We continue the Pennsylvania installment of the "Advocating on the Road" blog series with these pieces.

Our exploration of fracking in Pennsylvania continues. The next four pieces reflect the experiences of ELCA Lutherans in Pennsylvania as they have felt fracking’s effects in their communities. The complex issues surrounding fracking in Pennsylvania call Lutherans to carefully listen and engage in civil dialogue. The opportunity to learn another’s view on an issue is a gift—understanding various positions helps create a more informed perception and helps create balanced and effective policy. The ELCA Washington Office thanks those who have shared their voice with this national audience.

The views expressed on this blog post reflect the positions of individuals.  No one particular piece presented here represents a formal position of the ELCA advocacy offices and ministries.

Want to share your story with us? Email it to washingtonoffice@elca.org!

When The Neighbors Drill
The Cost of Fracking
Frustration from the Frontlines of Fracking
Fracking at Camp

When The Neighbors Drill

By Todd Garcia-Bish, director of the environmental education program, Camp Lutherlyn, Prospect, Pa. and Shayne Garcia-Bish, teacher of hands-on science, St. Luke Lutheran School, Hannahstown, Pa.

After our daughter was born, we decided that we wanted her (and her brother to come) to grow up in the woods, as opposed to the busy road where our former house was located. Our new neighbors are dairy farmers. Over the last four years, we have learned a lot about the life of a farmer as we drive by our neighbors’ farm each day and talk with them fairly often. From what we can tell, farming is a life of just getting by — if you are lucky. For many farm families, the money to be gained from leasing land to drilling companies is a great relief to the financial burdens they bear.

The bulldozers showed up in January 2010. Within a few days, a short road was cleared into a corn field and a level pad was created. A huge drilling rig showed up next and the drilling went on for days. Then the well was hydrofractured (or fracked). During the drilling stage, we were surprised to find that our house actually vibrated, that the noise from the drill half a mile away penetrated our 18”-thick straw-insulated walls.

We didn’t feel as vulnerable as many of our other neighbors may have. The rest of the neighborhood relies on private wells for their water. When we built our home, we decided to build as sustainably as we could, so we installed cistern tanks and  all of our water comes off of our metal roof. Our original reason for cisterns was concern about the pesticides sprayed on neighboring fields that might turn up in our groundwater. Now we feel affirmed in our decision because of the possibility of water pollution from fracking.

Many of the water problems associated with fracking seem to come from two avenues. Sometimes the drilling process enables shallow pockets of natural gas to migrate into aquifers, causing odors, foul taste, cloudiness, and, occasionally, the ability to light your water on fire. The other problem comes from poor containment of the millions of gallons of chemical-laced water used to frack gas wells. Some of this water stays in the ground, and many different contaminants could reach drinking water supplies. The water that comes out of the well, containing toxic substances ranging from aromatic hydrocarbons to radon, can seep into the ground or contaminate surface water supplies if not contained properly.

Our neighborhood has had neither of these problems, as far as we can tell. In fact, within a few weeks all that was left on site were three tanks that receive the gas and water that comes out of the ground. During the summer, it’s even hard to see them over the corn stalks.

However, local water issues are not the only environmental consequences of fracking. Air pollution from gas released at well sites and gases released at compressor stations can significantly affect local air quality. Is the air pollution from our neighbor’s well worse than the air pollution from another neighbor that burns his garbage twice a week? We don’t know the answer to that question, but we do know that western Pennsylvania has a significant air pollution problem and any additional air pollution will only make asthma rates increase.

But the air pollution problem isn’t that clear cut, because in the long run Marcellus gas development may actually improve our air quality. Burning natural gas creates less pollution than burning coal. The burning of coal is the main reason for the poor air quality in the western part of Pennsylvania and if power plants could be switched from coal to natural gas our air quality should improve. Of course, it would improve a lot more if the gas industry would take steps to capture the methane and other air pollutants released by gas wells and compressor stations.

Another consequence of shale gas drilling is fragmentation as wells are drilled in Pennsylvania’s forests. In our opinion, an open field is a much better place for a drilling pad than the middle of a forest The roads and pads provide a conduit for invasive species and break up deep forest tracts that are breeding areas for birds like the scarlet tanager and wood thrush.

As we consider the impact of Marcellus gas drilling on Pennsylvania, it is also important to realize that what we are seeing is only the first stage. In some parts of Butler County, where we live, companies are currently drilling gas wells into the Utica Shale, which is about twice as deep as the Marcellus and may have even more gas reserves. The Utica Shale underlies most of Pennsylvania, so gas wells may be coming to a neighborhood near you.

We also need to consider what we are leaving behind for future generations. Only about 30 percent of the fracking fluids that enter a well actually return to the surface and many of the fluids that are “disposed of” are being trucked to Ohio where they are injected deep<into the ground. What will happen to this polluted water in the future? Pollution from long-abandoned coal mines in Pennsylvania makes us wonder what pollution problem will result down the road from the gas drilling of today. When the gas companies are gone, who will cap the wells and clean up the pollution that no one expected? In the current political and economic environment in Pennsylvania, gas drilling will be a part of our future. There are some benefits to using natural gas, especially to replace coal for power production and to help family farms survive. We as citizens need to make sure that these benefits do not come at too high a cost to our air, water and forests.


The Cost of Fracking

The Rev. Leah Schade
Pastor, United in Christ Lutheran Church, West Milton, Pa.
PhD Candidate, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, researching homiletics and ecotheology
Co-founder, Interfaith Sacred Earth Coalition

Today I work on the issue of the slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing industry (fracking) in Pennsylvania through the Interfaith Sacred Earth Coalition.  The group was born in December 2011 in opposition to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission considering approval of 26 fracking projects that would withdraw over 25 million gallons of water per day from the river and connecting waterways.   The Interfaith Sacred Earth Coalition is a loosely-affiliated network of 70 individuals representing eight different faith groups who believe that care of God’s creation is central to their calling as people of faith and non-religiously affiliated individuals who see a common purpose of protecting the earth and humanity.  We make an effort to hold government, corporate and private citizens accountable whenever suffering and harm to the common good results from our individual, collective, business and industrial actions.

We encourage our fellow clergy and houses of worship to have the courage to address eco-justice issues, listen to the stories of those who suffer and have little or no voice in the public arena, and host public discernment discussions on ecological issues that affect their communities. Our hope is to raise consciousness and offer education about fracking and other eco-justice issues so that citizens may be better informed, advocate for eco-justice issues in the public arena, and offer a positive, creative vision for our planet based on our collective interfaith dialogue. Sacred scriptures and all of our religious traditions give us certain guiding principles — such as respecting and caring for God’s creation, advocating for those who have no voice and no power, and the sharing of wealth and resources. 

Some have questioned our motives in this work, saying that we are against jobs, energy independence and improving the economy. We want to be very clear that ours is not an anti-jobs position. Jobs are a good thing — work is a blessing from God. Rather, we are raising questions about the moral and ethical principles that are guiding the gas drilling industry. We need to have a very serious discussion about how industry claims about job creation, economic growth, and energy independence are blinding us to the reality of suffering and the undue burdens being placed upon individuals, families, communities and generations to come as fracking expands in our state. 

Although fracking has economic benefits, the truth is that it will COST our state and our country in other important ways in the long run.  There is a growing body of scientific evidence that this practice is not safe and will incur more expenses for our country, particularly in regards to water and air pollution.  We seriously question the notion that we need energy from fracked gas to survive, because here is the truth — we cannot survive without clean air and clean water. Water in particular is the foundation for life and is sacred to nearly every faith tradition. Whether you are in favor of fracking or against, we can certainly all agree that there are values we all hold in common that warrant the strictest protection for our country and our citizens. We believe in a God of justice and truth, we call our leaders to accountability, and seeing a vision of a clean-energy future where all God’s children and all God’s creation may thrive.


Frustration From the Frontlines of Fracking

Lisa Beard, Trinity Lutheran Church, New Holland, Pa.
(also Community Action Forum on Marcellus Shale Gas)

My introduction to all things fracking began the summer of 2010 when the Environmental Health committee that I chair in my Lancaster County congregation, decided to host a Marcellus Shale seminar for our community the following year. We knew next to nothing about fracking at that point — just that it was a hot environmental topic — and I eagerly took advantage of the Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania workshop on the topic that November to learn more. Our event, “Marcellus Shale: A Faith-based Perspective,” was held in February 2011, with over 100 people in attendance, about half of whom were Lutheran. We were surprised to see such a level of interest in a community “downstream” from fracking activity. A significant number of Lancaster countians own property in counties where drilling occurs, so although they may not have felt any reason for concern here at home, fracking was on their radar. 

As a result of organizing this event, I was invited to join a coalition of faith-based, environmental, health/wellness interest groups that formed to help our community learn about the comprehensive impacts of natural gas extraction from Marcellus Shale. We have held several community forums: the first was a general informational forum. Despite a rainy evening, approximately 300 people attended and another 100 had to be turned away. The place was packed — and charged! At that point, people were hungry for information. 

After this first event, we began tailoring our events to specific audiences — church groups and farmers. I originally thought that, here in Lancaster County where farming is such a prominent way of life, the farmers would really want to learn how they could be impacted or stand in support of their fellow farmers throughout the state. But we have not found this to be the case, despite the fact that we brought in speakers who are farmers who have been dramatically affected. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with farmers from both southwest and northeast Pa. and hear their heartbreaking stories of illness in their families and their neighbors’ families, dead and sick cattle, economic loss, plummeting property values, and threats on their lives for speaking publicly about it all. 

We’ve gone from filled-to-capacity forums initially to a seeming disinterest in staying informed of ongoing developments. Living here, without the massive traffic increases or drilling rigs in plain sight, fracking is not commanding the attention it needs. With several pipelines running through Lancaster County, as well as a compressor station, I do worry about the effects we’ll see here.

My focus is now mostly on the health impacts of fracking. As someone who has multiple chemical sensitivities, I learned the hard way about the health impacts of cumulative lose-dose exposures to seemingly harmless chemicals in our environment. After regaining my health, I felt an intense calling to help others avoid the same fate. This is how the Environmental Health Committee of my congregation came to be. It’s been a tough sell — I’ve found that, for the most part, people don’t see a reason to change their perspective until they themselves become directly affected, and so it seems to be with fracking. This is human nature, I suppose, but it can’t be left at that. As St. Paul teaches, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). We have a Christian responsibility to care for our hurting brothers and sisters and to do that, our eyes need to be open to see their needs.  

Fracking is a far-reaching public health concern in the making and for some, it already is one. I feel that it is crucial for all Pennsylvanians to become educated about fracking because of its impacts on the health of humans, animals and God’s creation. It’s also necessary that we voice our concerns because this is something that will affect many people. I continue to stay involved in raising awareness of this issue. I share the stories of those who have already been affected, hoping that it will be embraced as a faith issue and that loving our neighbors as ourselves will prevail.


Fracking at Camp

Camp Agapé is an outdoor ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), providing summer camping programs and retreat facilities to all people since 1961.  The camp is located in southwestern Pennsylvania approximately 35 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, and is owned and operated by the Ohio Valley Lutheran Bible Camp Association.  This rustic site provides a unique opportunity for Christian, and even academic, growth.

Like many organizations in the 2000s and today, Camp Agapé faced financial difficulty in maintaining both their property and the level of programming for campers.   To maintain the ministry, the camp was forced to look to alternate income sources, including the natural gas industry. 
Range Resources, an independent oil and gas exploration and production company, began to drill the first of three vertical natural gas wells at various locations on the property of Camp Agapé in 2007.  These wells extended approximately one mile from the surface and were used to extract natural gas from the underground shale rock formations.  Technological industry advances led to the closing of the three vertical wells and drilling of six horizontal wells on Camp Agapé land. 

The wells are confined to one site of the camp, and Range Resources has been amenable on choosing the location of the wells.  “The trucks used by Range Resources use a separate drive-way and generally do not interfere with programming activity at the camp.  When we expressed concern over an originally proposed drilling location—near the camp chapel—“Range Resources amenably changed the site,” Board President Charlie Wingert describes.   The royalties from the wells are  enabling Camp Agapé to repair an old dam on the grounds, and also helped secure a loan which financed the building of a new Retreat & Learning Center in 2008—something the camp had dreamed of creating for decades. 

This new Center has allowed Camp Agapé to expand its reading and math programs by providing comfortable teaching and learning space for campers and volunteers.  Along with strong faith-based programming (like “Dedicate the Day”—a morning event of sharing scripture, prayer, and praise songs), Camp Agapé offers scholastic opportunities.  The Camp focuses on Math & Reading Camps for five weeks, which attract students who require additional summer support in these subject areas.  Students work with volunteers (at the ratio of one adult volunteer per two students) intensively for four hours each day.  The textbooks used at Camp Agapé include both secular lessons found in public school texts and stories that include Biblical teachings and parables.   “On the reading side, we have seen an average test-measured growth rate of one year in one week for our campers,” says Lavinia Wingert, Camp Director.  Camp Agapé also offers an Art & Science Camp, along with traditional bible camp.  All the camp options—including the scholastic based weeks—include Christian components, like devotions and prayer.

In addition to the Retreat & Learning Center and the programming its presence supports, natural gas royalties have led to the construction of two new large cabins and improved infrastructure on the campgrounds.   The income from the wells continues to supply a significant portion of the Camp’s budget and helps supplement revenue from other sources, including camper fees, gifts from individuals, congregational gifts, and the SWPA Synod of the ELCA.  This economic security allows Camp Agapé to provide extremely reasonable rates to campers’ families and serve more children.  As Camp Agapé looks to the future, they hope to build a playing field on one of the former sites of the vertical wells, and a road extending to their pond on another site.   Most importantly, the gas revenues will enable Agapé to build a strong endowment to provide financial security for the future. 

“We could not do what we’re doing now without the additional income from the royalties,” says Charlie.  “Everything we’ve described would go away without the wells.  We are extremely grateful for the blessing of this natural resource on the Agapé property that enables children to improve their lives while experiencing the fun and fellowship of summer camp.”