Why I’m opposed to fracking

By Jeff Golliher
Posted Jan 31, 2012
Jeff Golliher

The Rev. Canon Jeff Golliher is vicar of St. John's Episcopal Church, Ellenville, and environmental representative of the worldwide Anglican Communion to the United Nations.

[The Episcopal New Yorker] This whole sordid subject of fracking — the deep drilling for natural gas with highly pressurized water and dangerous chemicals — and the impact of groundwater pollution have a long history. But in my own life it’s not a long or complicated story. In fact, it’s not complicated at all. So, I’ll begin with how it all began, and then finish with the present day.

Nearly 45 years ago, I heard my great-grandfather say something that forever changed the direction of my life. I was a kid then. Regrettably, he would live only a few more years. We were sitting around the dinner table — all four generations of my family — as we did every Sunday after church. That kind of thing doesn’t happen much anymore, but in southern Appalachia, where I was born and raised, it was understood as “tradition.” On that day, I learned that tradition includes a great deal more than eating together. It involves learning what we need to know in order to thrive — and to survive.

I began my first summer job in that year, working in the local chair factory. I was proud to have work. The factory was where most people who could no longer support their families by farming made enough money to put food on the table. They were struggling with what it means to feel proud about themselves and their lives.

Sitting there, enjoying my grandmother’s fried chicken and homemade biscuits, I innocently asked some straightforward questions based on what I had seen in the factory: “What happens to the barrels of shellac and varnish after they’re used? What happens to the dirty water after the spraying booths are washed out?”

My great-grandfather — Joel was his name — rarely spoke unless he had something important to say, which, in those days, was the custom for older men in southern Appalachia. To my surprise, and to the surprise of everyone around the table, he spoke quickly and clearly — “Don’t poison the well!” He wasn’t talking to me as much as to everyone there, but especially to my father and grandfather who supervised the factory. From his point of view, they were the younger generation too.

Joel had been around the mountain more times than anyone really knew, and he knew what the implications of my question were. He knew that the barrels and the wastewater were probably buried somewhere in the river valley where we all lived. And he knew that this would result in dangerously polluted drinking water and the poisoning of food that grew in the fertile floodplains. In other words, he knew that the health of his family — all four generations of us, and generations yet to come — would be threatened. He was incensed and angry — “angry” in the sense of “red in the face.”

Being the descendant of Irish immigrants, he also would have known that in the old days the intentional poisoning of wells was considered an act of war between feuding communities and families. What he was really asking was this: “Do you not realize that you’ve gone to war against your own people?” Jobs, yes — we all need work — but not at the expense of everything that really matters in life. The poisoning of groundwater, whether intentional or unintentional, is not something that any reasonable, ethical, thoughtful person would ever contemplate — not under any conceivable circumstance.

All this happened years before the signing of The Clean Water Act; in fact, it was before all of the environmental legislation that we have today. You have to understand who great-grandpa Joel really was and who he wasn’t. He was both a traditional person, and thoroughly conservative in his outlook on life and in his politics. If he were still with us today, what would have bothered him is not that we need to protect the water, soil, and air through legal means, but that we have to choice but to use legal means. Why?

Because we’ve lost our common sense about some very basic knowledge that everyone has always known—if we poison the groundwater, we risk killing our friends and neighbors. Morally speaking, that’s a crime against God and the State, not to mention against our families, friends, and neighbors! Who in their right mind would do that? No one in their right mind!

Joel would have wanted the government out of his life, but he knew, better than most, that “freedom” cannot possibly mean the freedom to do whatever we please — without considering the dangers and threats we might pose to ourselves, our neighbors, and the places where we all live. This is not rocket science, and no amount of high-priced propaganda in the media can change these facts of life, as much as corporate interests might try.

Fracking is dangerous to our health, to our pocketbooks, and to our souls. Large corporate interests very seriously want to frack in my part of New York State. The chemicals are dangerous; the impact on groundwater is like gambling with your life — and its impact on our struggling, but still fertile riverbeds could spell doom for a whole way of life. Once the process begins, the value of property (homes and land) goes down the drain.

My sometimes mule-headed, uneducated, wrote-the-book-on-the-meaning-of-conservative great-grandfather could have told you all this, but he’s not here — so I’m speaking for him and for me. He was one of the most ethical, open-hearted, and kindest people that I’ve ever met. Of course, he didn’t watch much television. I don’t think he thought much of it, and TV propaganda was way before his time. If you don’t want to listen to him or to me, just ask the people of Albany, Syracuse, and Saugerties. They’ve already banned fracking. That sounds like a good idea to me.

—The Rev. Canon Jeff Golliher is vicar of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Ellenville, and environmental representative of the worldwide Anglican Communion to the United Nations.


Comments (7)

  1. Hi Jeff.
    Amen. Amen.
    Further over on the Southern Tier we are as threatened by this as anyone (Schuyler, Chemung, and Stueben Counties). I believe it is the biggest issue of our lives.

    Michael Hartney
    Now Priest for the Episcopal Church in Schuyler County

  2. Rev. Joan LaLiberte says:

    Jeff, this a well-written and very persuasive argument. Thank you!
    I’ve put this on my Facebook.

  3. Rev. Joan Watson says:

    This summer at Keuka Lake I saw sign after sign in front of people’s homes. NO FRACKING.
    I hope it will be successfully eliminated, and it is frightening that someone could get away with fouling the water and endangering thousands of people.

  4. Rev. Anne Vellom, Dcn. Ret. says:

    When I heard that FRACKING caused earthquakes, I decided that it was not my cup of tea!!

    I’m not sure what the ‘mechanism’ is, but somehow, this Fracking is causing the earthquakes that we are seeing in the Midwest!! So, this is against all the rules that we, as faithful people, should be aware of.
    Our grandchildren’s, great-granchildren’s lives are at stake!

  5. An (only slightly) different view on Fracking
    It is complicated like most things, but I believe that if fracking can be made safe it will help shut down the very dirtiest of the fossil fuel business- coal. As many of you know, mountain top removal for coal and coal mining itself is dangerous and dirty. It destroys entire ecosystems, homes and cultures. It poisons water, air and land, thus harming people in many serious ways. Its production and burning is one of the largest contributors to global warming and climate change which is already harming people and crops all over the world. For years anti-coal activists and justice seekers have been searching for an alternative fuel that can tie us over until renewable energy can replace the old traditional ways creating energy.

    The ability to extract natural gas from shale in this new (horizontal) manner has made natural gas available to be the transition fuel. NOT the permanent replacement fuel, but the transition fuel. If we deny fracking, aren’t we contributing to an increase in the use of coal. We are often asked to make hard choices and this is one of them. We have to be FOR some form of energy. What our organization(Interfaith Power and Light) is proposing and what many of the big environmental organizations are working towards is 100% safety measures (regulation) of the fracking process. That means get fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act, (It was exempted by Dick Chaney during the Bush era), make sure that the lines and sites are inspected regularly for leaks. Make the process transparent which means full disclosure of the chemicals that are in the water used to “frack” and if there are any signs of leakage or pollution the company responsible MUST compensate and clean up.

    Fracking will most likely continue and it will create jobs and help the economy. People will have to decide if they want to participate in an important energy source or sit on the sidelines. It is also important to note that most shale being targeted for fracking is a mile or more below the surface and below the average water table. The issue has been leakage and if we can be assured that safety messages are in place, I think we should give fracking a try. That doesn’t mean it, I am FOR fracking as it is. It has to be regulated then it might be our best alternative until we move into clean renewable energy which is the ultimate goal.
    Here is a link to the report that came our after hearings were heard all over the county. The recommendations from the committee at the end are the most important. http://rfflibrary.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/shale-gas-production-subcommittee-second-ninety-day-report/

  6. George Browning says:

    Jeff and Sally, thank you both so much for two extremly thoughtful pieces. Yours Jeff is so wonderfully embedded in the ongoing story of how successive generations make decisions that ensure the ongoing life health and floursihing of their tribe.

    Sally yours is typically wise in that choices are very seldom between good and evil or even right and wrong, they are often between harm and lesser harm or between the relativities of gain in the present and loss in the future. I am confident that we can move towards 100% renewables but it will take time. In the meantime how do we maintain energy sources and minimise risk or even harm? (I have become a supporter of Australia’s recent decision to export uranium to India because for the next two or three decades I believe potential harm from nuclear generated power is less than the known harm from coal fired power stations).
    Here in Australia fracking is a major debate and has brought people out on to the streets. Interestingly it has brought together the Greens and the farming community, groups that normally have absolutely nothing in common. The issue is whether we should explore coal seam gas extraction at the risk of permanent damage to our best agricultrual land.

    As with every thing in life, nuance and paradox are at everyone’s dinner table, a reality few politicians seem to understand.


    1. Stephen Koch says:

      Forgive me, Reverend Golliher, but whether your grandfather was or was not a conservative is irrelevant to the economic future of tens of thousands of people, the revitalization of the industrial heartland of the United States, and energy independence in this country,

      I have lived in the Episcopal Church all my life. I have always thought of this church as my home. I worship in it every week of my life. I pride myself on trying to think through political issues independently. The righteousness rhetoric of both the left and right bores me.

      And apart from the fact that you drape your views in church robes, I am equally bored by your sanctimonious and morally vacuous claim that for some murky undemonstrated reasons the working class people of New York should forgo the economically and socially transformative power of the energy resources in their state.

      Because frankly apart from those reasons, the issue of fracking also bores me. I am sure it will be settled by processes you do not understand and over which the church has no power.

      For me, the real issue here is my own place in the Episcopal Church.

      Is the Episcopal Church is longer my home? I wonder. Have I become heterodox, apostate, a sinner? As such, am I no longer welcome? I have begun to think it is very possibly true. Reading your piece and the many responses to it, especially by clergy, strongly reinforces my sense that I am an unwelcome sinner in the company of the righteous, and that under the direction of the clergy represented here, the true moral message of the church consists in being a bush-league, third-rate propaganda platform for move-on.org. And since I do not worship at that altar, which looks more and more like your true altar, I will be unwelcome until I either shut up, or submit ideologically.

      It is a real problem. And, to be blunt, your sainted grandfather is irrelevant to it.

      Please do not dismiss me as a crank. I do assure you that I am not. I do not want to join the general exodus from the Episcopal Church that is now taking place in response to its current clergy. People have left by the thousands because such people have given them no reason to come. You have very little to offer people who don’t buy into current sanctimony but more guilt. They are leaving because they rightly perceive that they are unwanted. Or worse.

      So is it also time for me to leave? I wonder. In my mind, the logical problem is in the process of shifting from “why leave?” to “why stay.”

      I am not interested in belonging to a church with a message as fatuous and shallow as what is on display here. Please do not reply with an answer about how fracking really is sin and that calling it sin is worthy of a once-great institution. Try at least not to be trivial. But if you and your many clerical supporters have a serious answer to my dilemma, I would be glad to hear it.

      But it had better be good.

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