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November 28, 2014 | 6th Kislev 5775

Resolution on Hydraulic Fracturing

Submitted by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism

"One generation goes and another generation comes, but the Earth remains forever" (Kohelet 1:4). This lesson from Tanach reminds us of our responsibility to ensure that God's creation is protected for generations yet to come.  In the context of energy policy, it guides us to take a balanced approach to energy development, one that not only sustainably satisfies current needs but also considers those of future generations. Thus, the Reform Movement has long sought to answer the question of how to use energy wisely, sustainably, and in keeping with our Jewish values.  In 1979, during the height of the oil shortage crisis, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution positioning conservation as the lynchpin of reducing U.S. and Canadian dependence on foreign oil and preserving nonrenewable resources for the future. In 1991, the URJ developed a North American Energy Strategy reaffirming its commitment to energy efficiency and conservation while promoting research and development of alternative sources.

Despite significant advances in clean energy technology in the last 20 years, the U.S. and Canada still face significant energy challenges. We continue to rely almost entirely on fossil fuels to satisfy an ever-growing global demand for energy, but we are also increasingly aware of the potentially negative environmental impact of extracting, transporting and burning fossil fuels. Given that global climate change is one of the greatest environmental, economic, strategic, societal and moral issues of our time, the need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels has become increasingly urgent. When those fuels are imported from unstable and unfriendly nations, our oil use also raises national security concerns. North American energy policies are slowly transitioning away from traditional fuels, such as coal and oil, and moving toward natural gas, a cleaner-burning fossil fuel and plentiful domestic resource. The URJ affirmed its support of moving away from coal and oil while recommending still more investment in renewable resources such as wind and solar in the 2009 resolution on Climate Change and Energy. The rapidly expanding growth of natural gas has the potential to ease reliance on coal and oil. At the same time, the rapid expansion of investment in natural gas drilling and transportation infrastructure has, to some degree, displaced investment in renewable energy sources slowing the necessary transition to a low-carbon, clean energy economy.

A growing proportion of the expanding access to natural gas is due to the development of the process known as hydraulic fracturing - also referred to as hydrofracking or fracking. Fracking, which has expanded widely and quickly, has been controversial in the wake of questions about the environmental and health impacts of natural gas extraction from deposits deep below the Earth's surface once considered too expensive or impractical to extract. Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting water, sand, and potentially toxic chemicals at high pressure into a gas well to fracture, or "frack," the rock formations to create passages for natural gas to escape up the well shaft. The procedure can be used on both vertical and horizontal segments of gas wells, drastically increasing the amount of gas that can be extracted. At many sites, oil can also be extracted through this fracking process. The dramatic increase in fracking operations and natural gas production in North America requires us to consider how this process aligns with our existing concerns about energy development and protecting the environment l'dor v'dor, from generation to generation. This extraction technique is being used in areas where we have congregations and camps, raising for us both universal and particular concerns.

Supporters hail natural gas development as the best way to transition from coal and oil to a clean energy economy. Local networks of gas wells help create much-needed employment opportunities for rural and Rust Belt communities, many of which have suffered from high unemployment due to shifts in agriculture production and the decline in the manufacturing industries. Complementing the significant expansion in recent years of renewable energy sources, the expanded investments in natural gas have the potential to significantly reduce the need to import energy to the U.S. and Canada, an achievement that has eluded economists and politicians alike for decades.

Others have raised serious concerns about the lax regulations on hydraulic fracturing and related negative environmental impacts, including threats to drinking water, air quality and human health. Exemptions have been written into federal law that exclude many elements of the hydraulic fracturing process from critical provisions of the Safe Water Drinking Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and other key environmental laws. This leaves unanswered questions about the ability of existing laws and practices to regulate adequately the hydraulic fracturing process and protect communities from environmental degradation. Of particular concern, fracking fluids are classified as trade secrets and are thus exempt from disclosure requirements under the Clean Water Act. Drilling regulations in Canada are more rigorous than in the United States, but recent investigations have raised significant concerns about lack of enforcement and incidents of contamination in Canada as well.[1] Local communities, suffering from the close proximity of some drilling wells to homes, schools and ecologically important areas, cite instances of contamination and fear their potential long-term impacts. One study from the U.S. Geological Survey linked an increase in seismic activity to the proliferation of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, but confined its findings to a type of fracturing that can result from sequestering wastewater from the fracking operation underground.[2] In September 2013, a study by a seismologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory linked a series of earthquakes in Ohio to fracking activity.[3] Additionally, there are documented cases of gas bubbling from hydraulic fracturing sites into nearby streams or wells, leaks from well-casing defects, and aboveground spills.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun a study on the potential impact of fracking on drinking water resources, which is scheduled for completion in 2014.

Moreover, claims about the greenhouse gas benefits of natural gas are increasingly being called into question. While natural gas burns cleaner and produces fewer carbon dioxide emissions than oil or coal at the power plant or tailpipe, the extraction process is energy intensive and may leak methane gas - a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide - from the wells and pipelines. When we look at the full impacts of natural gas including extraction and transportation, natural gas may not be as green as it first appears. Like other energy sources, we should use the best science to determine all of its environmental impacts.

The potential damages to air, water and land caused by fracking must be weighed against the greenhouse gas benefits of natural gas relative to oil and coal.  More study is required to develop scientific consensus around fracking's risks and benefits. While recognizing the energy security and potential greenhouse gas emission reduction benefits of natural gas, we remain deeply concerned by the possible environmental, social, and health impacts of hydraulic fracturing. Above all, the rapid expansion of hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. and Canada demands ongoing oversight and cost-benefit analysis.

THEREFORE, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

  1. Continue to support investment in conservation, renewable energy sources and the pursuit of economic incentives to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels;
  2. Urge the U.S. and Canadian governments and natural gas and oil industries to prioritize further research related to groundwater contamination, air pollution, and additional environmental and health impacts of hydraulic fracturing;
  3. Call on Congress and the Administration to significantly tighten exemptions for aspects of the natural gas extraction process from the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and from relevant federal energy, environmental and health regulations;
  4. Encourage federal, state, provincial and local governments to adopt and adequately fund the legal, regulatory and physical infrastructure necessary to protect water resources and populations. Specifically, we call on these bodies to implement guidelines on the proximity of drilling wells to communities and sensitive ecological areas; require the disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing (at a minimum where there are any indications of potable water or air contamination); determine how the waste created by hydraulic fracturing should be safely treated and disposed; and determine the impact of chemicals remaining in the ground;
  5. Support state, provincial and local governments to consider, in the presence of unanswered questions regarding health, safety and environmental concerns such as disposal of wastes, which combinations of moratoria and/or health, safety and environmental regulations best meet the needs of their populations and environment; and
  6. Urge Reform congregations and congregants to educate themselves and engage in and support efforts to maximize health, safety and environmental protections in hydraulic fracturing across North America.
  7.  Revisit the issues addressed in this resolution as technology develops.

[1] canadiangeographic.ca/magazine/oct11/fracking.asp

[2] desmogblog.com/2013/07/19/usgs-study-connects-earthquake-risk-wastewater-injection-fracking-advocates-say-who-cares

[3] nbcnews.com/science/fracking-practices-blame-ohio-earthquakes-8C11073601

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