Fracking and Francis of Assisi

Last week the universal church celebrated the feast of the radical Italian merchant’s son, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, who abandoned a life of luxury to give his life to God and became known as Francis of Assisi.  Pope Francis has called on people of good-will to have a similar conversion away from consumerism and to become defenders of creation. On the feast of St. Francis a group of similarly minded people gathered at a controversial ‘fracking’ site outside Preston, Lancashire, to draw attention to St Francis’ life and call for a similar ‘ecological conversion’. Amongst them were parishioners from St Wilfrid’s, the Jesuit parish in Preston. The Cuadrilla site off the Preston New Road is the country’s biggest and most important shale exploration site. It is crucial to any possible future of fracking in the UK if it is a success, as owing to its sheer scale and its use of a specific drilling technique, it could unlock many more sites across the country.

Hydraulic fracturing—or “fracking”— has polarised opinion, with balanced perspectives often hard to come across.  For some it is the future of clean, natural gas, whilst others see it as an environmental apocalypse. In 2015 Pope Francis met an Argentine filmmaker and environmental activist Fernando Solanas who had directed a documentary called La Guerra del Fracking, (The Fracking War).  The pope was pictured holding an anti-fracking T-shirt, although it is important to recognise that the young industry is regulated to differing degrees in different countries.

Fracking liberates gas trapped underground by drilling sideways from vertical well-shafts into horizontal layers of shale rock. Millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are then injected at high pressure, fracturing the shale, releasing the gas. Fracking is not without risk, for instance as gas rises to the surface it can escape into drinking water. Cuadrilla are a firm from the Midlands, who are backed by international investors and Centrica, the owner of British Gas. They are attempting to recover gas trapped in shale rock that is thousands of metres underneath a farmer’s field.  Shale gas and oil are propelling America to energy self-sufficiency and proponents of fracking argue that is an environmental plus: cheap natural gas from fracking displaces coal. But there has been a mixed reception in Europe, with some countries banning fracking outright, and others allowing it - even reaching the stage of granting permits for exploratory operations, such as in Preston.

Following the lead of ‘Laudato Si’ the papal encyclical, and waving scarves with Laudato Si written on them, the group gathered at the site, with prayers and hymns.  St Wilfrid’s parishioner, Joseph Cooper said, "We gave a great witness to the end of the Season of Creation on St Francis' feast day". After the main service the police stopped the traffic as the group crossed the busy main road to occupy the entrance to Cuadrilla fracking site. The service was enjoyed by the regular community of protesters who have spent all year in protest over the fracking. The cost of policing the site has risen to £450,000 a month, with 24 hour policing established this summer.  In the face of the strength of local opposition, Keith Taylor MEP has called for a review of police tactics at fracking sites.

The same day saw two significant developments in the fracking debate.  The Scottish parliament said a moratorium on fracking, in place since the beginning of 2015, would be extended “indefinitely” after 99 per cent of 60,500 responses to a public consultation opposed fracking.  Also on the feast of St Francis there was an announcement that 40 Catholic institutions were divesting $5 trillion of funds from fossil fuels.  The institutions included the Belgian Bishops Conference and the Australian Jesuit Province.