Gasland's Fracking Nonsense
And the winner is…? Sadly, not the paying public for Josh Fox’s ludicrous Gasland – whether or not the Oscar-voting Hollywood panel are taken in by it. Well-crafted and amusingly presented Gasland is, by turns, dramatic, eloquent, congenial and emotional. But then so is Sesame Street. Call me old-school, but I look for context, balance and, above all, hard facts in my documentaries. Gasland has neither of the first two, and precious little of the third.
Gasland treads the same fear-inducing path of Al Gore’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth. It presents a simplistically stark contrast between the pristine wilderness (where our intrepid self-proclaimed hippie film-maker lives) and the dark mutilated moonscape (where ‘evil’ Big Gas is slowly poisoning natural water resources). As with Gore’s power-point ‘epic’ – later ripped apart in the factual stakes by a British high court judge – Gasland loses credibility from the start, as Debunking Gasland, a rebuttal report from Energy in Depth, on behalf of the nation’s gas and oil producers, revealed last summer.
This review will follow an outline similar to Debunking Gasland which falls into a handful of key areas: mis-statements on the law, mis-representation of the rules, mis-characterization of the process and “flat-out making stuff up”, including the recycling of discredited claims.
Ah, Dick Cheney again
Within seconds of the film opening we glimpse (just glimpse) a shot of George W’s ‘evil’ sidekick and former Halliburton CEO and Chairman – and thus an ‘energy shill’ – Dick Cheney. This movie technique sets us up for what’s to come, when Fox informs us: “What I didn’t know was that in 2005 the energy bill pushed through Congress by Dick Cheney exempts the oil and natural gas industries from the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the Superfund Law, and about a dozen other environmental and democratic regulations.” Frightening. Or it would be, if the alleged “Halliburton Loophole” (in fact created by a cross-party alliance including the vote of one Barack Obama) were actually true. As an Energy in Depth factsheet points out, the oil and gas industry is regulated under every single one of these laws; in the case of the SDWA, being aggressively regulated at state level. But hey, this is Hollywood, right? “Print the legend” and all that…?
Gasland goes on to cite the passing of the 2005 energy bill as declaring a “wild west” open season for domestic gas drilling, not least in Fox’s home state, Pennsylvania, on the Marcellus Shale. Fox fails to mention, however, that hydraulic fracturing has a 60 year history after Halliburton pioneered the process in 1949. Nor does he mention that the fracking process has been used in over 2 million treatments in 90 percent of all US gas (and many oil) extraction wells, conventional and unconventional, without a single documented instance of the process leading to the pollution of a water aquifer. Undaunted by facts, Fox goes on to assert that the law “authorizes oil and gas drillers to inject hazardous materials, unchecked, directly into or adjacent to underground water supplies.” As Debunking Gasland states, “if such an outrageous thing were actually true, one assumes it wouldn’t have taken five years and a purveyor of the avant-garde to bring it to light”.
The major point being that between the strata of shale (8 to 10,000 feet down) and water aquifers (around 500 feet) are tons of impenetrable rock, often up to 2 miles thick. Indeed, a telling graphic of the hard data produced by Pinnacle, a diagnostic arm of Halliburton specifically set up to study the effects of hydraulic fracking in over 15,000 wells, shows just how impossible it is for gravitating gas to get anywhere near water tables operated in the Barnett Shale (America’s oldest), fig. 1 and the Marcellus shale gas fields, fig.2.
Fig 1 Click to enlarge
Fig 2 Click to enlarge
An hour in and Fox states: “the only reason we know about fracking chemicals is because of the work of Theo Colborn…by chasing down trucks…” Naughty, Josh. Even Fox’s home state of Pennsylvania requires that, “Drilling companies must disclose the name of all chemicals to be stored and used at a drilling site…” In fact, the safety sheets for all chemicals used in fracking are a matter of public record, though the actual mix may remain a proprietary issue.
By now, the movie’s hype is in full flow: “in order to frack … you need some fracking fluid – a mix of over 596 chemicals”. To underline the point the figure appears full screen. Now the unsuspecting could only conclude that Big Gas is indeed pouring massive cocktails of chemicals into the ground. In reality, over 99.5 percent of the fracking fluid is water and sand. The rest are largely components used around the house, including gums and emulsifiers. As the US Department of Energy/Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) report states: “Although the hydraulic fracturing industry may have a number of compounds that can be used in a hydraulic fracturing fluid, any single fracturing job would only use a few of the available additives” (italics mine).
The film-maker goes on to make a raft of assertions not based in fact. At one point he claims that the “Pinedale Anticline and Jonah gas fields [of Wyoming] are directly in the path of the thousand year old migration corridor of pronghorn antelope, mule deer and sage grouse.” As Debunking Gasland’s investigations revealed, however, only three species of pronghorn antelope are on the endangered list, and none are anywhere near Pinedale Anticline. Equally, so large are the numbers of Wyoming’s mule deer that the state now has an official mule deer hunting season.
An EPA investigation into water contamination “due to hydraulic fracturing in Alabama” in 2004 elicits “no recollection” at all from the Alabama State Oil and Gas Board official responsible for oversight of fracking in the state at the time. An allegation that shortly after Fox interviewed a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection official, the department “suffered the worst budget cuts in its history, amounting to over 700 staff either being fired or having reduced hours” is shown to be blatantly untrue when a DEP press release is adduced revealing the DEP actually begun hiring “68 new personnel” in January 2010 specifically “to protect Pennsylvania”s residents and environment from the impact of increased natural gas exploration across the state”.
Next up, Fox presents us with a local resident from Dunkard Creek, Washington, Pa., who runs us through the unpleasant story of a 35-mile stretch of Creek full of dead fish in 2009. While Fox lays the blame at the feet of local natural gas development, nobody seems to have informed him that a pre-Gasland EPA report concluded the water pollution was attributable to a build up of toxic “algal bloom” the result of discharges from coal mines. Even the local newspaper chipped in to describe this Gasland gaffe as a “glaring error”
Can You Light Your Water on Fire?
Finally, and most iconic of all, there’s the much-vaunted and disturbing image of flammable running water from faucets. Gasland’s publicity posters and DVD cover asks: “Can You Light Your Water on Fire?” Well yes, apparently many can – but sadly for Gasland, for reasons au naturelle. Fox highlights the instance of a flammable faucet in Fort Lupton, Colorado pinning the blame on gas development. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission however disagree, maintaining, “Dissolved methane in well water appears to be biogenic [natural occurring] in origin” and they found “no indications of oil and gas related impacts to the water well.”
And it’s not just the various EPA departments, including Fox’s own, whose studies have found hydraulic fracking to be a safe process. In September 2010, STRONGER (State review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations), an independent panel of national environmental, industry and EPA experts, not only pronounced Pennsylvania’s fracking process “safe in respect” to shale gas development, it went on to claim the state’s regulation process “merits special recognition”.
While some contaminated groundwater has been found in the proximity of fracked wells and where wells have not been properly completed, it is hard to detract from the success of an industry and procedure that offers an enormous boost to the economy, provides real jobs, and keeps domestic gas prices low, creates real jobs and drives the economy. These are aspects of public service provision that seem entirely alien to some backwoods-living, self-proclaimed, finger-picking hippies, however.
Fox once told New York’s Time Out, “Art is more important than politics. Politics is people lying to you and simplifying everything: art is about contradictions”. By Fox’s own subjective understanding, being entirely bereft of “contradictions” (or nuance), Gasland qualifies as ‘politics’.
Made by ‘Docurama Films’ the logo on the DVD states: “Everything else is pure fiction”. Removing the “else” and changing to “pure Hollywood” would be more on the money.