Fracking should be an issue for everyone, Mercy sister says in fracking webinar

Dozens of activists and those interested in learning more about extractive industries took part in a Sisters of Mercy-hosted webinar June 6 that examined the human rights impacts of the fracking industry.

Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, injects high-pressure water and chemicals into shale deep underground, fracturing the rock and releasing natural gas. The technique has made previously unreachable gas deposits accessible, which has lowered natural gas prices, but it has also polluted groundwater and caused earthquakes.

The one-hour webinar, which ran long because of questions and comments by participants, featured Mercy Sr. Mary Pendergast; Sean Sweeney of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy; and Tom Kerns, a member of the steering committee for the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal on the Human Rights Impacts of Fracking

Even though there is no shale in Rhode Island, where Pendergast lives, she has been active against the industry that fracking requires and creates, such as pipelines and power plants. She is currently fighting plans for a $700 million power plant in Burrillville in the northwest corner of Rhode Island that will use 33 billion cubic feet of fracked natural gas a year. She was arrested in December for trespassing nearby in an act of civil disobedience at a protest over plans to expand a gas pipeline. She was planting tulips when police handcuffed her.

"If we take Pope Francis' words to heart, this crisis is so large, we have to do something," Pendergast said.

In addition to water pollution from the drilling, earthquakes, and air pollution from burning the fracked gas, the industry also presents risks to the communities nearby, where large influxes of male workers have caused increases in prostitution, sex abuse and child abuse, she said. And fracking — even if it isn't taking place nearby — affects everyone.

"Our eyes are opened, and a new consciousness has emerged," Pendergast said. "There is no fracking in Rhode Island, but 95 percent of our electricity comes from gas — we are in this game and part of the problem."

Sweeney said the idea that the world can gradually convert to renewable energy is dangerous because demand for energy continues to grow, and that demand is being met by increased use of fossil fuels.

"Nobody can be neutral in this," Sweeney said. "We need major change quickly, not gradual change."

The fracking industry has said that its practice is not only well-regulated and safe, but also is producing cleaner-burning fuel at lower prices.

"Safe and responsible development of energy from shale is providing the energy we need and has helped lower U.S. energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide to its lowest level in two decades," according to energyfromshale.org, the industry website.

Kerns said the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal plans a "trial" for the fall of 2017 in which participants will decide whether the United States and United Kingdom have violated human rights by allowing fracking. Though the trial will have no legal effect, Kerns said it will give victims a chance to have their testimony heard and put into the public record, and it will make human rights — such as the right to clean water and a healthy environment — part of the conversation.

"Many of these victims say no one will listen to them or take them seriously," Kerns said.

Most of the questions that participants asked centered around whether there were any legal implications of the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal. Kerns said the fact that there are none does not reduce the tribunal's importance for raising awareness.

Pendergast said everyone needs to get involved in the fight against fracking.

"Ask questions: Who gains, and who pays?" she said. "Laudato Si' was never meant to be read and put on a shelf."

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]