Pagans join the protests against fracking

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In March 2014, the Pagan Environmental Coalition of New York City (PEC-NYC) formed after being inspired to action by Gasland (2010), a documentary on the U.S. fracking industry. It became their mission to pro-actively promote the development of renewable, clean energy alternatives.

In 2013, a group of U.K. Pagans held a ritual at Glastonbury Tor to raise awareness about fracking. The event turned global with Pagans around the world joining the ritual from their own space.The organizers wrote, “We felt it a shame to let the energy go to waste and so consolidated ourselves into a pagan anti-fracking pressure group; thus was the Warrior’s Call born.”

Both the PEC-NYC and The Warrior’s Call are dedicated to passionately campaigning against fracking. They have joined a fervent and outspoken global movement to end this relatively new process of energy extraction. Collectively these people are often refer to as fracktavists. But what exactly is fracking? Why is there so much controversy around its use?

"Rig wind river“  Wyoming. [Public domain via Wikimedia]

“Rig wind river“ Wyoming. [Public domain via Wikimedia]

What is Fracking?
Hydraulic Fracturing, or “Fracking,” is the extraction of fossil fuels from subterranean shale rock. The complicated process involves the injection of a high-powered fluid, containing water, sand and chemicals, into the earth. The combination of chemicals and pressure cause the shale to fracture and release trapped fossil fuels, which are then collected at the well site.

The basic technology behind fracking has been around for decades. According to Wall Street Journal senior energy editor Russell Gold, the concept on making wells more productive through fracturing rock began in the 1800s. However, the “modern age of hyrdraulic fracturing” did not begin until in 1998. And it has only been in the last 10 years that the United States has seen a surge in the use of fracking wells.

Fracking processes are found in areas where geologists have identified trapped fossil fuels within the subterranean shale beds. In the U.S., hydraulic fracturing is mostly used in Texas, Oklahoma, Pensylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Other countries with identified shale beds, such as Canada, Bulgaria, China and Australia to name a few, have also been using this new fracking technology.

Why Frack?
At its base level, the push to employ hydraulic fracturing is driven by society’s dependence, or overdependence as it were, on fossil fuels. As the world’s population increases the demand increases, and alternative energy processes have yet to become viable replacements for these traditional modalities, due to economic, technological and practical reasons. The industry is desperate to find new sources of fossil fuels to feed our insatiable need. Fracking answers that call.

"US Natural Gas Production 1990-2040" by US Energy [Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

“US Natural Gas Production 1990-2040” by US Energy [Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

While fracking does pull oil from the shale rock, it is more commonly known for its use in extracting natural gas. According to the EIA, as noted by writer Brad Plummer, the U.S.natural gas stores “have reached historic highs.” The data show the fracked gas has increased 5x since 2007 alone, while coal and other traditional wells have decreased production.

Proponents argue that this boom is helping decrease our dependency on international energy. It has also reduced the price of natural gas, even at the consumer level. Due to the lower cost, many industries are converting their coal burning plants to natural gas, which burns cleaner. Experts believe that this change has contributed to the moderate decrease in overall U.S. carbon emissions since 2007. And finally, proponents also argue that the fracturing bonaza, as it has been called, has bolstered local economies and created new jobs.

Why the controversy?
While there are a Pagans who are conflicted with regards to the use of fracking, we could not find one who was decidedly pro-fracking. If they exist, they appear to be a non-vocal minority. The majority of Pagans who are publicly talking about the fracking boom, are vehemently opposed. The Warrior’s Call and PEC-NYC are just two examples.

Courtney Weber, a member of PEC-NYC, spoke with The Wild Hunt about her organization’s position and recent actions. She said, “I can’t imagine Pagans allowing their temples to be smashed. The Earth is being damaged…We have to fight to protect it.” Weber is one of key organizers in the PEC-NYC’ mobilization against fracking and for renewable energy – specifically wind. PEC-NYC is working on a petition to ask New York Governor Cuomo for his support of wind energy. The group is also sending members to a Nov. 1-7 Beyond Extreme Energy rally in Washington D.C.

"Witches Want Wind"  Courtney Weber at a Cuomo Rally, 2014 [Courtesy Photo]

“Witches Want Wind” Courtney Weber at a Cuomo Rally, 2014 [Courtesy Photo]

For Weber and others like her, the reported benefits of fracking do not justify the known environmental and economic damage, both immediate and long term. With the help of Food and Water Watch, PEC members visited fracking sites in Susquehana, Pennsylvania. Weber said, “They had headaches in 15 minutes. There was no wildlife. No insects. No birds … It smelled as if you put your face in a gallon of glue.” What she describes is not a thriving metropolis living off industry profits, but a broken region gutted and stripped of life.

Opponents believe that the economic claims are wrong. Jobs are not being created, roads are being destroyed by industry vehicles, and the townspeople are reaping no benefits. They add that, even with the increase in gas stores, the U.S. will not ever be energy independent as is often claimed.

Additionally, opponents point to some serious and very immediate environmental concerns. There have been cases in which the local water has been tainted with the toxic waste fluid from the shale gas extraction, and the air has been polluted with both methane and benzene gases. Weber pointed out the number of trucks needed to transport the millions of gallon of water. She noted that these trucks increase the carbon footprint of entire process and the water usage itself can potentially strain resources in many drought-ridden areas.

From PEC-NYC Pennsylvania trip. [Courtesy PEC-NYC]

From PEC-NYC Pennsylvania trip. [Courtesy PEC-NYC and George Courtney]

Finally, opponents will also quickly point out that, while natural gas does burn cleaner, it still does produce “greenhouse gases.” Weber says, “It’s kind of like quitting smoking and then starting heroine instead.” She questions the wisdom in supporting an industry that appears to be just another dangerous substitute. Like others opposed to fracking, she fears that any support given to hydraulic fracturing will only detract from the development of economically viable, clean and renewable energy solutions.

Weber added that, as an activist, she can’t fight every battle. She says, “I can’t fight for bees, deforestation and the black rhino. Philosophically I can. But practically I can’t.” Energy is what she picked and says to others, ‘Pick what’s local. Pick what makes you mad.” Fracking made her mad.

So where do we find an answer?
Fracking is happening and at an increasing rate. The U.S. is on its way to having record natural gas resources. While that will not make us energy independent, it will increase U.S. exports, decrease prices and help the national trade deficit. Coal-based plants are closing down and the U.S. has lowered its overall carbon emissions. And, there is talk using natural gas reserves to help countries still struggling to control their own carbon emissions.

However, those benefits are measured purely in numbers and do not take into account the negative externalities of fracking.They do not measure methane cleanup; water pollution; property damage; local economic fallout; road maintenance; water resource limitations and the many environmental unknowns. What are the long-term affects? Will the progressive fracturing of subterranean shale rock create ground instability, leading to earthquakes?

While the Environmental Protection Agency and other private organizations are studying these issues, debates rage on in the world’s political arena. Many states and countries have banned or severely regulated the process or, like New York, have placed a moratorium on fracking until further data are collected. At the same time, organizations like PEC-NYC and The Warrior’s Call join The Sierra Club, Green Faith, Sane Energy Project, Food and Water Watch and others continue to oppose the process altogether.

This article only grazes the surface of a very complex global problem. Due to our society’s addiction to its fossil-fuel based energy infrastructure, we are stuck, so to speak, between a rock and hard place of our own making. We have yet to find a perfect solution that will allow us to maintain both a healthy ecosystem and our current energy-hungry systems. There is no easy button; no magic wand; no panacea … no injection drill that will extract that solution.