This piece is part of the Pennsylvania installment of the “Advocating on the Road” blog series.
This month, we learned how hydraulic fracturing is impacting communities across the state of Pennsylvania. Fracking is happening in many places, and is being proposed in many others, and the issues raised in those states and communities are often quite different than what we’ve seen this month in Pennsylvania. Because of this diversity, there is probably no “one size fits all” approach that will satisfy all of the concerns of every community, but there are a few issues in common that may merit a common approach.
We’ve seen through the eyes of Pennsylvanians that drilling for natural gas has the potential to create jobs and generate income in communities where both are limited. But we’ve also heard that it has made affordable housing scarce, impacted roads with heavy truck traffic, and created conflicts between neighbors over when and where drilling is appropriate. Fracking raises concerns about water—both underground and in the state’s rivers and streams—and about public health, as people worry about possible exposure to toxic chemicals in fracking fluid and poor air quality around drilling sites.
Water is a recurring concern in many of the areas where fracking is occurring, with reports of contaminated drinking water wells in nearby communities, and concerns about accidental spills of chemical-laced water and about the amount of water used to frack a single well. Industry asserts that fracking is not the root cause of contaminated ground water and notes that it is taking steps to cut its use of water through recycling and to cut down on accidental spills. Community activists believe that fracking is contaminating both underground and surface water and urge that steps be taken to slow the growth of fracking until more is known about its impacts. They are concerned about the chemicals used in fracking fluid, which are often not disclosed, and about how those chemicals may affect their health. While some drilling companies voluntarily disclose the chemicals they use, others press for privacy on this matter, claiming that the chemical make-up of fracking fluids are trade secrets and that public disclosure would hurt their competitive advantage.
State environmental agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are taking steps to regulate the disposal of used fracking water, to keep chemicals out of rivers and streams. Currently fracking is exempt from regulation under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, so there isn’t a way to deal with potential impacts on groundwater resources. The EPA is in the midst of a multi-year, multi-state study of the impacts of fracking on water that may help to resolve some of the uncertainty about the causes of water contamination and could lead to better controls on fracking and on wastewater disposal. Many of the states where fracking is occurring now require disclosure of the chemicals used in the practice, but the laws vary from state to state. A federal approach to disclosure would provide citizens with more consistent information about chemical exposures and give a level of certainty to drilling companies, who now have to deal with different regulations in different parts of the country.
There is also a growing concern about how fracking is impacting air quality. Emissions from wells are contributing to air pollution in rural communities, and the EPA is studying whether current practices, which fail to capture all of the gas flowing out of wells, are in violation of the Clean Air Act. If well operators are required to capture more of these emissions it would actually increase domestic energy supplies and could prove to be a win for both the environment and for gas companies.
As Rev. Amy Reumann noted in the piece that opened this month of focus on fracking, a lens that we have as ELCA Lutherans in viewing complex issues such as hydraulic fracturing is the social statements that our church has developed. The “Caring for Creation” (1993) and “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood” (1999) social statements call us to seek environmental justice, to protect the health and integrity of creation both for its own sake and for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations, as well as economic justice, to consider how our actions affect the ability of all people to provide for their material needs and the needs of their families and communities. Looking through this lens allows us to have an honest discussion about the good and bad impacts of fracking on our communities and on creation, and it calls us to a deeper discussion about how and where we get our energy.
As our country struggles to find new sources of energy to fuel our businesses, home and cars, domestic energy sources like natural gas will continue to play an important role. Each of us consumes our share of our country’s energy resources, and we also share in a responsibility to urge our elected officials to adopt policies that allow our communities to prosper while still protecting our health and the integrity of God’s creation for our benefit and for the benefit of future generations.