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Fracking a wedge issue among Jews
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Fracking a wedge issue among Jews

Environmental groups worry that gas drilling is unknown territory

It could provide cheap energy sources as a welcome alternative to Arab oil.

Or it could cause untold amounts of environmental damage, especially to air and drinking water.

Either way, efforts to extract natural gas through hydraulic fracturing have divided the Jewish community, pitting environmentalists against a number of Jewish summer camps, including NJ Y Camps, which have leased their land to energy companies.

For proponents of the process — which extracts natural gas by injecting a mixture of sand and water into the cracks of rock formations — “hydrofracking” or “fracking” could play an important role in securing America’s energy supply.

“The new technology of ‘fracking’ now makes it possible to recover previously unrecoverable ‘tight oil’ from shale deposits,” John Steele Gordon wrote last June in Commentary magazine. “Known American shale oil (and shale natural gas) deposits would, if regulation permitted it, give the United States one of the world’s largest hydrocarbon reserves, right up there with Saudi Arabia and Iraq.”

Environmentalists worry, however, that fracking involves a cocktail of chemicals that could poison drinking water while releasing dangerous amounts of methane.

“Fracking does not align with any Jewish values,” said Mirele Goldsmith, an organizer of Jews Against Hydrofracking, in an interview. “Fracking is a public health threat that we as Jews should really care about. We own the land and we have a responsibility to take care of the land. We already have problems in this country with asthma and respiratory diseases. Gas drilling poses very serious risks of air pollution as well as pollution of the water table.”

Jews Against Hydrofracking is “a totally independent network of individuals with a core group of about 50 people,” she said. “We have people involved in other Jewish environmental groups, but their organizations have not taken a stand yet on the issue.”

On Nov. 21, more than a dozen members of the group were among hundreds who gathered in Trenton to oppose gas drilling in the Delaware River Watershed. The protesters declared victory when the Delaware River Basin Commission decided to postpone a decision on whether to adopt regulations allowing hydraulic fracturing.

The Union for Reform Judaism supports a moratorium on the practice until its safety can be proven and regulation standards are made more rigorous.

‘Hire good lawyers’

URJ and other Jewish groups have been active in environmental causes for years, although concern over fracking coalesced last summer when the Forward reported that four Jewish summer camps, including NJ YM-YWHA Camps, had signed leases with gas exploration companies in 2008 and 2009. Drilling hasn’t begun at any of the camps, which sit on the Marcellus Shale, a huge natural gas deposit that extends from New York and eastern Pennsylvania to Kentucky and West Virginia.

Camp administrators justified the leases, saying the gas companies appeared committed to environmental safety, and, among other provisions meant to address safety concerns, had promised to repair or replace water supplies if they become contaminated due to drilling.

“As long as the issue is on hold” with the Delaware River Basin Commission “there is no issue,” said NJ Y Camps director Leonard Robinson. In a Nov. 29 phone interview with NJJN, Robinson declined to comment on Jews Against Hydrofracking or other opponents of the procedure.

For some environmentalists, the future of fracking will depend on regulation and the willingness of energy companies to put safety ahead of profit.

Mark Brownstein, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund’s energy program, is not prepared to issue a blanket condemnation of the process.

“There are tens of thousands of natural gas wells being drilled every year,” he told NJJN. “One accident, one poor job, is one too many, particularly if you live in that community and your groundwater is affected.

“But for every one story about real problems there may be 100 or 1,000 where there is no appreciable impact, precisely because the producer did things properly.”

Brownstein, a Maplewood resident (who is married to NJJN reporter Johanna Ginsberg), works with gas producers, fellow environmentalists, regulators, and other government officials to ensure fracking is performed safely.

According to Brownstein, “Some of the more progressive members of the industry are working to improve the quality of regulation in the states. They know their reputation is impacted by what their competitors are doing.”

Brownstein said he had “no specific knowledge” about the performance of the Hess Corporation, which has contracted with NJ Y Camps to allow exploration on land that includes two summer camps, Camp Nesher and Camp Shoshanim, in Lakewood, Pa.

Hess is “very active in shale oil development in North Dakota, and their CEO has made some reasonably encouraging statements about the need to do gas production correctly,” said Brownstein, “but I don’t know anything about their actual track record.”

He suggests that camp directors “hire good lawyers and get good environmental guarantees in the leases they’ve signed. It is incredibly important that there are strong state regulations in place and public pressure on regulators and legislators to make that happen. As importantly, they must make sure there are resources available to hire the people to enforce the regulations.”

Sermon material

Meanwhile, the issue is trickling down to the rabbinate. Rabbi David Levy of Temple Shalom in Succasunna said he made fracking the focal point of the sermon he delivered twice on Yom Kippur, urging congregants to pay close attention to the debate, especially as it pertains to their children’s health.

“It is a very complex issue because it is wrapped up in our need to be energy independent and not be reliant on energy from the Mideast,” he told NJJN.

“I don’t think you sell your long-term health and welfare for short-term energy gains. There are myriad stories of spills of wastewater and toluene and benzene into the environment and real destruction of some beautiful land. The only ones who come out on top are the companies involved in drilling and extraction. For the people whose land it is, I think there will be a lot of regret down the road,” said Levy.

“One of the challenges as we try to find alternative and renewable fuel sources is to find ones that do minimal damage to the environment,” said Rabbi Laurence R. Malinger of Temple Shalom in Aberdeen.

“We are concerned that is not necessarily the case with fracking.”

Malinger, like Levy a Reform rabbi, put the issue in religious terms.

“Taking our text from Genesis, chapter 2, we have to heed the call and repair the damage as we till the earth,” he said. “Our main focus is educating folks, and as long as we understand what the gas companies are trying to do and whether the dangers can be minimized, we might be open to advocating for it. But right now we are not advocating for it.”

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