Part 16 – September 2014

Mining – Resource Extraction – Fracking:
An Environmental And Ethical Challenge (Part 2)

In ancient seas, hydrocarbons of coal, crude oil and natural gas were deposited in sedimentary shale rock.  Over the last century the ‘conventional’ shallow reservoirs of these fossil fuels, are being depleted and now hydraulic fracking is used to extract deeper ‘unconventional’ natural gas deposits.  Like the tar sands extraction, fracking is raising new ethical concerns. 

What is Fracking?  A vertical well, reinforced with concrete, is drilled miles beneath the earth’s surface. It is then turned horizontally to run an equal distance into the shale where natural gas is trapped.  Small fissures are made creating perforations in the rock.  Several million gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals to keep the fissures open, are then forced down the well under extremely high pressure, fracturing the rock and creating paths for the gas to flow towards the well. About 70% of the fracking water is brought back to the surface for re-use or as waste water.  Watch YouTube: “Hydraulic Fracturing- Shale Natural Gas Extraction” (3 mins) and “Shale Gas Drilling: Pros and Cons”(7 mins).

Supporters of fracking are motivated by economic growth and the desire for domestic energy security; thus, shifting power from the Middle East to democratic regimes. This is a modern worldview. Scientifically well based, they advocate comparison analysis citing, e.g. using less water than agriculture. However, does this rationale justify the means? To its credit there is research to reduce the volume of water and toxic chemicals. Yet overall, the industry is severely under-regulated and is exempt from federal water management laws and other environmental legal obligations.  Ultimately economic profit from the expansion of fracking remains the goal.

Environmentalists, challenging fracking, are in a post-modern worldview, advocating for ethical sustainable practices and responsible stewardship. Environmental and health issues are primary concerns. For fracking, vast amounts of water are used stressing current reservoirs with competing needs.  The chemicals, many of which are carcinogens, cannot be safely removed from the waste water. A fear is that water not recovered will contaminate aquifers and ground water. The toxic greenhouse gas, methane, often leaks into the atmosphere impacting climate change. Fracking even appears to increase earthquake activity. In an era when the low cost of gas undermines development of renewable resources, new standards of sustainable goals are desperately needed to challenge fracking’s unprecedented pace.

Thomas Berry writes, “We can no longer live spiritually in any adequate manner simply within the limits of our early religious tradition.”1    What is needed is an expanded “spirituality of intimacy with the natural world.”2   As science and technology thrust humans into an increasingly complex world we must develop as “ecological sensitive personalities” with a new understanding of rights that shifts the preferential corporate influence to one that includes both the rights of local communities and of nature. This is the emerging integral worldview.

Beacons of hope are arising, probing the deeper dialogue, to give equal voice to humans, industry and the natural world as Quebec and Nova Scotia declare a moratorium on fracking pending environmental assessment and other countries ban it. As Sisters of St. Joseph of Canada ‘the more’ compels us to be counted among the prophets of an integral worldview with its, sustainable earth community spirituality.  This moves us from polarization to inclusion, recognizing the values and shortcomings of any position.  Inspired by Father Nepper, we are called to live into the “holy disquietude”3 that begs a questioning and discerning heart.

1 Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe; pg. 19

2 Ibid, pg. 138

3 Fr. Nepper, Portrait of a Daughter/Sister of St. Joseph