Amish face fracking dilemma

Sunday, January 20, 2013

I went to college in a community dominated by Old Order Amish in northwestern Pennsylvania. Because of this history, I've been following a controversy that is testing the convictions of the members of this tightly knit religious sect. The unrest is over energy; specifically, it's about drilling -- called "fracking" -- for natural gas.

During my time as an undergraduate, the sight of a horse pulling a black buggy through town was an everyday occurrence. Amish don't own or operate motor vehicles, although they do ride public transportation. I sat behind more than a few Amish men on buses during my collegiate career in the late 1970s. Don't ask them about who they think will play in the upcoming Super Bowl. They probably wouldn't know. They don't have telephones nor do they watch television or listen to the radio or surf the Internet. No indoor toilets. No upholstered furniture. They do not use electricity from the grid. As a result, the oft-stated hope for energy independence for America finds no empathy among these folk -- since they do not depend on the wider culture. Everything about them sets the Amish apart. The distinctive dress -- men and boys in wide-brimmed hats, women in chaste bonnets -- are to non-Amish their best known feature.

The Amish are known for inner harmony. Many readers of this column will remember the 2006 shooting at an Old Order Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa. Ten elementary-aged children were shot; five died. The response of the Amish in that community stunned the world. Amish visited the family of the killer, offering them forgiveness and comfort. Amish set up a charitable fund for the shooter's family. Thirty Amish attended the gunman's funeral. Letting go of grudges is a deeply ingrained value.

However, among this harmonious sect there is some recent discord. The Amish are farmers -- and farming is a tough business. Some Amish have accepted cash payments from gas companies that plan to drill into the Marcellus Shale -- a mile-deep formation of rock that a Penn State geoscientist estimates holds enough pockets of natural gas to satisfy the current needs of the United States for the next 20 years. The formation sweeps from West Virginia, into Pennsylvania and into New York. My youngest sister, who is not Amish, was approached with an offer for the mining rights under her property. She has not taken it.

This process is called hydraulic fracturing ("fracking," for short). The drill is vertically inserted to a depth of a million feet, then the drill bit is turned horizontally for a couple of thousand more feet. The wells the drills create are then flooded with millions of gallons of pressurized water laced with sand. The idea is to fracture the shale and release the natural gas.

Many landowners, including some Amish, have taken the money. They did so perhaps not knowing that fracking holds the potential for disrupting or destroying the water table. They did so perhaps not knowing that the drilling involves noisy machinery operating at all hours. Increases in traffic to normally bucolic Lawrence County, Pa. were also not anticipated.

Amish who have resisted the cash payments have not been happy with fellow sect members who have pocketed the windfall -- in some cases, up to $3,500 an acre. As one Amish farmer who refused the money put it, "I want to keep the land the way God made it."

Perhaps the natural gas in Marcellus Shale will offer the U.S. long-sought freedom from dependence on foreign sources of energy. Maybe yes and maybe no. But I can't stop thinking about the man in the wide-brimmed hat who wonders if the beauty of the land will be despoiled for the metaphorical equivalent of 30 pieces of silver.

Dr. Jeff Long teaches religious studies at Southeast Missouri State University and is executive director of the Foundation and assistant director of marketing at Chateau Girardeau Retirement Community.

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