NY priest: Keep fracking out of our state

After a winter like this past one, when it seemed like spring and its flowers would never come, the appearance of those first blossoms brought more than just relief -- it brought a reminder of the fragility of our beautiful natural world and our God-given mandate to safeguard it and those who live in it.

As Catholics, we are deeply committed to the belief in stewardship and sacred trust, and how these religious obligations extend not just to our fellow men and women, but to our earth.

Indeed, in his inaugural last year, Pope Francis urged us to “be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”

It is with precisely this spiritual responsibility in mind that I’ve grown increasingly concerned about hydraulic fracturing -- more familiarly, “fracking” -- used to extract natural gas from the ground. It has become clear that fracking has no place in New York or our nation if we want to protect all that is sacred -- our environment, our health and one another.

The fracking issue has come to the fore in New York, which has taken a cautious approach in contrast to many other states. In New York, health professionals, scientists, religious leaders, business owners and everyday people from across the state have come together to urge Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban this dangerous practice.

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In 2008, New York placed a moratorium on fracking so that experts and lawmakers could study the issue. That moratorium is still in place while the state Department of Health reviews the troubling and growing body of research about the harm fracking does to public health. On Monday, the state’s Assembly voted the practice banned for three years, though few expect the bill to advance any farther before legislators adjourn this week.

The news of new fracking-related disasters appears all too regularly -- ones far from natural that are triggered by this violent and destructive process. Whether it is workers on fracking sites being killed or injured by explosions, earthquakes triggered by drilling, or the contamination of our precious air, land and water, the problems are serious and plentiful.

Despite all of this evidence of problems fracking would bring to New York, oil and gas corporations are pressuring the governor to lift the moratorium.

These corporations and their supporters remain wedded to talking points about the practice being safe despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They point to other states that allow it, even though much of the research and the experience in those places is very disturbing.

They also make grand promises of the untold wealth and countless jobs it will unlock, and that any concern over methods must therefore be a secondary consideration. These talking points have the familiar ring of a case being made by a small number of people who stand to make a tremendous amount of money, and who would prefer not to be bothered with the devastating consequences.

Certainly, I harbor no ill will toward those who work hard and prosper, and who in doing so provide benefits to our communities. But the problems they attempt to minimize are not small --they would harm all we have a responsibility to protect, having been blessed to inhabit this beautiful earth.

Even if the economic claims made by oil and gas companies were true, it would still be incumbent upon us to weigh these benefits against the practice’s negative impact on the delicacy of natural life, human and environmental. But perhaps more distressingly, the claims being made don’t seem to stand up to scrutiny on their own.

Economic study of fracking endeavors in America suggests that the financial benefits of the practice are not nearly as good as the promises to ordinary, hardworking people. Far too often, they simply enrich the already wealthy oil and gas corporations and their executives with billions of dollars and leave the rest of us with all of the negative consequences and costs.

A recent independent and multi-state study of the economic impact of fracking substantiates this, showing that the benefits have been overstated and the costs often hidden. While industry has claimed each fracking well would create 31 jobs, the study found the accurate number was actually four jobs per well. The executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute explained industry exaggeration as intended “to minimize or avoid altogether taxation, regulation, and even careful examination of shale drilling.”

More concerning are the many signs of dangerous environmental and health impacts. In states where fracking is conducted, there is clear evidence it has contaminated drinking water. One study revealed evidence of “elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals close to natural gas extraction sites.”

Fracking would also contribute to the climate change catastrophe, in that it leaks potentially large quantities (exact amounts are unclear) of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. If we continue to maintain our reliance on dirty fossil fuels like fracked natural gas, it could have devastating consequences for our fragile climate.

Fracking is an affront to human rights by contaminating the water, soil and air, and threatening the health of those living around it. It could endanger our food, farming and agriculture by polluting New York land. With the health and well-being of generations in danger, it is the poor and marginalized that are often harmed the most -- the same people to whom the oil and gas industry make dubious promises.

This is also an affront to our Catholic faith. Our theological tradition teaches us to use God’s creation with gratitude and to live virtuously within God’s creation. Fracking is inconsistent with these basic principles. These principles can also be found in numerous other faith traditions, from Native American religions to Judaism and Islam.

The teachings and obligations of our faith should lead Catholics, including Gov. Cuomo, to one conclusion about our moral responsibility toward one another and the planet that God has given us: we cannot allow fracking. New York must ban this dangerous and destructive practice.

[Franciscan Fr. Michael Tyson, is a parochial vicar at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, in New York City.]

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