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Is fracking the answer to our energy crisis?

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In our national energy crisis, fracking for natural gas has been hailed as a "bridge" solution. But there are other options that we should not be ignoring. 

By Dan Misleh, the founding executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, a national organization educating and organizing U.S. Catholics about Church teaching on climate change.

Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians. 

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In the various houses where I’ve lived over the years, when I had to plane or sand a door to keep it from sticking, I’d start, logically enough, by separating the door from the jamb by removing the hinge pins. After the shave, getting the door back on the hinges was always a challenge, especially with a heavy door. I’d lift the door vertically to align the two hinge halves and then try to hold it in steady while reaching to replace the hinge pin.

Then someone showed me a very simple trick: Lay a crow bar on the floor close to the hinge-side of the doorjamb, place the bottom edge of the door on top of crowbar and with your foot, press down on the crowbar and raise the door to the level of the hinges, push the hinge halves together, and drop in the pin. Viola! All the years of cursing heavy doors and trying to align those hinges—with a simple lever, the back strain, pinched fingers, and the cursing all but disappeared.

This little metaphor came to me recently while following the debate on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” the process of extracting natural gas by drilling a well vertically and then horizontally deep into the earth. Into the bore holes go enormous amounts of pressurized water, sand, and chemicals to drive out natural gas trapped in shale rock. The jury is still out on whether this can be done safely, and the long-term dangers are hard to predict. We may not know, for example, if the chemically tainted water will remain underground or begin to seep into water tables and filter into rivers and streams.

There are other, more immediate problems surfacing as well. The enormous number of tanker trucks and other vehicles are rumbling down—and crumbling—country roads not designed to handle the volume of traffic. The exact composition of the chemicals used in the process (many are “trade secrets”) is unknown, as is the safety of those chemicals, to human health especially. Furthermore, no one has decided who is held responsible if something does go wrong. Finally, we simply do not know the degree of public awareness about the socioeconomic short and long term benefits and costs of the processes to families, communities, and states.

The problem of climate change is well understood, even if the outcomes are not entirely certain. Fossil fuel consumption is generating greenhouse gas pollution, that is, more greenhouse gases beyond what naturally occurs to keep the planet in balance. We have to immediately slow and quickly reverse this activity or we’ll likely cook the planet and generate enormous hardship for ourselves, especially the poor and vulnerable. So what’s the tool, what’s the lever that we need to get the job done smarter and with less pain?

Some, including President Obama, think that one important tool is natural gas because it burns cleaner. And extracting it through fracking is all the rage in many places around the country including, and maybe especially, in Pennsylvania.

Even if this method of pulling natural gas out of the ground can be made safe, it seems that the fuel and the process are, in many ways, the same old approach. What we really need are new, but very attainable, tools. It’s clear we cannot keep burning fossil fuels (even relatively clean ones like natural gas) and save the planet from harmful climate change.

Proponents of this process tout that natural gas is a bridge fuel because it does, in fact, put far less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than either coal or oil. But maybe this is just perpetuating the myth of “clean” fossil fuels. If we truly put as much time and money into exploring and developing cleaner alternatives to fossil fuel energy could we dramatically reduce our dependency on them?

But the truth is, natural gas is still a fossil fuel and while it is definitely cleaner than coal, it still contributes to greenhouse gas pollution.

So here I offer some thoughts in the hope that they contribute to an urgent and ongoing dialogue about how our society—and especially people of faith—power our lives and our economy.

Clearly there are enormous economic interests at stake, including powerful companies with out-sized political influence. And our current energy infrastructure is designed for a fossil fuel energy system: large-scale energy extraction and energy delivery; the machinery to dig and drill; the pipelines, trains, and trucks delivering these fuels. And, let’s face it, the fuels themselves are very, very good sources of energy, as they produce significant amounts of energy per unit weight. There is a reason that fossil fuels account for 80 percent of global energy needs.

So let’s concede that we still need fossil fuels or our economy collapses. But there are surely other tools in the toolbox that with a level playing field could quickly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we’re dumping into the atmosphere. And I’ll wager that if we truly gave these alternatives the same attention we’ve given to the fossil fuel industry, we could see enormous benefits including cleaner air and water, more jobs—or at least different jobs from those employed by the extractive industries—more ingenuity and creativity, and better overall health for humans, the planet, and future generations.

There are at least three important tools that we must consider as we quickly wean ourselves off fossil fuels including “cleaner” ones such as natural gas.

The first, least costly and most logical of all the tools is energy conservation. We can use a lot less energy in nearly every aspect of our lives: our homes, our workplaces, our transportation choices, and even what we eat. If every home sealed up leaky doors and windows, lowered the thermostat in the winter, and raised it in the summer we could make a serious dent in the 20 percent of U.S. energy consumption dedicated to heating and cooling our homes.

Let’s replace the old car, when the time comes, with a more efficient one. Better yet, dust off that bike in the basement, pump up the tires and oil the chain, and take it to the bus or train to get to work.

Buy local foods or grow some of your own food. Most of our groceries have already traveled an average of 1,500 miles before we bring it home.

Think before you buy. Our economy is driven by consumption and so I share, again, a well-worn fact: if everyone on the Earth consumed to the degree that Americans do, we would need the natural resources of three additional Earths.

The second major tool in the toolbox is renewable energy. The United States has taken great strides in this area but we must do more, and quickly. Last year, jobs in the solar industries grew by 20 percent, and 90 percent of Americans believe that we should be using more solar. In 2012, the Misleh family proudly (and finally) embraced solar with an array on our own home that is now producing about 80 percent of our annual electric energy needs. Wind and geothermal energy are also growing and show enormous promise. In many places around the world, the large electrical projects (hydroelectric dams, large coal-burning power plants, etc.) are taking a back seat to the simple windmill or solar array.

The third tool in the toolbox, especially for people of faith, is that of attitude. We must adopt, as Pope Francis and St. Francis have shown us, an attitude of simplicity that reflects in our own lives the gospel imperatives of sharing what we have, concern for the poor, and care for creation. This attitude is born out of deep prayer, honest self-assessment, personal and communal actions, and a willingness to be a voice for those on the margins of our society and most impacted by environmental harm.

This particular tool can be put to use today by joining a national campaign of other committed Catholics who have signed the St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor (link). More than 10,000 Catholic individuals, families, parishes, universities, and other institutions have committed to the five elements of the Pledge: pray, learn, assess, act, and advocate.

The final tool that we must all embrace combines love and patience and dialogue. My worst days are when I feel that our nation has an inability to have civil dialogue about these important matters. The “you’re either with me or against me, winner take all” attitude by pundits, politicians, and even among ourselves—people within the same faith community—must give way to respectful dialogue, openness to seeing things differently, and working together for common solutions.

So let’s have the courage to embrace all of these tools for the sake of the planet and our children and grandchildren. We know what we must do and we have the resources today to do it. There is really no good reason to continue the reliance on fossil fuels and their dangerous impacts.

Image: Jeremy Buckingham cc via Flickr.