Catholic advocates monitoring issues raised by extractive industries

This 2012 photo shows a natural gas well drilled in a rural field near Canton, Pa. Catholic advocates are adding their voices in opposition to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling process that retrieves natural gas trapped in underground shale d eposits. Critics claim it creates health hazards, like contaminating communities' drinking water. (CNS photo/Les Stone, Reuters)
This 2012 photo shows a natural gas well drilled in a rural field near Canton, Pa. Catholic advocates are adding their voices in opposition to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling process that retrieves natural gas trapped in underground shale d eposits. Critics claim it creates health hazards, like contaminating communities’ drinking water. (CNS photo/Les Stone, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — In his State of the Union address last year, President Barack Obama called for an “all of the above” strategy on domestic energy production. In this year’s State of the Union remarks, Obama said, “No area is more ripe for such innovation than energy.”

Not so fast, say some clean-energy advocates, a growing number of Catholics among them.

The latest craze in domestic energy is hydraulic fracturing — fracking for short. Energy companies hope to tap into natural gas deposits trapped in shale deep under the ground. To free them, they drill deep, then pump in a compressed mixture of water, silica sand and a collection of chemicals — the composition of which is a trade secret of the energy firms.

According to Richard Barnes, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, which issued a statement on the issue, polls show mixed support for fracking. It’s evenly divided in areas of the state where fracking occurs or could occur, he said, but tilts against fracking outside those regions. Barnes had spoken during a Feb. 12 forum on “extractive” industries during the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington.

Those who support fracking look to the economic benefits of leasing their land or selling mineral rights to fracking interests. Those who oppose it worry about environmental degradation.

New York currently permits only vertical fracking, although technology has advanced to the point where horizontal fracking –once vertical pipes are underground — can take place, holding the promise of extracting even more natural gas.

Barnes attributed the state Catholic conference’s interest in the issue to New York’s population mix — heavily urban in its southeast corner and along Lake Ontario and largely rural elsewhere — as well as the bishops who serve in the Empire State. “We don’t have all the answers,” Barnes said, “but we think we’re asking the right questions.” The state has not decided whether to give the go-ahead to horizontal fracking.

Holy Cross Brother David Andrews, a senior representative for Food and Water Watch, called the New York State Catholic Conference’s statement “problematic at best” because he said it “claimed to use Catholic social teaching but used cost-benefit analysis.” But he acknowledged it was the only state he knew of whose Catholic conference had even looked at the issue.

The U.S. bishops addressed energy in 1981 — long before fracking was a gleam in an energy executive’s eye — when their Committee on Social Development and World Peace issued a statement, “Reflections on the Energy Crisis.”

In it, the bishops enunciated six principles of “the moral dimensions of energy policy”: upholding the right to life; accepting an appropriate share of responsibility for the welfare of creation; accepting limitation in a Christian spirit; striving for a more just society; giving special attention to the needs of the poor and members of minority groups; and participating in the decision-making process.

The participation dimension energized Mary Klauke Abbas, a community outreach specialist with Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa.

Iowa is not in the fracking belt, an area that encompasses New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio — where a New Year’s Eve 2011 earthquake was attributed to injecting fracking wastewater down the same hole — but because it’s in the silica sand belt, which also takes in portions of Minnesota and Wisconsin. (After the temblor, the Catholic Conference of Ohio issued a statement that said in part, “Prudence would dictate that all measures should be taken to monitor injection wells and shut down any that may pose a threat to the safety of communities” and fracking should only proceed “without causing environmental damages.”)

Abbas is also secretary of Allamakee County Protectors, which recently won an 18-month moratorium on sand mining from the county commissioners. The group hosted dinners throughout the county featuring grilled cheese sandwiches and homemade chili to mobilize residents on the issue, adding she would talk with Catholic Charities and rural life advocates in Iowa’s other dioceses about what she calls “frack sand.”

Jim Ennis, executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, said he’s fielded calls from conference members in up to a half-dozen dioceses because of their concerns over the silica sand mining.

“There will be competing interests,” Abbas told Catholic News Service. “We haven’t gotten a lot of verbal pushback, but we know the pushback is there. All of the people who spoke at the hearing and at the board of commissioners meeting — there were two meetings — spoke out in support of us. But we can’t keep them (mining companies) out unless we get some sort of a ban.”

Ensuring special attention to the needs of the poor and members of minority groups isn’t just a domestic issue. Oxfam has worked in six countries where mining has threatened to wreak havoc on the indigenous peoples who live on the land, according to Noemie Hailu, Oxfam America’s extractive industries campaign coordinator.

Catholic Relief Services, the overseas relief and development of the U.S. bishops, even published a book, “Extractives and Equity,” which spotlighted CRS efforts in Peru, Angola and Nigeria.

CRS worked to get part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to include transparency language for U.S. firms with international extractive operations.

The law “requires all oil, gas and mining companies that are registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to include in their annual report to the SEC information on the payments they made to governments of the countries where they operate,” the book said.

But, it added, the regulations had not yet been written, although it expressed hope that the first such reports would be available this year. “Civil society advocates will be able to use this information in their work to hold their governments accountable for the use of revenues from the exploitation of their nation’s natural resource wealth,” it said.

Nor is the extractives issue of recent vintage; fracking is just its latest expression.

Notre Dame Sister Beth Davies has been working for 40 years in southwest Virginia in the heart of Appalachian coal country. St. Charles, Va., is just across the border from Harlan County, Ky. One firm mines coal from Black Mountain, on both sides of the state line.

“The promises ‘the jobs will be here for you and we’re going to open up more of the land here to more coal mining,’ people begin to realize that the promises that are made about jobs aren’t true,” Sister Beth said, noting the region’s residents have been dependent on a coal-based economy for a century. “The technology is killing the jobs,” she added, and the strip mining and mountaintop removal mining practices are devastating the land.

By Mark Pattison Catholic News Service