The Rev. Dr. Jeff Golliher, offers a way to engage with local stakeholders about hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” through respectful dialogue. He brings a Christian faith-based perspective to a technical and scientific conversation.
Golliher is a priest in the Diocese of New York, Program Director for the Environment and Sustainable Communities, Anglican United Nations Office, New York, NY and an adviser to the Anglican Communion Environmental Network.
His letter to Anlgicans confronting fracking in their communities may be found here.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I’m writing with love for God, great concern about our environment, and about an increasingly troubling subject – a method of drilling for natural gas called hydraulic fracturing, or more simply “fracking.” This has been a contentious practice in many parts of the Anglican Communion (especially the United States, Canada, South Africa, and parts of Europe) for several years, and the concern is spreading more widely, which is one of the reasons that I’m bringing it to your attention now.
Fracking involves deep vertical and then horizontal drilling in order to extract natural gas. Drilling can extend for distances measured not in feet/meters, but miles/kilometers. It requires millions of gallons/liters of water per well, mixed with chemicals that are known to be toxic, despite the fact that they might not be revealed. For the most part, the controversy involves the consequences of this drilling method: the risk of contaminating drinking water and the impact on climate change (fracking wells can release methane, a greenhouse gas much worse than carbon dioxide). Issues of local rights and community decision-making also come into play – in the United States, the fracking industry was given an unwarranted exemption from environmental standards set years ago by the Clean and Clean Water Acts. In addition, how this issue is portrayed and explained can vary a great deal from one country to the next, which can complicate understanding. Obviously the fracking industry has their own agenda and they use the media, some elements of government, and, in some cases, universities to get their message out. In the United States, a number of university programs were closed, once it was realized that their studies of fracking were secretly supported by the industry. My point is that it’s not very easy to know what anyone is actually talking about or how reliable the information is.
I also need to explain the capacity in which I am writing. In addition to working with the Anglican Communion Environmental network (ACEN) I’m the Program Director for the Environment and Sustainable Communities at the Anglican Communion Office at the United Nations. Our mandate is to educate and organize around issues primarily on the basis of Resolutions passed by the Anglican Consultative Council, but also in connection with official statements made by individual Provinces, ACC Networks, and/or other Anglican organizations. Given that fracking is a relatively specialized form of technology, there are no existing ACC Resolutions that specifically mention it, nor are there likely to be in the future. In this instance, I’m responding to several members of the Anglican Communion Environmental Network who have raised questions and concerns about fracking and asked me to share my views.
I’m also a parish priest in the Episcopal Church USA, in the Diocese of New York. In that capacity, I’ve been deeply involved with local and regional anti-fracking campaigns, and I’ve worked diligently to ensure a ban on fracking in my hometown. Without hiding or playing down my point of view, my purpose is to encourage you to discover for yourselves what the facts are (which may not be easy) wherever you live. In fact, that’s exactly what I encouraged local town officials to do where I live. The majority of those elected officials had been inclined to favor fracking – until they investigated the matter on their own.
In most areas, fracking represents a “boom or bust” economic expansion – quick profits for a few, with little concern for the long-term impact. Communities often jump at the promise of large financial returns without examining the environmental and social costs. In places where public debate has actually taken place, the controversy has generally turned on this essential question: Is fracking safe? Pro-fracking advocates (including the industry) argue, as you can imagine, that the drilling technology is safe for groundwater and public health, and that it poses no threat whatsoever. Their point of view suggests an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality – whatever happens deep underground could not possibly affect life on the surface. Independent studies have shown otherwise. In fact, some scientific studies in North America link earthquake activity to the impact of fracking. For all these reasons, concerned citizens in over 130 local municipalities of my home State (New York) have either banned or declared moratoria on fracking (temporarily halting the practice until further study is done) through democratic processes. In other words, local communities have taken action by educating themselves, organizing themselves politically, and sometimes challenging the industry in courts of law.
Pro-fracking constituencies also say that because the burning of natural gas (and gas drilling) is relatively clean (it emits much less carbon dioxide than coal or oil), it offers an important transitional step toward renewable energy. This can be a persuasive argument, and there is some truth to it. For example, let’s imagine the thoughts of someone living in a region of the world, like the Pacific Islands, who feels the impact of sea level rise as a result of fossil fuel use in North America. That person would reasonably wonder why anyone in the United States would want to ban a new, apparently “cleaner” technology – especially since people in the Pacific are not so dependent on fossil fuels, but are suffering the consequences of them anyway. The answer has several parts: First, the issue is not the fuel (natural gas, which is much cleaner than petroleum), but the consequences of a specific method for extracting it. Second, governments and energy industries should be pursuing genuinely renewable energy, rather than taking half-way measures. Third, the technology of fracking could do much more harm (to drinking water) than good, and it could make climate change worse (as a result of methane emissions). Fourth, do we really want to put ourselves in a position of trading one kind of hazard/risk for another – telling ourselves that we’re willing to risk public health and possible groundwater contamination for the sake of a halfway measure that “might” alleviate only a portion of climate change? That’s just one example of the difficulty in discerning the difference between fact and fiction in this issue.
With regard to the question, “Is fracking safe?” or “Can it possibly be safe?” with better technology and regulations, the answer is very controversial. Many anti-fracking activists would say no – that it will never be safe. I’m reluctant to say “never.” If scientific studies, someday, find that new drilling methods of this kind are safe, then I would want real proof. But if that proof exists, then I would probably favor it, for the sake of climate change, water, and public health – that is to say, for the sake of the future and God’s green earth….
…If fracking is practised where you live, my suggestion is to familiarize yourself with the materials provided here, contact local groups that have probably formed, and discuss the issue with your bishop. And you can always contact me at the Anglican UN Office with any questions or concerns that you might have.
The Rev. Canon Jeff Golliher, PhD.
Program Director for the Environment and Sustainable Communities, Anglican United Nations Office, New York, NY.