October 23, 2013
To frack or not to frack: is that a Jewish question?
Did you know that fracking, the industrial process of extracting natural gas from shale rock is treif, that it violates Jewish values? Who knew? You could read the entire Torah, study the Mishnah and Gemara too, go through the commentaries of the rationalist Maimonides and the more mystical Nachmanides, and review Joseph Caro’s Shulchan Aruch and you will never once see the technology discussed, much less the word uttered. And yet, there are Jewish individuals and organizations that insist that fracking is so contrary to Jewish values that it must be banned.
What is fracking anyhow?
Before we drill down a bit into the Jewish aspects of these arguments, let’s take a moment to review some basic facts about fracking. Hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking or fracking) is a method of drilling for gas trapped in shale rock formations deep in the earth. The process has been utilized in the United States for over sixty years, but recent advances in technology have both led to new discoveries of huge reservoirs, or basins, of potentially recoverable natural gas in a large number of areas across the continental United States and allowed gas drillers to go deeper into the ground and also farther horizontally to recover that gas.
The process itself is messy. It requires the injection of highly pressurized water, combined with 1% of other materials such as sand, plastic balls and chemicals, through a pipe thousands of feet underground and into a shale rock formation. The infusion cracks the rock or expands existing cracks, releasing natural gas, and perhaps other items, which had accumulated naturally in the shale. The natural gas then can flow back up the pipe to the wellhead.
Today fracking is often accomplished in conjunction with horizontal drilling which allows for greater access to a vertical shale formation and therefore a more extensive and economical frack. Brian Ellis, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan, discusses the process here.
Modern fracking has had a dramatic effect on energy development in the United States, both on an absolute basis and in terms of the allocation of energy resources in America. According to a recent analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), domestic production of shale gas has increased nine fold from 2006 to 2012. (See here, at 3/14.) Moreover, the EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2013 projects shale gas to be the leading source of gas production in the U.S. over the next several decades, and natural gas’ share of the power generating market is expected to increase as well. (At 5, 79/233.) By contrast, solar, wind, biomass and other renewable sources, while projected to increase, will still remain relatively small contributors to America’s energy supply in the foreseeable future. (At 75/233.)
In addition, according to EIA, because natural gas is mostly methane, it has a relatively high energy content when compared to other fuel sources and emits a relatively low amount of carbon dioxide per energy content. In that sense it is better for the environment than heating oil and much better than coal. Harvard economist Jeffrey Frankel credits fracking with lowering emissions of carbon dioxide in the U.S. between 2007 and 2012, plus providing a host of other benefits, including job creation and lower vulnerability to global oil shocks. Similarly, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded that “(r)esponsible development of America’s shale gas resources offers important economic, energy security, and environmental benefits.”
Why do some Jews object to fracking?
So, if natural gas from fracking is plentiful, cheap and better for the environment, and also enhances energy security and independence for the United States, who could possibly be against it and why? Let’s consider a few of the objections.
Rabbi David Seidenberg argues that fracking is “a danger to the well-being of the planet” and, moreover, “(c)onflicts with Kabbalah,” a mystical approach to Judaism. Seidenberg notes that in Kabbalah, water is “the very symbol of blessing and life,” and asserts that “water that stays in that fracked rock is deprived of fulfilling its deepest purpose.”
The appropriately named Jews Against Hydrofracking (JAH), founded by Dr. Mirele Goldsmith, also sees fracking as a “destructive practice” and seeks to ban it. In one of her essays, Dr. Goldsmith, who is not a medical doctor but is an environmental psychologist, argues that Jews should be sensitive to the “ethical implications of hydrofracking.” Her case begins with the proposition that “We [Jews] value life above all else . . . .”
The JAH website also has a section called “Jewish Perspectives.” One essay refers to the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of a deep river flowing eastward out of a rebuilt Temple 2500 years ago, creating a new Garden of Eden. (See Ezek. 47:1-12.) To the author, “(f)racking is a transgression against God’s Creation, delaying the redemption of the world.” He understands access to clean water to be “a basic human right,” one that is impaired by fracking, among “other things,” which uses a large amount of fresh water.
The more established Religious Action Center (RAC), an arm of the Reform movement, acknowledges that natural gas is often seen as a cleaner source of energy than other fossil fuels “because it produces 43 percent less carbon emissions than coal for each unit of energy delivered, and 30 percent less emissions than oil.” Nevertheless, it urges that fracking not be permitted until “we can confirm that (the process) poses no danger to our communities . . . .” (Emphasis supplied.) In its discussion of Jewish values and fracking, RAC refers to the calling in Genesis to “till and tend God’s Earth” and the Midrash that notes that no one will be present to repair the damage if we fail to do so. (See Gen. 2:15; Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13.) RAC adds that “(t)he Talmudic law of Bal Tashchit, do not destroy, derived from Deuteronomy 20:19 paired with our ‘till and tend’ mandate, emphasizes the need to act as guardians” of the environment.
That three opponents of fracking assert that their opposition is premised on Jewish values, but do not agree as to which principles are applicable, suggests that something is amiss in the argument that fracking is clearly treif. Whether taken separately or collectively, however, the Jewish aspect of these arguments is neither conclusive nor, really, even persuasive, except perhaps to those predisposed to the conclusion.
For example, the contribution of the Kabbalah to a serious discussion of fracking issues seems quite limited. The Zohar, a major work of Kabbalah first disclosed in the 13th century, but purporting to be of much older origins, understands the universe to consist of four basic elements: earth, air, fire and water, each of which is seen as imbued with a spiritual dimension. Whether inadvertent or not, Seidenberg acknowledges that this approach is how “the natural world is imagined in Kabbalah . . . .” (Emphasis supplied.) But imaginative musings, however inventive, and however instructive they may be in other circumstances or for other purposes, are not the firmest of foundations for an ethical stance to be applied in the world as it truly exists.
JAH’s assertion that Jews value life above all else taps into an older and deeper Jewish value system, but as stated goes too far and undermines JAH’s credibility. JAH refers to no source in the Jewish tradition for its sweeping statement that Jews value life “above all else,” and, as written, it is not accurate as a matter of theory or in practice. For instance, rabbinic tradition (Sanhedrin 74a) has long taken the position that death is preferable to committing idolatry, murder, incest and adultery. And today, studies show that most Jews in America countenance taking the life of an unborn fetus in all or most circumstances. Jewish tradition places a high value on life, to be sure. But it is not absolute.
JAH’s reference to Eden does not help its argument either. Just as Dorothy came to understand that she was not in Kansas anymore, so too must those who seek to restrain the exploitation of natural resources understand that we that we do not now live in Eden and, in fact, never did. Nor, indeed, should we want to do so. To the contrary, we should embrace knowledge whether from a tree, the ground or elsewhere.
Nor is a vision of a mythical river extending from a once desired temple (which I doubt the author wants rebuilt) a reasonable metaphor for the present. The worthwhile effort to protect limited fresh water supplies is too serious a matter to be subject to such irrelevant references. To be plausible, reasonable water protection and conservation policies must address the actual and complex social and economic situations they seek to affect.
RAC’S reminder of traditional calls to till and tend the land and be guardians of the environment are, no pun intended, well grounded in the tradition. The problem here is whether those principles are applicable, and, if so, how they are to be applied. RAC expresses concern about “the safety of our clean water supply, radioactive chemicals present in the Marcellus Shale, and the chemicals used in natural gas extraction.” The concerns are fair. Let’s have a reality check.
What are the alleged risks of fracking?
RAC states that fracking “threatens to release” naturally occurring radioactive chemicals, creates a “risk” of exposure to the chemicals used in the fracking process and implies that the fracking might contaminate clean water. To drive home the unqualified nature of its position, RAC would require that that communities be assured “that radioactivity present in the rock and the chemicals used in gas extraction have absolutely no possibility of contaminating our clean water supply.” (Emphasis supplied.)
Radioactivity is pretty scary stuff in general, and there is no doubt that radioactive isotopes such as radium 226 and 228 are found in association with shale. Indeed, exploitable shale deposits are often discovered by the presence of such isotopes. But the mere presence of such isotopes does not necessarily indicate a health hazard, and RAC does not cite a single incident of the release of radioactive chemicals due to fracking in all of the years and all of the places fracking has occurred. To the contrary, tests of water used in fracking in the Marcellus basin in Pennsylvania found no evidence of levels of radioactivity that would adversely affect the public.
Moreover, if RAC’s requirement of complete assurance of risk free activity were applied consistently to manufacturing processes and the provision of services, there would be precious little, if any, innovation or even conventional manufacturing or delivery of goods and services. Risk free living is neither realistic nor even reasonable. The farming and preparation of food products sometimes cause illness. We still eat. Ingestion of pharmaceuticals can cause adverse reactions. We still take pills. Traveling on cruise ships can expose us to viruses. We still sail. The important question is not whether there is a risk of harm or contamination (though that is a fair question), but how serious the risk is and whether it can be managed. Experience teaches that radioactivity is not a real problem.
Anti-frackers also raise two arguments with respect to water. One concerns the chemicals involved and the other the amount of fresh water used in the process.
Rabbi Seidenberg , for instance, asserts that the water used in the fracking process contains “poison,” and that the water which returns to the surface after fracking is “lethal and extremely difficult to treat.” The assertion is supported by no details whatsoever. Let’s assume though that some of the chemicals used by some of the drillers can, in certain concentrations, be considered toxic. That circumstance still would not compel a conclusion that as actually used in the field those chemicals are dangerous. Indeed, given the number of fracked wells in operation, and the duration of fracking in the U.S., if fracking was as poisonous and lethal as Seidenberg contends (albeit without any supporting scientific study), one would expect to hear by now of increased disease and death resulting from the process. We haven’t. Again, a recent study suggests that the fear mongering is unwarranted. Preliminary results of a year-long study by the federal Department of Energy regarding drinking water at a western Pennsylvania drilling site found no evidence of chemical contamination due to fracking.
The fair conclusion, based on the evidence to date, is that whatever known risks exist are being managed appropriately. Rather than banning fracking, requiring disclosure of chemicals used, implementing appropriate safeguards, and monitoring the process seems more reasonable.
JAH contends that fracking squanders limited water resources. There is no doubt that fracking uses large quantities of water, perhaps millions of gallons a water for each frack. But fracking is hardly the largest user of fresh water. Again, data and context are important. A Penn State hydrogeologist reportedly noted that natural gas exploitation in Pennsylvania utilizes 1.9 million gallons of water a day (MGD). That’s a lot, but the usage pales in comparison to the 62 MGD used by livestock, the 96 MGD used in other mining activity and the 770 MGA used in other industrial processes. As a percentage of the 9.5 billion gallons of water used daily in Pennsylvania, fracking’s share is less than two one-hundredths of one percent.
Even one of JAH’s Torah Perspectives acknowledges that there are multiple causes of potential fresh water shortages – “the rapid increase in world population,” “an increase in contaminated water from human effluents,” “an increase in the rate of water consumption per capita,” and “(m)odern agricultural methods, power generation and industrial use.” But JAH is not calling for population limits, a return to pre-modern agriculture or a reduction in power generation and industry. Consequently, its singular focus on fracking reflects limited science, and even undermines its purported seriousness about preserving fresh water.
In short, arguments against fracking based on water usage and contamination have not yet been supported by any objective study and have been refuted by others. Hyperbolic claims cannot overcome stubborn facts.
What about fracking and economics?
While the eco-warriors rail against fracking, they tend to avoid one eco issue – that of economics. As Gary Becker, a University of Chicago professor and Nobel Laureate in economics, pointed out last year, because the cost of fracking became so competitive (1) most domestic natural gas production now comes from fracking and (2) the price of natural gas per BTU has fallen dramatically. But economic realities do not seem to affect those whose preconceived narrative does not allow for them.
Rabbi Seidenberg does not tell us how the Kaballah would address either micro- or macro-economic issues, whether domestic or international.
Dr. Goldsmith at least has an economic argument and it is straightforward. “(I)t makes no sense,” she says “to invest in new infrastructure for outdated fossil fuels when we could put the same money into renewables.” But who are “we,” what “same money” is she talking about, and why does she think “we” “could”? Apparently Dr. Goldsmith believes that energy sources are fungible in the production of process and that the demand for them is also quite insensitive to price, i.e., inelastic. The bases for any such beliefs are not evident. Perhaps some would be willing to bet on and pay for more expensive solar panels and windmills instead of proven technology that delivers energy in an economical and thoroughly reliable fashion. Most Americans don’t have that luxury, though, and just want cheap, dependable energy.
For its part, RAC concedes that “ninety percent of new natural gas wells utilize” fracking, but would still place an unprecedented burden on fracking drillers. If adopted, the logical consequence of RAC’s position would be to diminish the domestic production of natural gas which in turn would not only condemn America to use even more coal and oil than it does presently, but to do so at a greater financial cost than would be incurred were the supply of gas not artificially restricted. RAC also does not explain how a goal of guarding the environment is served by greater use of more expensive and dirtier sources of energy than natural gas.
Do all Jews oppose fracking?
Not all Jews or Jewish organizations oppose fracking. Support comes from multiple directions, and subject to a variety of conditions.
Referring to the significant reduction in imported oil due to fracking, the American Jewish Committee recently noted its approval of the current use of fracking “under regulations that make it as safe as possible.” (At 13/23.) Similarly, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs recognizes that fracking could reduce energy costs and create jobs. It calls for a number of reasonable safeguards to protect the environment and public health. Nationally prominent Jews like Malcolm Hoenlein, Sandy Eisenstat and Neil Goldstein, through the Council for a Secure America, as well as less known individuals, like the Libertarian Jew, also advocate fracking. Some Jewish camps have even leased some of their property to drillers.
The problem with opposing fracking on Jewish principles is not that fracking is not mentioned in the Torah or Talmud. Jewish tradition is organic and can adapt to new circumstances. The problem is that the opponents to date have not made a compelling case based on those principles. Rather, they assumed a burden they then failed to meet. Instead, they have relied on quote mining for selected Jewish adages, aphorisms and irrelevant fables and metaphors, which is not persuasive advocacy in complex matters of science, technology, economics and societal well-being. Worse, inappropriately waving the tikkun olam flag diminishes the importance of the idea and the impact of the approach.
University of Michigan chemical engineering professor Johannes Schwank characterizes fracking as a “remarkable feat of engineering.” He also recognizes it to be an imperfect process, and there are abundant reasons for concern and caution about fracking, just as there are for many industrial activities in which we do or might engage. Further experience and studies may reveal facts that call for a reevaluation and increased regulation of what currently appears to be not only a cost-effective and relatively beneficial process, but one that is safe when performed properly. Until that time, however, fear should not trump facts. Fracking is a multi-dimensional issue which requires rigorous analysis. Let’s all act accordingly.
A version of this article appeared previously at www.judaismandscience.com.