Catholic sisters aim to purify Big Oil shale drilling

HOUSTON – Even oil companies can’t escape the gaze of the biggest regulator of them all.

In a clash between Big Oil and the cloth, Sister Nora Nash and her fellow Catholic nuns in Philadelphia have been quietly pressing Chevron Corp. and others for years to give up hydraulic fracturing data they say could reveal health concerns for communities in Texas and Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia filed their fourth demand in as many years that Chevron issue reports on the quality and amount of fresh and recycled water used for shale drilling, updates on a goal to stop using open pits to store drilling fluids, and groundwater quality checks after drilling, among other issues.

The Catholic order’s list of recommendations for the company will be up for a shareholder vote at Chevron’s annual meeting in late May in Midland, Texas. The Sisters of St. Francis may not be a large public pension fund trying to overhaul corporate practices, but Sister Nora says their efforts have been gaining traction with investors over the years.

“They say they’re following regulations, but we need to see data that can testify to that,” Sister Nora said in an interview Wednesday with FuelFix. “We’re concerned with the lack of real insight into the regulatory framework.”

Shareholder voice: Investor activism threatening oil industry amid shale worries

In its proxy statement, Chevron’s board of directors told shareholders not to vote for the changes because it “has in place well-developed risk management systems” that manage and protect water supplies, and it already answers to local, state and federal agencies.

“The production of a special report would be duplicative of Chevron’s extensive reporting and would not result in meaningful additional information,” the board said in regulatory documents. It said it has cut its freshwater use in half, reuses virtually all of its flow-back water and has recycled more than 8 million barrels of water since 2011.

Sister Nora said her Catholic order, which was founded in Philadelphia more than a century ago, have also poked at Exxon Mobil, Anadarko Petroleum and Chesapeake Energy in recent years, an attempt to make them “accountable and responsible” for health and human rights issues in communities nearby shale drilling operations.

“How can you say the operations are sustainable if you don’t know where the water is going, how many chemicals are being used and eventually what’s happening with the waste water?” Sister Nora said.

The perceived shroud over hydraulic fracturing is just the latest corporate sin that Sister Nora’s order has tried to root out. The Sisters of St. Francis established an investment portfolio in 1974 and have over the decades filed shareholder resolutions with General Electric and AT&T, divested from tobacco companies and preyed upon alleged predatory credit card practices at several financial giants.

For three years in a row, the Sisters have been the primary filers of resolutions related to Chevron’s hydraulic fracturing — resolutions that captured 27 percent of shareholder votes in 2012 and 30.2 percent last year.

Their efforts mirror other activist groups who last year collected around 30 percent of shareholder votes to push Exxon Mobil to publish more extensive data on its natural gas production. The attempts have failed so far, but they have attracted far more support than other environmental initiatives like resolutions to make the companies release climate-risks reports.

“We’re coming at all of them,” Sister Nora said. “We have to keep filing and letting people know that, maybe fracking is good for the economy and jobs, but we need to know how it will affect the health of communities.”

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Balancing act needed to win with hydraulic fracturing