If you saw Joshua Fox's documentary Gasland on HBO last Monday night (check to see if it is still being shown) you know that one of Fox's most compelling visuals is a flaming tap, such as the one shown here from the review in the New York Times.
Fox's film is a 105-minute indictment of the shale gas industry and its effects on health and well water supplies. Here is another review from the Huffington Post and an interview of Fox by Terry Gross. View a trailer of the film at the bottom of this post.
He is a landowner in northeastern Pennsylvania whose home and land sit atop the Marcellus Shale, an extensive rock formation that contains huge amounts of natural gas. The problem is that you have to drill into the formation and inject fluids to artificially fracture the rock so the gas can be liberated. This process is called hydrofracking or fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing.
These shale gas deposits are extensive, as the accompanying map shows.
After Fox is offered about $100,000 by a gas company seeking permission to drill on his property he decides to check things out. Thus starts an odyssey that takes him beyond his home to nearby areas and to Colorado, Wyoming and other Western states where the shale gas industry has been operating.
What he finds is an industry unfettered by adherence to the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act - the industry was exempted by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Is the hand of Dick Cheney apparent? This egregious exemption boggled my mind.
Fox also discovers ignitable taps, foul smells, exploding wells, and some very sick people and animals. Not a pretty sight is the understatement of the year. Also encountered are some dedicated scientists and some government officials, some of whom who are intrepid and others, less so.
The industry side is not really presented but that is not from Fox's lack of effort. He does have some clips of phone messages and brief conversations as he tries to speak with corporate officials. There is a clip of industry moguls testifing before a House committee that is considering a bill (FRAC - Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness to Chemicals bill) that would repeal the aforementioned exemptions. At the end of the film as the credits roll, he lists those who declined interviews. One name that caught my eye was the Ground Water Protection Council. I don't know the circumstances surrounding Fox's attempt(s) to get an interview with the GWPC so I am reluctant to pass judgment. Note that there is a downloadable publication on the GWPC site, Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer.
Some other items that came out during the film:
1) Up to 596 chemicals are used in the 'soup' that is injected into gas-bearing formations. Companies are not required to divulge these chemicals. Not good. Not good at all.
2) The huge amounts of water and chemicals required to frack a single well: millions of gallons and up to hundreds of tons.
3) Too many talking heads are anathema in a film like this, but Gasland could have benefited from a hydrogeologist or reservoir engineer explaining what can happen to shallow domestic wells when hydrofracking is practiced (there are graphics).
4) If hydrofracking is as innocuous as a few people said, why was it necessary to seek SDWA and CWA exemptions? No problems, right?
5) Bubbling streams - and not from water flowing over rapids and waterfalls.
6) Condensate tanks emitting toxic vapors; these sources are exempt from the Clean Air Act.
7) Pits full of 'produced water'- the stuff that comes out of the well. 'Water' is probably a stretch.
8) In an interview with PA DEP Secretary John Hanger, Fox is put on the defensive somewhat when Hanger says (words to the effect) that people like Fox, on the other side of the camera, can walk away from this issue, whereas Hanger can't, and has to make and live with decisions.
1) Fox does not interview well owners who have or had drilling on their property but no water or health problems. That's to be expected, but we are left with the perception that all are adversely affected. I also wondered if there were affected people who did not have gas wells on their property but had been victimized by operations on nearby lands.
2) Greed on the part of the energy companies is mentioned, but let's not forget that those who sold/leased their land to the energy companies likely received compensation. That's one question Fox never asks, not even of John Fenton, a Wyoming farmer/rancher who bemoans what the industry has done to his ranch (there are 24 gas wells on his land). Did Fenton and his wife (it's her family's land) grant permission for these wells to be drilled? If so, did they receive compensation? Did they think of what the result might be if they let the gas industry drill? Wyoming has a long history with the energy industry. How they get their product and what they have to do should not be a mystery.
3) Item (2) notwithstanding, shoddy treatment (jeopardizing health, etc.) is not justified.
4) The Federal and state governments don't seem very willing or able to address this issue, likely because of the 2005 exemptions. The EPA is supposedly examining the issuem but an EPA friend of mine said that EPA is not enthused about getting involved in this issue.
5) Budget cuts won't make it easier to address Item 4. Fox notes that the PA Department of Environmental Protection will endure a 25% cut, necessitating the loss of 350 jobs.
6) We need to demand that these companies be subject to applicable air and water quality and relevant environmental acts, assess what the specific problems are, their extent, and what the industry needs to do to mitigate the problems. If this means modifying existing laws or enacting new ones, so be it.
Did I like the film? Yes. There are some 'holes' for sure. But I view Fox like I do Michael Moore - society needs people like them to poke it in the eye every once in a while.
Gasland is a real poke in the eye. Let's hope those who are in n a position to do something take action. If they don't, we need to hold their feet to the fire - or worse, the tap.
For another perspective on shale gas as a geopolitical game-changer, read this WSJ Op-Ed by Amy Myers Jaffe.
Note added on 28 June 2010: Emily Green tracks the hydrofracking - shale gas nexus.
"In Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana and Texas, they think oil rigs are pretty." -- Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)