Think before You Frack: Ending Our Reliance on Fossil Fuels Might Mean Digging Deeper to Find Alternative Solutions to Our Global Energy Crisis

Article excerpt

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In the various houses I've lived in over the years, when I had to plane or sand a door to keep it from sticking I'd start, logically enough, by separating the door from the jamb by removing the hinge pins. After the shave, getting the door back on the hinges was always a challenge, especially with the awkward, heavy door. I'd lift the door vertically to align the two hinge halves and then try to hold it steadily while reaching to replace the hinge pin.

Then someone showed me a very simple trick: Lay a crowbar on the floor close to the hinge side of the doorjamb, place the bottom edge of the door on top of the crowbar, and press down on the crowbar with your foot to raise the door to the level of the hinges, push the hinge halves together, and drop in the pin. Voila! All the years of cursing heavy doors and trying to align those hinges--with a simple lever, the back strain, pinched fingers, and the cursing all but disappeared.

This little metaphor came to me recently while following the debate on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the process of extracting natural gas by drilling a well vertically and then horizontally deep into the earth. Into the boreholes go enormous amounts of pressurized water, sand, and chemicals to drive out natural gas trapped in shale rock. The jury is still out on whether this can be done safely, and the long-term dangers are hard to predict. We may not know, for example, if the chemically tainted water will remain underground or begin to seep into water tables and filter into rivers and streams.

There are other, more immediate problems surfacing as well. An enormous number of tanker trucks and other vehicles are rumbling down--and crumbling--country roads that are not designed to handle the volume of traffic. The exact composition of the chemicals used in the fracking process (many are "trade secrets") is unknown, as is the safety of those chemicals, especially to human health. Furthermore, no one has decided who is held responsible if something does go wrong. Finally, we simply do not know the degree of public awareness about the socioeconomic short- and long-term benefits and costs of the processes to families, communities, and states.

The problem of climate change is well understood, even if the outcomes are not entirely certain. Fossil fuel consumption is generating greenhouse gas pollution--that is, more greenhouse gases beyond what naturally occurs to keep the planet in balance. We have to immediately slow and quickly reverse this activity or we'll likely cook the planet and generate enormous hardship for ourselves, especially for the poor and vulnerable. So what's the tool, what's the lever that we need to get the job done smarter and with less pain?

Some, including President Obama, think that one important tool is natural gas because it burns cleaner. And extracting it through fracking is all the rage in many places around the country including, and maybe especially, in Pennsylvania.

Even if this method of pulling natural gas out of the ground can be made safe, it seems that the fuel and the process are, in many ways, the same old approach. What we really need are new, but very attainable, tools. It's clear we cannot keep burning fossil fuels--even relatively clean ones like natural gas--and save the planet from harmful climate change.

Proponents of this process tout that natural gas is a bridge fuel because it does, in fact, put far less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than either coal or oil. But maybe this is just perpetuating the myth of "clean" fossil fuels. If we truly put as much time and money into exploring and developing cleaner alternatives to fossil fuel energy, could we dramatically reduce our dependency on them?

Natural gas is still a fossil fuel and, while it is definitely cleaner than coal, it still contributes to green house gas pollution. So here I offer some thoughts in the hope that they contribute to an urgent and ongoing dialogue about how our society--and especially people of faith--power our lives and our economy. …