Fracking in the Keystone State

Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

We open the Pennsylvania installment of the “Advocating on the Road” blog series with this piece.

Pennsylvania is the second stop on the Advocacy Road Trip, where congregations and ministries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) are in the midst of a new American energy boom. The Keystone State has long been home to energy production, including the first commercially drilled oil well and a long tradition of coal mining. Yet the advent of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas (fracking for short), has caught many unaware as the Commonwealth grapples with the promise, and the perils, of this new industry.

Fracking is a technique used to extract natural gas trapped deep underground in  shale rock formations. A gas well is “fracked” by sinking pipeline into the shale formation, then injecting it with huge amounts of water mixed with sand and chemicals. This action breaks up the rock and releases the gas, which is then brought to the surface. Fracking is currently being conducted in the Marcellus Shale, which covers 70 percent of the state, although accessing deeper shale layers is beginning to be explored.

The drilling debate is deeply polarized in our state, and among Lutherans. Some hail this new, domestic source of energy as a cleaner burning fuel and a bridge from dirtier fossil fuels to cleaner, more renewable sources. Gas drilling activities provide a boost to job creation and a boon for local economies and some landowners during a time of recession and budget cuts. Pennsylvania’s government has welcomed drilling and its benefits, with over 3,300 drilling permits issued in 2010 alone. Several ELCA congregations, camps and social ministry organizations have leased land to gas companies, providing needed income to support vital ministries. Members of our congregations have found employment and economic opportunity through drilling and its supporting industries, particularly in depressed, rural parts of the state, and support its continued development.

At the same time, some Lutherans in drilling areas, and others “downstream” who are concerned with environmental and health issues, are actively calling for a moratorium until drilling’s impacts are better known, or even an outright ban. Many raise grave concerns about the environmental impacts of fracking, particularly its impact on water resources.  Fracking a single well requires between one and four million gallons of water, either drawn from local waterways or trucked into the site. In addition to water, the fracking fluid also contains chemicals designed to help the gas flow from the well, which can include substances known to be toxic to humans and wildlife, including carcinogens such as benzene.  A newly passed Pennsylvania law requires drillers to disclose the chemicals they use in the fracking process to the state, but not the public — they may assert that their fracking formula is a “trade secret” and prevent its disclosure to the public.

After the well is fracked, over a million gallons of fracking fluid returns to the surface, and may also be laced with corrosive salts and radioactive elements like radium found underground. Progress is being made in recycling fracking fluid to use in other wells, but there continue to be accidental spills in transport and overflows from holding ponds. And much of the fracking water remains underground, with ongoing debate as to its long-term implications for the safety of groundwater supplies.

Until recently, drillers were hauling  much of their fracking waste water to local sewage treatment plants, which are not equipped to remove drilling contaminants. In addition, there are numerous reports of the contamination of water wells in proximity to fracking sites, most famously in Dimock, Pa. Accidental spills and overflows of fracking waste water from holding ponds and during transport have all raised alarms. Chemicals believed to be related to fracking have been detected in rivers that provide drinking water to downstream communities in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and beyond.

Fracking affects more than water. Clearing of land for roads and pads and laying pipeline impacts wildlife and human habitation.  Currently a third of state forest lands are leased for fracking. Testing is being done to determine air quality impact from drilling sites, especially when wells are “flared” to burn off gas. Increased heavy truck traffic impacts local roads and air quality.

The human community has also suffered from the rapid spread of fracking in Pennsylvania. Disparities and tensions exist between landowners who signed leases early for several hundred dollars per acre and those who signed more recently for many times more. A practice known as “forced pooling” and prevalence of land titles that exclude mineral rights means that those who choose not to lease may still have fracking underneath their feet. The volume of workers brought from outside the state has escalated rents in drilling areas, making affordable housing hard to come by, and has brought tensions between locals and newcomers.

Pennsylvania is the only state among the top 15 gas-producing states without an extraction tax on natural gas. After years of wrangling over this issue, in February 2012 Governor Corbett signed into law a compromise in the form of a low “impact fee” that counties may decide to collect and use at the local level for drilling-related impacts (such as emergency preparedness, spills, roads, housing and environment). The law is currently being challenged due to its preemption of local drilling ordinances. Townships and municipalities are required to allow drill rigs in all types of zones, except for densely-populated areas. It sets state standards for the minimum distance between wells and schools, buildings and water sources. If a local government passes ordinances and regulations that go beyond the new standards, the municipality may be barred from receiving any impact fee money.

Any conversation about fracking needs to include not only the costs and benefits of the process itself but the larger context of our use of and reliance on fossil fuels and the potential of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to the development of alternative energy sources.

The complex issues surrounding natural gas drilling call Lutherans to moral deliberation about this practice and its impacts. This deliberation might include the ELCA social statements on caring for creation and economic life. More important, the issue of fracking is an opportunity to listen closely to what Lutherans are experiencing in communities across Pennsylvania and to decide upon collective responses.

- Rev. Amy E. Reumann, Director – Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania