It is one thing to read about the fight over the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing or fracking that are associated with natural gas drilling in deep shale formations. It's quite another to see that fight captured on film. The documentary film Gasland provides a compelling, if one-sided, portrait of the devastation visited on the lives of those who live closest to the drilling.
What a huge mistake it was in retrospect for a natural gas driller to approach filmmaker Josh Fox with an offer to lease his land for drilling. Fox decided to look into the matter carefully, and his research led to the making of Gasland. "Know your audience" might have been a good piece of advice for the natural gas industry. Fox certainly knows his. His portraits of people whose health has been damaged and whose rural homesteads have been turned into houses of horror sited on nightmarish landscapes can only move viewers to pity and indignation. In keeping with the dictum that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the film has also moved the entire natural gas industry to rage.
No one from the industry agreed to be interviewed in the film; Fox gives viewers a long list of those who turned him down. I think they didn't trust him to be fair. But as any good public relations consultant will advise, that shouldn't have prevented the industry from making its case. It may have been that the industry feared it was running up against someone who actually knew what questions to ask.
As a close observer of the oil and gas industry, two things struck me about the film. First, the people most directly affected by natural gas drilling tend to be rural and of meager means. Because there are so few of them, they will never make up an electoral force on their own able to compel increased regulation of the industry. And, they have few options when their land, home and health are affected. Frequently, suing isn't one of them. Leaving is a difficult option since after their property has been stigmatized by the proximity of drilling, the land becomes more difficult to unload at any price.
Second, the film mentions the explicit exemption of hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act, an exemption written into the 2005 Energy Policy Act. I've known about this exemption for a long time. And, obviously the exemption makes it cheaper to drill for shale gas since drillers are not obliged to follow federal water regulations. But the nature of those regulations as they relate to hydraulic fracturing was only made clear to me recently in a conversation I had with an environmental consultant to the oil and gas industry.
He said that one way to solve the controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells would be to treat them as hazardous waste injection wells which for obvious reasons are subject to the toughest regulations of any kind related to drilling. Such wells are designed to inject liquid hazardous waste deep into the ground into strata far below any drinking water.
Watching the emissions and pollution resulting from the drilling and production operations shown in the film, I realized why the explicit exemption was inserted into the Safe Drinking Water Act. It occurred to me that the federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing operations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might have resulted in the determination that fracturing fluids are hazardous waste. That would turn fracked natural gas wells into hazardous waste injection wells. Such a classification would make shale gas wells not just a little more expensive to drill, but tremendously more expensive to drill. And, that would mean that natural gas from shale would only come out of the ground at much, much higher prices.
The United States has based its power and economic vitality on cheap energy. The exemption was adopted to help keep energy cheap, knowing that it would not be if shale gas wells were extremely costly to drill.
Because most of us now live in cities, we may be unaware of the size of America's shale gas formations. Vast areas of Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio have shale gas beneath them. Large parts of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Colorado and Wyoming do, too. Gasland takes viewers on a shale gas roadtrip across the country to this new sub-territory within the country, a territory for which the rules that apply to the rest of us have been rewritten for the oil and gas industry. The people we meet have persistent headaches, breathing difficulties, newly acquired asthma, unexplained pain which now racks their bodies, and myriad other symptoms. Their ignitable water shoots flames when lit, the air smells of volatile hydrocarbons, and their animals, both household pets and livestock, don't always look so healthy.
Whether all of this is due to the pollution of their air, water and land by natural gas drilling and production cannot be easily proven. The shale gas boom hasn't been going on long enough for long-term studies to say for sure how serious the public health effects will be. Testing that is only now starting to be done suggests the effects will be profound. And, the damaged people whom we meet in the film give living witness to just such a possibility.
What America has done time and time again when it wants a valuable resource is convince itself that either its methods for getting it are surely safe or at least up to the industry standards, in other words, the best we can do. That then seems reason enough not to delay the profits that will follow. What is left behind is, in reality, a "sacrifice zone," an area and its people who are simply sacrificed for what is perceived as the greater good or sometimes just the greater greed.
Gasland is part of an American journalistic tradition of showing us this truth about ourselves. If you watch this movie and come out simply disgusted, you have missed the point. If you want to stop the devastation, you must take the first step yourself; you must turn down the gas. As long as we buy into the myth that we must have ever more energy to live well, we will be hostage to the energy giants who perpetrate this myth. Forcing them to extract natural gas and other fossil fuels more safely would be wise, but we should understand that it would mean smaller supplies and thus higher energy prices.
Ultimately, what we need to do is move away from fossil fuels altogether. After all, none of the people in Gasland would be suffering the maladies we witness if they were living next to solar panels or wind farms instead of shale gas wells.
Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.