The Bible instructs us to have dominion over the earth while at the same time we are bidden to preserve it. The Talmud offers many examples of the polar tension between using the land and being ecologically responsible. Ultimately, the Jewish position is articulated in a midrash in which God gives Adam a tour of the Garden of Eden and warns him to use it carefully because it will not be replaced.
In today’s world we are still dealing with this conflict, primarily in the area of energy resources. The need for energy is growing, yet we should not destroy our environment in this process. Government regulators, environmentalists, and the energy industry are locked in combat over these issues. Added to the mix is the desire to become energy independent, especially since OPEC oil comes from countries that are unsympathetic to or downright enemies of Israel and the United States. Still another consideration is lucre and greed, which trump all other considerations. Drilling in Alaska and offshore drilling are well known examples of this issue.
A new technique to extract natural gas from shale rock deep in the ground is called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Drillers inject millions of gallons of water, mixed with toxic chemicals, into the ground and detonate the rock to cause it to shatter and release natural gas. Only about half of the water can be recaptured and potentially treated. The rest flows away to contaminate streams and wells. Multiple drill pads scar the land, and escaping gas pollutes the air. And scientists have recently identified a further risk: Fracking may bring radioactive elements from deep in the earth to the surface.
The Marcellus Shale is rich in shale and natural gas. It sits beneath both New York’s Catskill Mountains and Pennsylvania’s Poconos, the dual epicenters of Jewish (and non-Jewish) summer camping. Four Jewish summer camps (B’nai B’rith’s Perlman Camp in Lake Como, Pa.; Camp Nesher in Lakewood, Pa., and Camp Shoshanim in Lake Como, both New Jersey Y camps; and Camp Morasha in Lake Como) are reported to have signed leases with the Hess Corporation that could allow the deep bore drilling technique – criticized by many experts as damaging to the environment – at their campgrounds by this fall. Environmentalists worry that this toxic water could escape from the wells and taint nearby water supplies. The dairy farmers are very concerned about every aspect of raising cows who give untainted milk.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced a study of the impact of hydrofracking on drinking water, to be completed by 2014. An interstate agency called the Delaware River Basin Commission effectively blocked new hydrofracking wells in areas draining into the Delaware River. In December, the DRBC issued a draft of those regulations, which must be approved by the agency’s commissioners – the governors of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and a representative of the federal government.
Fracturing shale for gas has been done for more than 50 years, but horizontal slick water hydraulic fracturing is a relatively new technology. Fracking in the Upper Delaware is also proving to be uniquely tricky because of shallow thermogenic methane deposits. If fracking does take place, frequent and expensive baseline water testing must take place. The gas companies have promised the camps to “repair” or “replace” their water supplies if they become contaminated due to drilling, and the leases also force gas companies to select surfaces for drilling and construction in ways that minimize erosion.
How is a water supply replaced? How much soil erosion is acceptable?
Hydrofracking in Pennsylvania has not been without recent incident. In April, 10,000 gallons of hydrofracking fluid spilled over a well’s containment berms in Bradford County. Some of the fluid made its way into a nearby stream.
Jewish wisdom and values oppose selling rights to the land in ways that will poison the earth, the air, the water, and crops. Everyone supports increasing our energy independence, but in ways that also protect the environment. Fracking needs more study. It’s a shame that the camps couldn’t wait until the science is completed before signing their leases. As a country, we clearly need this energy source, yet our kids need fresh air and clean water. The camps have no business allowing this. It is surprising that their liability insurers are not more concerned.
The gas industry says that fracking is safe, and has made many promises to safeguard the camps. If that is true, why are the companies that use this technique trying to avoid regulation? In 2005, lobbyists for the natural gas industry persuaded Congress to exempt fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act. Other key environmental laws also contain exemptions for gas drilling. Opposition to gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale is growing. New York’s City Council and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have taken stands against allowing fracking in the Marcellus Shale, in order to protect the city’s watershed. Thanks to public pressure, there is a de facto moratorium on new drilling in New York State until new environmental reviews are completed.
The camps mentioned above received hundreds of thousands of dollars for signing these leases, with the potential of earning millions once the natural gas is extracted. More camps and some resorts will no doubt also be approached to allow fracking on their land. Money is a potent force, but it cannot replace polluted streams and rivers, nor can it replace what is still an idyllic summer in the Catskills and the Poconos for countless numbers of children.