Pennsylvania religious leaders debate gas fracking

Sunday, July 10, 2011
Matt Rourke ~ The Associated PressSister Nora Nash, director of the corporate social responsibility program at the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, poses Thursday for a portrait in Aston, Pa.

PITTSBURGH -- Bishops, nuns and rabbis are joining the environmental and social debate over natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region, and many are seeking a balance that reflects their congregations.

"We have people's lives who are being blessed or adversely affected by this," said Bishop Thomas Bickerton of Pittsburgh, who leads more than 800 United Methodist congregations and 187,000 members in western Pennsylvania, where major drilling is taking place.

"The conversations within the church are rather lively and robust," Bickerton said, and he thinks gas drilling "warrants some careful looking" by religious groups and public officials.

Bickerton said that it's a delicate topic. On one hand, he's supportive of the economic development that gas drilling has spurred across the region. On the other, he said it appears the state has not thoroughly looked at all the issues around drilling, its impact on communities and the environment.

And as a West Virginia native, he's seen how mining for another natural resource -- coal -- has helped and hurt communities.

Energy companies have identified major reserves of natural gas throughout the Marcellus Shale, a shale formation that underlies much of New York and Pennsylvania, and parts of Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia.

More than 3,300 wells have been drilled across Pennsylvania in just the last few years. The boom has raised concerns about the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which injects chemical-laced water to break up the shale and allow natural gas to escape into the shale to push out the minerals. Environmental groups and the Environmental Protection Agency have expressed concerns about how the process impacts water, soil and air quality. But the industry insists it is safe.

Bickerton is one of several religious and community leaders who last month signed a protest letter to U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. The letter, which originated with the Environmental Working Group of Washington, D.C., questioned the makeup of a federal committee that is reviewing fracking affects, and asked for more community involvement in the review process.

Bickerton's western Pennsylvania United Methodist Conference is one of many groups that have used church publications to examine the benefits and pitfalls of fracking.

An article titled "The Morality of Fracking" appeared in The National Catholic Reporter last month, and the Reform Jewish Voice of New York State endorsed the drilling moratorium there.

Scientific and environmental issues aren't the only concern.

"I believe personally that the church does have responsibility to engage the wider body of the community about what's moral and what's not. What's ethical and what's not," said Bickerton.

He said he doesn't want to inhibit economic growth, yet is concerned that some in his congregation have been taken advantage of, such as with contracts they don't understand or side effects they haven't considered.

Fracking is one of many environmental issues that religious groups have debated in recent years.

The National Religious Partnership for the Environment includes perspectives from Evangelical, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Interfaith groups. In April, the Kentucky group Blessed Earth used the slogan "Make Earth Day a Church Day" and a "Green Bible" was recently published, with essays and "passages that speak to God's care for creation highlighted in green."

In some cases, religious groups see gas drilling as a way to support charitable work.

Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a drilling industry group, said she was surprised last year to find that dozens of religious groups had entered into gas drilling leases.

"That to me was real eye-opener, when you're literally funding mission through the leasing of mineral rights," said Klaber, who believes religious groups can help in the process of distributing some of the newfound wealth that gas drilling is generating.

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