Water, air and land are sacred trusts within all faith traditions. While natural gas currently acts as a transitional energy as progress is made to renewable energy, there are many risks to health, water, land and air that must be noted. In addition, while the oil and gas industry provides needed employment in low economic, rural and minority community areas and also finances significant percentages of state funds such as education, responsible resource extraction is vital as society moves toward greater conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy.
One of the ethical and moral concerns that affects water, land and air quality and has direct impact upon human health is hydraulic fracturing. In hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, a hole is drilled deep into underground shale rock, and millions of gallons of water, sand and “injections chemicals” are pumped into the ground to fracture the shale at high pressure and access the gas.
In most jurisdictions, companies are not required to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking. Some of the chemicals are toxic or carcinogenic, such as hydrochloric acid, ammonium chloride, and methanol. The water returning to the surface can also carry heavy metals, high levels of salts and radioactive elements. Some companies reveal their unique blend of fracking fluids that they inject into the ground, others do not. Fracfocus.org maintains a database of injection chemicals by well site voluntarily provided by participating oil and natural gas operators. Fracking fluid can stay in the ground or flow back to the surface. What does come back up through the well is referred to as flowback. This can be stored in containment ponds, injected back into the ground, or loaded into tanker trucks for disposal elsewhere. A small portion of the toxic flowback is suitable for recycling. Storage of flowback is another major issue risk associated with fracking that needs to be understood and regulated. In addition there is increasing concern for and scientific evidence that in some areas aspects of this process are linked to earthquakes that harm homes and property.
Tragically, fracking is not regulated by federal statutes governing water safety, because industry lobbyists obtained an exemption from this law, known as the “Halliburton loophole.” US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not regulate either the methane emissions or the groundwater impact of fracking, leaving states with the burden of monitoring the activities of approximately 40,000 well sites across the nation. With shrinking state budgets, the situation is an environmental regulators worst-case scenario. IPL strongly supports national safeguards on hydraulic fracturing practices.
Time is of the essence in releasing these national safeguards. A May 2011 study from Duke University found potentially explosive levels of methane in drinking water supplies located close to natural gas wells. A June 2011 study by researchers from the US Forest Service showed that two years after fracking wastewater was legally spread on a section of National Forest, more than half of the trees in the affected area were dead.
Another concern within the oil and gas industry is the wasting, flaring, leaking and venting of methane gas, a large contributor to global warming. The implications of methane gas, which cannot be seen with the naked eye or smelt can be seen in a large methane cloud discovered by NASA over the Four Corners Area. In addition to contribution to greenhouses gases, methane has been found to contribute to health implications for asthma, heart and bronchial problems. There is also a stewardship of resources aspect, since the methane pollution can be captured and in many areas royalties could be contributed to states for education and public welfare needs.
Environmental justice is another concern because much of the oil and gas extraction in the country takes place in rural, minority and economically challenged communities where employment is scarce and people believe they have no other choice.
Interfaith Power & Light believes we need additional safeguards in place to ensure natural gas as a viable transitional energy source from coal to renewable energy. At this time these include:
- Disclosure of the composition and safety of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.
- An effective regulatory structure to protect human health, the climate, and water and air quality. This includes appropriate resources to allow agencies to enforce regulations.
- Financial assurance requirements that guarantee that industry resources are available to remediate any impacts from potential accidents.
- Development and use of drilling company best-practice standards that address things such as well casing construction, plugging of wells, wastewater treatment and storage, and technologies that minimizes the leakage of natural gas emissions from drilling and pipeline facilities.
- A ban on natural gas drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, such as areas of unique public benefit and fragile ecosystems.
- Strong rules to utilize already accepted industry methods to capture methane release and prevent venting, flaring and waste.
Interfaith Power & Light supports renewable energy, efficiency and conservation. Natural gas development should not distract America’s movement to a renewable energy future.