Pope Francis smiles to pilgrims in Saint Peter's square at...

Pope Francis smiles to pilgrims in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican, during the end of his weekly general audience. (Nov. 13, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

Pope Francis has already become a favorite of progressives with his fairly open-minded statements on homosexuality and birth control. But that adoration may go into overdrive, now that the pope has adopted a new role as an environmental crusader, too. On Monday, the pope was photographed with environmental activists holding T-shirts with anti-fracking slogans.

The photographs were taken after a meeting in the Vatican this week in which the pope spoke with a group of Argentine environmental activists to discuss fracking and water contamination. He reportedly told the group he is preparing an encyclical - a letter addressing a part of Catholic doctrine - about nature, humans and environmental pollution.

In the pictures, one of the men standing with the pope is movie director and Argentine politician Fernando 'Pino' Solanas, known for his activism against "environmental crimes" and his film "Dirty Gold" about mega-mining.

In particular, Solanas is a vocal opponent of an August agreement between the Argentine government and Chevron to develop shale oil and gas, which he calls "the largest environmental disaster in the Amazon." Drilling for these resources often requires hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which is criticized by opponents for relying on toxic fluid and posing water contamination risks.

The Chevron deal is just one instance of American oil companies looking further and further afield to develop shale oil and gas as vast foreign reserves promise imitations of the United States' own shale oil revolution. Particularly in lower-income countries like Argentina, the promise of such a revolution is too lucrative to resist - especially with so many betting on its potential.

The United States Energy Information Administration has ranked Argentina fourth behind Russia, the United States, and China in terms of shale oil reserves. In terms of shale gas reserves, Argentina is ranked second only after China. But the government's embrace of Chevron has been met with fierce protests, some of which have prompted a brutal crackdown from police with tear gas and rubber bullets. Argentina's indigenous Mapuche Indian community has been a firebrand group behind the protests, claiming they weren't consulted on the deal as required by international treaties covering indigenous peoples.

According to one report of the meeting, His Holiness's concern was "clear" when hearing about the Chevron deal in Argentina and other environmental disputes in the region. This week, Sarah Palin said she was shocked by the pontiff's "liberal" statements.

Wait 'til she hears about his new role as the face of Argentina's environmentalist movement.

Fossett wrote this for Foreign Policy.

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