Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as ‘fracking’, is big news all around the world, and especially on both sides of the Irish Sea. It is a technique first used in conventional wells, where a mixture of water and sand was pumped at high pressure to extract the last vestiges of oil or gas. Over the past decades the method has been developed, with the addition of powerful chemical agents, in order to obtain gas from deep layers of impermeable shale.
In contemporary shale oil operations, wells are dug deeply, typically several kilometres, into the earth and thence horizontally into the shale layer. A pipe gun is sent down with explosives which are detonated to cause mini-earthquakes. ‘Fracking fluid’, made up of water, sand and chemicals, follows at high pressure, further fracturing the shale and allowing the gas, which is mainly methane, to escape. Because shale is so impermeable, even using this method, a large number of wells have to be dug within the mined area. Typically, a concreted site will contain up to sixteen wells, with a couple of kilometres between each site and around a hundred wells in total (though obviously operations can be significantly larger or smaller than this). In addition to the wells themselves, the sites, which the industry call ‘pads’, also contain heavy machinery, ponds full of toxic waste liquid, storage and treatment facilities. Networks of access roads link the sites for the heavy goods vehicles bringing and removing water (each individual well requires millions of gallons of water), materials and waste products. A conservative estimate is that one thousand return lorry journeys are required for the construction and maintenance of each well.
Obviously, this type of industrial operation has a significant effect upon the surrounding, usually rural, locality. Its visual impact, often replacing forests and meadows, combines with the noise of twenty-four hour heavy machinery, noxious smells and clouds of smog, to transform the landscape. But it is the unseen effects that are causing even more concern, especially in the United States where the industry has been operating for the longest. Both human and animal (wildlife and livestock) health can be seriously damaged by the poisons contained in diesel exhaust gases, the chemicals contained in fracking fluids and the ‘mud’ used to lubricate the drill bits, by heavy metals and radioactive materials brought out of the shaft and by the escape of methane into air and domestic drinking water. Meanwhile the huge quantities of water required leave local water tables depleted; the fracturing process has been implicated in earthquakes and the highly flammable nature of the gas has led to serious fires and explosions.
As a result of these widespread problems, many American people, who once embraced shale gas as the answer to their energy dilemmas, are now speaking out against it, so much so that at an oil and gas conference in Denver this month, delegates were told that only 7% of the public view the industry favourably. “The public do not believe us.” said the president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “We need someone else delivering our message for us.” Speaking of those who oppose hydraulic fracturing, she said, “These nuts make up about 90% of our population, so we can’t really call them nuts any more. They’re the mainstream.”
Now we on this side of the Atlantic are being faced with the same questions. The company exploring the Blackpool area claims to have discovered a huge exploitable quantity of gas while licences have been granted for both the Republic and Northern Ireland, including the unspoilt lakeland region of County Fermanagh, incorporating lakes, mountains and the Marble Arch Caves Geopark.
How should Christians view this process? Has God given us the gas hidden deep in the shale to use, if we can smash our way into it, however the industry and government see fit? Does our desire to continue our oil-based way of life justify using this resource, no matter what the consequences? Do we have any responsibility towards the earth, our brothers and sisters in its poorer regions, the other species with which we share it, and our children who will inherit it, or is looking after ourselves our divine mandate?
I have been looking into this subject recently and have identified three areas of Christian life and teaching which seem to me to be relevant to our thinking, and our consequent words and actions. This is by no means an exhaustive analysis, but I hope that it may provide a starting-point for others to think, pray and act upon this vital contemporary issue.
Our stewardship of creation
Throughout the Old Testament we learn of God’s intimate care for his creation and of the special role and responsibility borne by the human race in sharing in this relationship. It is we who are given the privilege of naming the species we discover, of looking out for the vulnerable, taming the strong and enabling them all to thrive and multiply. The story of Noah is of an individual taking on this responsibility, ensuring that every type of creature, the entirety of what we now call biodiversity, is kept safe and sustainable. And at the end of the story the rainbow confirms God’s covenant not only with humankind but with “every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth” (Genesis 9:16).
The New Testament gives us an even more compelling reason to cherish the universe and everything within it. We learn that all things were made through Jesus, the Word, “and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). So there is nothing anywhere, no molecule of water or methane, no drop of oil or atom of oxygen that is not imbued with divine life. As Jesus himself said of the sparrow, “not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father” (Matthew 10:30).
In the first millennia of human life on earth, our stewardship work was physically hard. It was a struggle to find food, to grow crops, to raise livestock and to collect wood for fire. Wild animals were as likely to kill us than we them, and forests were places of danger and disorientation. But, gradually first, and in a sudden rush over the past century, the balance has shifted. Now we are lords of creation, able to wipe out species, raze huge jungles, split atoms and delve deep into the earth for coal, oil and gas. In our voracious appetite to set fire to these fossil fuels, which took millions of years to form, and which we burn in an instant, we have even changed the composition of our atmosphere, changing our climate critically and, for billions, tragically. For we have learned little that is new about how to create and nurture, and much about how to destroy. But our theology has not always kept up with our changed position. We are still talking about taming and subduing nature, when it is more often our own greedy and violent impulses which really need to be tamed and subdued.
As the collective people of God, humankind has a shared duty to care for the whole earth and its inhabitants. But individuals and local communities also have, I believe, a particular responsibility towards their own patch of the planet and its land and water, creatures and plants. It is not enough to assume that this responsibility will be discharged by some government agency on our behalf.
Where, as here in Fermanagh, the landscape is exceptionally beautiful, with lakes, mountains and wide stretches of unspoilt woodland, we know from our own experience how it gives glory to God and brings peace and healing to tired souls. There is something about looking out across a lough, with wildfowl quietly scuttering along its surface, that calms our turbulent thoughts and helps us to get our lives and priorities back into proportion. Our noisy, stressful world needs such places, now more than ever, and we should be keeping them safe and available to those who need them most.
Not, of course, that our landscape is simply a backdrop to the drama of our souls. It is home and habitat, shelter and nourishment to many species of wildlife, fish, birds and livestock. As built development encroaches, and climate change alters breeding patterns and food availability, these few enclaves become more and more important in keeping the most vulnerable of God’s creatures alive. Trees, plants and other vegetation naturally thrive within our wetlands and forests, forming part of complex, interdependent webs of life while the unfolding mysteries of our geological heritage humble us before the aeons of their creation.
It is also the source and treasure chest of our most valuable resources; more important than oil, gas, gold or diamonds: fresh water, healthy trees and fertile soil. As glaciers melt and sea levels rise, unsalted water will become the world’s most precious commodity. Woodland, absorbing carbon dioxide, and providing sustainable fuel, will be more and more sought-after. And across the world spreading deserts and the effects of intensive chemical-based agriculture are already leaving the ground a barren dustbowl. Soil that can nourish food will be worth more to our children than all the precious stones in a jeweller’s catalogue.
Hydraulic fracturing operations threaten all these aspects of creation. Our landscape, broken and scarred by concrete sites and their brutal machinery will bring no balm to the broken-hearted. The sounds and smells of constant HGVs, pumps and processors will preclude peace and contemplation and instead of breathing the clear woodland air our visitors will cough on clouds of smog and dust.
There is a very real danger that the air and water will be poisoned, either by the chemicals used in the industry or the deep-buried materials suddenly brought to the surface. Communities where this type of mining has begun have found dead and deformed animals, birds and fish, and their livestock stricken by hitherto unfamiliar diseases. Evaporation tanks, as their name suggests, allow toxins to evaporate into the air, while the atmosphere is further contaminated by the high levels of diesel exhaust.
Water may be affected by the breaching of underground aquifers, by leaks and accidents, almost inevitable given the amounts involved, and by the removal of such huge quantities from the local water table. Because the water brought back up from the shaft contains high levels of salt and heavy metals, it cannot be treated and recycled like ordinary waste water but would require expensive desalination before it could safely be returned to the local water system.
Most of us would probably assume that, given this range and severity of risk, the shale gas industry would be very rigorously regulated. Unfortunately this proves not to be the case. In the United States, the industry is exempt from the rules which safeguard drinking water, and environmental protection agencies have proved largely unable or unwilling to investigate serious safety breaches. In the UK the situation is similar, with a range of agencies on the fringes of involvement but none having much by way of actual responsiblity. If we are concerned, therefore, it is going to be up to us as individuals, churches, community groups and networks to speak out on behalf of the creation we love.
Love of our neighbour
We are all acutely aware of the economic disasters which have overcome most of the world, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, and of the fact that those who are suffering most are those who are least to blame. These are hard times when jobs are, for many, almost impossible to come by. In these circumstances it is natural to greet with hope and optimism any suggestion of fresh employment possibilities, especially in rural areas. Many will have seen headlines such as those in our local paper proclaiming ‘800 jobs’ and have felt their hearts lift. But sadly the truth behind the headlines is unlikely to be so bright.
In our area the licensee’s stated estimate is of a maximum of 700 jobs (so the real figure could be very much lower) spread across all the locations, north and south of the border, where it proposes to mine, and over a period of fifty years. Moreover, although the company has said thatit will give priority to local people in filling these positions, it would of course be illegal under EU law for it to do so. These few jobs, if they materialise at all, are likely to be unskilled, low-paid and hazardous. (We have, of course, been reminded very recently of the tragically dangerous nature of all mining work.) They are likely to bring no significant training or career opportunities and to be offered to those prepared to work with the least dignity for the lowest pay.
But if hydraulic fracturing is unlikely to provide a job for most of our neighbours, it is far more likely to take away the livelihoods of many others. The main industries of rural counties like Fermanagh are tourism and agriculture, with hundreds of small businesses: farms, hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, pubs, activity centres, shops etc. providing the bedrock of our community. Most of these businesses depend, directly or indirectly, upon visitors; people from all over the world who come here to fish, climb, kayak, ramble or simply relax and enjoy the scenery and atmosphere of tranquility and calm. How many will still come to see landscapes ravaged by concrete, to hear the roar of pumps and generators, to dodge huge tankers in our country lanes and to wonder what is lurking beneath the surfaces of our precious loughs and rivers? If the tourists stop coming, the whole structure of our economic life, built up with so much hard work and commitment, will crumble and crash, each failure triggering the next, until every person in the county feels the blow.
It is the same for the farmers. It only takes one instance of contamination of milk or of meat to bring about the collapse not just of the farm where it happens but of the entire sector across a wide geographical area.
And it isn’t only in their economic lives that our neighbours could suffer as a result of shale gas extraction. There is growing evidence of health problems among people living near, or even some distance downwind, of this type of gas well. And, as is usually the case, it is the most vulnerable; children, the elderly and those whose health is already delicate or compromised who experience the most painful and serious consequences.
If we are truly to love our neighbours, even in the narrowest of geographical senses, we must do more than simply salivate, Pavlovian-fashion, at the mention of potential jobs. When the Good Samaritan came across the robbed man he treated him with dignity and compassion and ensured that all his needs were met, for health, shelter and companionship as well as for food and drink. In the same way, viewing our own neighbours with respect means seeing them as complete human beings and not just as economic units, and acknowledging all they have to lose as well as what they might conceivably gain. And as for our neighbours a little further away …
Over the past few years, Christians of all traditions have become increasingly aware of the huge challenges posed by climate change and peak oil and of the conflicts which these are stoking throughout the world. Again, it is those societies principally responsible for the problems who suffer least from their effects, and those who have played the smallest part who reap the fiercest whirlwind. We know now that to continue emitting greenhouse gases as we do will make huge swathes of our planet uninhabitable and create unbearable tensions between peoples and nations.
We know, too, that the oil upon which our whole way of life depends is rapidly running out. Everyone is looking for a quick fix, some way that we can limp on, keeping tight hold of the consumer lifestyle to which we feel entitled. Shale gas seems, at first glance, to offer this opportunity. But gas is a fossil fuel as much as coal or oil and, because methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and because the extraction process is prone to a high frequency of leaks, its total emissions are probably higher than either. The mining and use of shale gas will accelerate the process of climate change as well as threatening our supplies of the other resource for which the world is desperate; fresh, clean water.
The chairman of the company who hold the licence to operate here has described those who oppose his plans as ‘anti-development’. But as moral beings, we can never be pro- or anti- development per se; it all depends on what is being developed and what it is going to become. There are many types of development that would use our natural resources, not the dangerous and finite ones a kilometre below our feet, but the abundant and renewable energy of wind, waves and sun. The island of Ireland, north and south, is rich in appropriate locations of wind, wave and tidal electricity generation which could power our world cleanly and justly. It would use our traditions of engineering expertise and innovation and provide real, skilled and permanent jobs and export revenues. All that is needed to make this sustainable development a reality is will, leadership and a little courage.
For we are not called either to despair or to false, head-in-the-sand optimism. There is hope for our world, an earth ‘charged’, as Hopkins wrote, ‘with the grandeur of God’, and a family of mankind each of whom bears his image. But in order to realise this hope, we must look clearly at the pass to which we have come, and take our future path with great care. The values of the Gospel call us to speak out against the turning of our Father’s house into a marketplace. I believe that it is time to speak.