Casting the fight against climate change as an urgent moral duty, Pope Francis in June urged the world to phase out highly-polluting fossil fuels. Yet in the heart of U.S. oil country several dioceses and other Catholic institutions are leasing out drilling rights to oil and gas companies to bolster their finances, Reuters has found.
And in one archdiocese — Oklahoma City — Church officials have signed three new oil and gas leases since Francis’s missive on the environment, leasing documents show.
On Francis’ first visit to the United States this week, the business dealings suggest that some leaders of the U.S. Catholic Church are practicing a different approach to the environment than the pontiff is preaching.
Catholic institutions are not forbidden from dealing with or investing in the energy industry. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) guidelines on ethical investing warn Catholics and Catholic institutions against investing in companies related to abortion, contraception, pornography, tobacco, and war, but do not suggest avoiding energy stocks, and do not address the ownership of energy production interests.
A Reuters review of county documents found 235 oil and gas leasing deals signed by Catholic Church authorities in Texas and Oklahoma with energy and land firms since 2010, covering 56 counties across the two states. None of the Texas leases in the review were signed after the pope’s encyclical.
Those two states have been at the forefront of a boom in U.S. energy production in recent years, often through the controversial hydraulic fracturing production method, known as fracking.
It was not clear whether production on the Church leases was through fracking – a process that involves injecting sand, water and chemicals underground to crack open rock formations — or more conventional drilling methods.
The Church authorities receive a royalty ranging from 15 to 25 percent of the value of what is taken out of the ground, according to the leases, which are public documents filed with county clerk offices. Reuters’ search method did not capture leases signed before 2010 but which may still be in force.
“There may be some kind of inconsistency here between what the pope has said and what the Church is doing in U.S. oil and gas country,” said Mickey Thompson, a consultant and former director of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association.
He added that since the Church often acquires its mineral rights through donations from parishioners, there could be “legal or fiduciary reasons” it has sought to lease them out. It was unclear if that was the case with the leases signed by Church institutions in Texas and Oklahoma, including the three leases signed in Oklahoma since June.