December 19, 2018

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 “>Torah, study the “>Gemara too, go through the commentaries of the rationalist “>Nachmanides, and review Joseph Caro’s “>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 “>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, “>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 “>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 “>Jewish Perspectives.” One “>Religious Action Center (RAC), an arm of the Reform movement, “>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 “>rabbinic tradition  (Sanhedrin 74a) has long taken the position that death is preferable to committing idolatry, murder, incest and adultery. And today, “>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 “>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, “>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 “>American Jewish Committee recently “>Jewish Council for Public Affairs “>Council for a Secure America, as well as less known individuals, like the “>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 “>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