From 2009 – 20016, I served as a Lutheran pastor at a small, rural congregation in the upper Susquehanna Valley of Pennsylvania. We were just south of where the shale gas industry had swept across the Marcellus Shale formation of the state. I saw first-hand what fracking does to the land, water, air, human health, and communities with the “sacrifice zones” of the fracking industry. As an ecofeminist, I’m particularly concerned about fracking’s harmful impacts on women. [See my book Creation-Crisis Preaching for even more on fracking and women.]
What is “fracking”?
Slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking, for short) is the process of drilling vertically and then horizontally deep into Earth where methane-rich shale exists. The process begins with the removal of all trees and vegetation from the drill site with hundreds of trucks and pieces of heavy machinery. Once the shaft is drilled, workers send explosives down into the shale to explode the rock and release the methane (called “natural gas”). They inject millions of gallons of water laced with toxic chemicals (hence the term “slickwater”) into the shale formations to prop open the fissures so that the gas can make its way back to the surface.
Why fracking is a problem
Some of the gas migrates into nearby wells of residents, affecting their water. Many of those who live near drill sites have found that their water is not only unfit for consumption, but, in fact, lights on fire and explodes because of the “migration” of the gas underground into their wells. According to StateImpactNPR.org there are currently 7,788 active frack wells in Pennsylvania with 4,006 accumulated violations and fines totaling $6.1 million.
The process of fracking releases atmosphere-poisoning gases at every stage from drilling to pipelines to transfer stations, up through the final destination at industrial plants and power plants. Also, there is no way for the waste water to be returned to a potable state once it’s been used for fracking. The “flowback” from the process contains carcinogenic chemicals and radioactive substances. So they dispose of the waste water by pumping into injection wells. This causes earthquakes due to the “slickwater” lubricating fault lines beneath the surface.
Thus, despite the oil and gas industry’s propaganda about fracking, the reality is that natural gas is anything but “safe.” It is not “green.” It does not promote “energy independence,” nor is it a “bridge fuel.”
Most alarming is the fact that methane is a more potent form of greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, especially within a 20-year period. That two-decade window is about all we have left to end the use of fossil fuels and avoid the worst effects of climate disruption. A new study finds that the methane escaping from Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry “causes the same near-term climate pollution as 11 coal-fired power plants.” That amount is “five times higher than what oil and gas companies report” to the state, according to analysis from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) based on 16 peer-reviewed studies.
“Don’t Frack Your Mother”
On September 7, 2011, I attended and spoke at the Shale Gas Outrage rally and march in Philadelphia, Pa., organized to protest the fracking industry’s annual meeting at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. At this rally I noticed members of the organization called Berks Gas Truth wearing shirts with a hand-drawn image of a woman connected to the earth, a frack tower on her shoulder drilling down through her body and into the earth. The words “Don’t Frack Your Mother” accompanied the image. Since that time I noticed a number of images in the anti-fracking movement that utilize the woman/mother/earth image at protests throughout Pennsylvania.
Also, on July 13, 2012, musician Sean Lennon, son of the late John Lennon, appeared on the television talk show “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” to perform their song, “Don’t Frack My Mother,” as part of their launch of Artists Against Fracking. Further, I began noticing that activists testifying at public hearings used language and rhetoric that either directly or indirectly drew on the mother/nature/earth connection.
From an ecofeminist perspective, this makes sense. As we will see, the connection between Earth, women, and fracking has been well-documented. So I make the case that it’s time to connect Earth to the #MeToo movement.
What is “Ecofeminism”?
Ecofeminism is the intersection of feminism and ecology. Ecofeminists are concerned with the intertwined domination of women and Earth (Earth is capitalized by ecofeminists because of the conviction that the planet is a being in its own right). Ecofeminists believe that environmental issues cannot be properly addressed without simultaneous confrontation of the ways females are oppressed, especially in connection with ecological issues. At the same time, they believe that feminist concerns must incorporate the ecological crisis affecting our world, especially as it relates to women.
Ecofeminists seek to uncover hidden patterns of subjugation, commodification, and violence toward women and Earth. The goal is to bring to light the way our language, metaphors, symbols, culture, religion, and societal practices continue to inscribe harmful worldviews of patriarchy, dualism, hierarchy and domination. The hope is that by bringing awareness to these issues, we will be able to reconceive new paradigms for relating to women, Earth, and all marginalized entities (human and other-than-human). Ultimately, we want to cultivate a worldview that honors the intrinsic value, integrity, and sacredness of all beings.
An Ecofeminist Perspective on Fracking
Fracking is particularly problematic from an ecofeminist perspective, because in many ways, it is akin to the crime of rape. Rape involves unwanted sexual penetration of the body in an act of violence. Rape subjects the victim to humiliation, strips the victim of power, and damages their bodies and psyches. It inflicts pain at all levels: physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. This pain haunts the victim long after the rapist has left her or him in a state of utter depletion, sometimes just barely surviving the attack. Repeated sexual molestation and violence endured by victims results in violation that is like a toxic poison in the mind, body, and soul.
If we were to imagine Earth as a human body, perhaps that of a woman, we can see how fracking is akin to “gang rape.” She is beset by men who care nothing for her except to extract her inner essence and profit from her body. They strip her of her “clothing” (trees and vegetation) and mount her with their phallic frack towers.
They drill into her depths and explode into her with their toxic fluid. Earth’s pain is experienced by all who had previously enjoyed the bounty of her clean water and pure air. Long after the wells dry up and the rapists leave the depleted body, her waters continue to burn with humiliating rage. Her body shudders with quaking spasms. And her breath (our air) is befouled with toxic pollution.
When a woman is raped, if the perpetrator is caught, he is brought to trial and convicted of his crimes. Ideally, assistance is offered to the victim to help her or him regain a sense of autonomy, power, health, and, over time, healing from the trauma. From an ecofeminist perspective, fracking is a crime that needs to be stopped, and the perpetrators brought to trial for their crimes. Assistance must be offered to those who suffer Earth’s trauma. And Earth herself must be allowed to heal from the violations.
More than symbolic – impacts are real
Some will argue that the notion of a connection between Earth and women is just a romanticized personification of a collection of rocks, dirt, and gases. Ecofeminists point out that it is exactly this attitude that is part of the problem. Disrespect, “othering,” and devaluation of both women and Earth has led to the slew of ecological crises we now face across the planet. In fact, the connection between fracking and women is more than just symbolic. Fracking has real impacts on real women that are particular to women’s bodies.
Sara Jerving’s article, “Fracking Frenzy’s Impact on Women,” makes the case that fracking is a feminist issue because of its negative health impacts on women. These impacts include increases in breast cancer and reproductive health problems (including spontaneous abortions). A recent study confirmed low birth weights and premature births for children born near fracking pads.
There is also a rise in crimes against women in fracking ‘boom’ towns, especially Indigenous women and girls. In addition, there are mental and emotional impacts to women (and men) that go beyond physical harm. These include guilt for those who signed leases to fracking companies, fear for the health and safety of one’s children and future generations, and concern about their own “fractured” communities. Many face the loss of their home’s value in areas with fracking wells. And for anti-fracking activists, the time and stress of the work is all-consuming.
You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down
Iris Marie Bloom, founder of Protecting Our Waters, a national anti-fracking organization based in Philadelphia, hopes that by helping people understand the links between women and fracking we can “galvanize women, as individuals, [and] in organized groups, as a powerful sector to rise up against fracking.” She states:
Women’s safety as well as physical health is at greater risk when frackers come to town. The showy efforts a few gas drillers have made to appear ‘as if’ they care about women’s lives — painting a drilling rig pink and donating to breast cancer research, for example — while injecting massive amounts of carcinogens, neurotoxins, biocides and endocrine disruptors underground, while drilling and spilling and dumping wantonly aboveground — has backfired. Women will fight not just for the fate of the earth and for our children, families, communities and future generations, but for our own lives.
As the saying goes, “You can’t keep a good woman down.” The #MeToo movement has shown us that there are consequences for violating women. When it comes to fracking, it’s time we realize that there are consequences for violating Earth as well.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church (ELCA).
 Jason Mark – August 20, 2012. “Methane’s Contribution to Global Warming is Worse than You Thought.” Earth Island Institute. Accessed February 23, 2018. http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/elist/eListRead/methanes_contribution_to_global_warming_is_worse_than_you_thought/.
 “Explore Pennsylvania’s oil and gas pollution.” Environmental Defense Fund. Accessed February 23, 2018. https://www.edf.org/energy/explore-pennsylvanias-oil-and-gas-pollution.
 “Methodology of estimating untracked emissions.” Environmental Defense Fund. Accessed February 23, 2018. https://www.edf.org/energy/methodology-estimating-untracked-emissions.
 The image was created by Michelle Sayles.
 The similarity between the word “frack” and another slang word meaning sexual intercourse, usually of an aggressive or violent nature, is, of course, obvious.
 Jerving, Sara. “The Fracking Frenzys Impact on Women.” Common Dreams. April 04, 2012. Accessed February 23, 2018. https://www.commondreams.org/views/2012/04/04/fracking-frenzys-impact-women.
 Phillips, Susan. “Study: Low birth weights linked to fracking sites.” NPR. Accessed February 23, 2018. https://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2017/12/13/study-newborns-close-to-fracking-site-have-higher-risk-of-low-birth-weight/.
 Arasim, Emily, and Osprey Orielle Lake. “Women on the Front Lines Fighting Fracking in the Bakken Oil Shale Formations.” EcoWatch. December 05, 2016. Accessed February 23, 2018. https://www.ecowatch.com/women-on-the-front-lines-fighting-fracking-in-the-bakken-oil-shale-for-1882188778.html.
 Bloom, Iris Marie, “”The Fracking Frenzy’s Impact on Women”.” Protecting Our Waters. April 09, 2012. Accessed February 23, 2018. https://protectingourwaters.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/the-fracking-frenzys-impact-on-women/.