Earlier this month I visited my parents in their home along the Ohio River. They’ve owned 75 acres of open fields and hillside forest since 1969. From their front door you can see an island that serves as a refuge for osprey and bald eagles, the hills of West Virginia, and a coal-burning power plant. It’s a paradox of sorts – the beauty of the Mid-Ohio Valley and the pollution from chemical and power plants. It’s a region that has learned to live with both a successful economy for those employed in well-paying engineering positions at “the plant,” and with an economy that is unsustainable when those factories go out of business. I can remember some families who had previously been ensconced in the middle class receiving free lunch because the coal mines closed or the oil refinery moved away. While such a paradox is not new to the place I call home, it is a history that can oft be forgotten.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me when my father said he’d been approached by an energy company about running a frack line across the northern line of our family property. Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is a process by which a mix of water, sand, and various chemicals is pumped into the well at high pressure in order to create fissures in the earth through which gas can escape. Natural gas escapes through the fissures and is drawn back up the well to the surface, where it is processed, refined, and shipped to market. Any remaining wastewater returns to the surface.
The process of fracking creates problems that are both environmental and economic. First, the sheer pressure of the process literally causes the geological formation to crack. Sixth grade science class taught me that when geological formations crack something catastrophic can happen; specifically, earthquakes.
Second, water, sand, and chemicals mixed together aid the fracking process. Upon completion of the process, the water and chemicals flow back to the surface, potentially contaminating ground water. Several studies suggest that fracked formations have contaminated drinking water aquifers with methane, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. In addition to the potential contamination of drinking water aquifers, the practice of fracking, which requires millions of gallons of water, often lowers the water table in aquifers. This greatly reduces the availability of well water and also degrades its quality by allowing more particles to concentrate in what is left in the aquifer.
West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania, and Western New York are prime locations for fracking because of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale found there. The same holds true for Utica Shale in Southern Ohio. Jobs related to hydraulic fracking in these regions have grown exponentially over the past five years, and not all of these are blue collar jobs. As more and more landowners, like my parents, are approached regarding mineral rights and rights of way, lawyers with experience in federal and state natural resource law and financial advisors with an eye to sustainable investment of royalties are finding themselves as skilled laborers in the oil and gas industry. Anecdotally, one friend said there is no rental housing available in his town because it’s been snagged by the oil and gas companies.
While my heart aches for a beautiful land, my mind cannot stop thinking of an oil and gas boom that could deepen the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. Those who have the ability to own land are already a step ahead of those whose financial, or family, history has not provided them with acres of land and minerals below.
History has shown us the economic instability of invasive extraction. In the late 1800s, Bramwell, West Virginia was the center of coal mining in the southern part of the state. At its height, Bramwell was home to 13 millionaires, per capita more than any other place in the United States at the time. (The high school basketball team was even called the “Millionaires”!) In 2000, the per capita income was $13,410 with 15.7% of the population living below the poverty line. Invasive mineral extraction has never proved to be a long term economic option. We cannot embrace short term economic windfalls to guide our path to environmental degradation. When God calls us to be stewards of God’s creation, we must recognize that creation includes not only the environment around us, but the human beings who are marginalized through the dismembered relationships we have with the environment.
The Greek word oikos means house. It’s the root of our modern words ecology, economy, and is related to ekklesia, from which we get ecclesiology. All of those words have something in common – they’re about getting our house in order. I’ve come to realize that as my parents age, I’m going to help them do a lot of house-ordering. I firmly believe that fracking and pipelines for moving frack wastewater do not belong in the order of the household – or in the long-term sustainability of the community around it. Energy independence cannot come at the risk of widening the economic gap and increasing unhealthy communities. It’s time to stop making people live in this paradox. Our future depends on it.
Chett Pritchett is Interim Executive Director for the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and Wesley Theological Seminary, and is a member at Dumbarton UMC in Washington, DC.