Commentary
1:02 pm
Thu December 12, 2013

Kentucky's Intersection of Religion, Energy and the Environment

Sister Claire McGowan, one of the authors of the Energy Vision statement, speaking Tuesday at the Interfaith Prayer Ritual on Boone Farm in Nelson County, Ky.
Credit Courtesy of Diane Curtis/Sister of Charity of Nazareth

Most of the snow from a string of storms over the past week had evaporated in Nelson County, Ky., Tuesday afternoon when more than 60 concerned people, many of them Roman Catholic nuns, gathered on the Boone Family Farm to declare an Energy Vision, and with it they hope to launch a nationwide movement to oppose the practice of “fracking” for natural gas and the transport of its byproducts through pipelines. Their region known as the Kentucky Holy Land contains extensive land holdings by various religious orders. The stewards of these many acres understand that with land comes power, and a good number of them are dedicated to use that power to stop what they see as an onslaught against the earth’s sacred soil, sacred air and sacred water as well as the safety and well-being of human communities.

The proposed construction of a natural gas liquids pipeline across the rolling hills of central Kentucky has ignited a wave of protests and, last week, a lawsuit challenging the developers’ use of eminent domain to acquire rights of way for the project. Earlier this year, the Sisters of Loretto, who have been established in Kentucky since 1812, announced their opposition to the Bluegrass Pipeline and refused to permit its developers to run their hazardous natural gas liquids pipeline across a portion of their 780 acres.

In the face of their resistance, the pipeline developers said they would route their lines around the sisters’ property. But the pipeline—one of several being proposed to go through Kentucky—would carry hydrocarbons from natural gas drilling to processors on the Gulf of Mexico. Opponents have cited a number of examples where these toxic liquids have either exploded in pipelines or leaked, causing destruction to soil and ground water.

Dec. 10 was the 45th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk whose writings have influenced generations of people concerned with peace and interfaith relations. The Interfaith Prayer Ritual at Boone’s Farm included a tribute to Merton with a reading from his “When the Trees Say Nothing:”

“Our mentioning of the weather, our perfunctory observations on what kind of day it is, are perhaps not idle. Perhaps we have a deep need to know in our entire being what the day is like, to see it and to feel it, to know how the sky is gray with patches of blue in the southwest, with snow on the ground, the thermometer at 18 degrees and cold wind making your ears ache. I have a need to know these things because I myself am a part of the weather and part of the climate and part of the place. A day in which I have not shared truly in all of this is no day at all. How central a truth that we are purely and simply part of nature, though we are the part that recognizes God.”

More than 60 people gathered in support of the Energy Vision and the efforts to stop the Bluegrass Pipeline.
Credit Courtesy of Diane Curtis/Sister of Charity of Nazareth

 References to the kinship between the earth, its people and God continued through more than 30 minutes of prayer, singing and meditation. Participants came from a variety of faith traditions including Native American, Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim groups. But the highlight of the afternoon was the reading aloud of the Energy Vision statement by members of the three Roman Catholic religious groups that created it, the Dominican Sisters and Associates of Peace, the Loretto Community, and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and Associates.

The Energy Vision statement articulates the participants’ solidarity with those who are endangered by projects like the pipeline, and it also calls for a transition to alternative forms of energy. The text, written by Sister Claire McGowan, Susan Classen and Sister Joetta Venneman, promises leadership in the effort:

“We will learn, teach, and model alternative ways of viewing energy sourcing and conservation that reduce risks to water, land, air, climate, and human safety. We commit ourselves to use our spiritual and social resources and our public credibility in all possible ways to promote the transition from fossil fuel energy to renewable energy resources.”

During the ritual, a message from Kentucky poet, environmentalist and author Wendell Berry was read by Jessica Shelton, a senior at St. Catherine’s College in Springfield, Ky., and an intern for New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future in Springfield, a community sustainability organization that Sister Claire leads.

“Like mountaintop removal, fracking and the Bluegrass Pipeline reveal our willingness not only to use without care or thanks a world we did not make, but to put it entirely at risk, which is to say our willingness to ruin it entirely, and to do this in order to have things that we do not need but merely want,” Berry declared.

Rural landowners, environmentalists and some Kentucky legislators have called upon Gov. Steve Beshear to convene a special session of the legislature to prevent the use of eminent domain for natural gas liquids pipelines and to enact rules regulating the construction and operations of natural gas pipelines. But the governor has resisted such requests, saying that they can be addressed in the regular session of the General Assembly, which convenes next month.

Meanwhile, the interest of the religious orders in the pipeline is only part of a growing movement in America, much of it vibrant in Kentucky, to exercise leadership in sustainable agriculture, as well as in lifestyles to bring along great changes to face the issues of global warming. Religious organizations own one-seventh of the world’s land, a striking platform for achieving change. In Louisville, a city of just under a million people 50 miles north of the Boone Family Farm, Mayor Greg Fischer has committed his administration to building a healthy city that is also a compassionate one. Last spring, the Dalai Lama endorsed those efforts in a visit to the city.

As the speakers took turns in the fading afternoon sun, a flatbed truck behind them was outfitted with symbols of traditional energy—a bucket of coal, a can of gasoline and a natural gas container—at one end. At the other end were symbols of the renewable sources—solar, wind, geothermal and water power. These served as visual aids for the closing ritual in which Sister Claire McGowan articulated the spiritual basis for moving from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources: “Our human species has begun a journey, a journey from one set of energy sources to a completely other set of energy sources. As we make this great turning, let us take time now in the name of all those who’ve gone before us to give thanks to the fossil fuels that have built our societies for these past centuries, the coal, the oil, and the gas.

"These gifts of the Earth have enabled much progress for our world. They have been integrated into our daily lives. They have provided our warmth, our transportation, our manufacturing and so much more. As we begin our great farewell to the fossil fuels we pause to say thank you, coal, oil, and natural gas. You have served us well and we are grateful.”

Loretto co-member Susan Classen then urged a step forward toward renewable energy sources: “We turn to solar, we turn to wind, we turn to geothermal, we turn to water power. I invite all those who are able to take a step forward, to literally take a step forward as we give thanks and welcome a new energy vision, a vision which no longer sees human needs and Earth in competition with each other, but rather recognizes that we are all one, we are all part of the same web of life.

"Let us welcome the vast number of new jobs that will come with this new energy vision. And let’s pray for those who fear for their livelihoods during this time of transition. We pause now in just a moment of gratitude for you, sun, wind, earth and water. And with gratitude for those with the creativity and ingenuity needed to call forth our new sources of power for our future.”

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.

He'll discuss this commentary at about 1:30 p.m. during Here & Now.

Read his past WFPL commentaries here.