thomas Berry,s book: The Great Work, especially the chapter on The Extraction Economy

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