Gasland: how to turn good news into bad

Shale gas might help solve a global energy shortage. So why is Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated doc so down on it?

It’s a ‘game changer’. After years when America’s reserves of fossil fuels have been dwindling, an enormous new source of energy has become available: shale gas. Enough exploitable natural gas - 1,000 trillion cubic feet - has been found under states like Pennsylvania to supply US needs for 45 years. In Europe, there are 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas. No drilling in deep water, no nasty oil spewing out, and substantially lower carbon emissions than you get from burning coal. Isn’t this good news all round?

Apparently not. And there has been no higher-profile effort to present the good news about shale gas as a disaster than the documentary Gasland. The film starts at director Josh Fox’s home in rural Pennsylvania. A gas company has offered him nearly $100,000 to drill for shale gas on his 19-acre property. That’s a nice little payday for basically doing nothing. Should he take the cash?

First, a quick explanation of what’s different about shale gas. The existence of stores of methane thousands of feet underground locked inside rock has been known about for a long time. What hasn’t existed until recent years is the means to exploit these reserves. A pipe is drilled into these gas-containing rocks, then charges are exploded along its length to open up the rock. Then, a mixture of water, sand and a small percentage of chemicals is forced into the rock to open up fissures and free the stored gas. The process is called hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’.

The question mark raised by this process is whether some of the methane produced, or the chemicals added to the water-and-sand mixture, can escape into groundwater supplies. In theory, it should be impossible. The shale gas drills do pass through rocks adjacent to those supplying groundwater, but go much, much deeper. Since the drillhole is then lined with cement, it should be impossible for any leakages to occur. But it does appear that, occasionally, that has happened.

Fox goes to the town of Dimock in Pennsylvania to see how the local water supply has been affected by drilling by energy firm Cabot. The locals show how methane gas has entered the drinking water and their party trick is to put a naked flame next to running tap water and set it on fire. They have also complained about feeling unwell since the drilling started. Cabot has had to do work on water wells and truck in drinking water to those affected. However, the gas companies claim that in many instances, this inflammable water is the result of water wells being dug into naturally occurring pockets of gas and is not caused by fracking. Where the truth lies is the subject of heated debate at present.

Elsewhere, in Colorado, residents near gas drilling sites have complained about hazy clouds forming round their homes and of chemicals appearing in their drinking water, causing sickness. One Colorado man, Lewis, shows Fox his original well water supply; it used to be perfectly fit for drinking, now it’s smells like turpentine. Putting a blowtorch to the water, blobs of plastic appear to form, suggesting contamination with glycol ethers, components used in plastic production. The drilling company in that area now delivers water to Lewis twice a week.

Yet what should be an interesting opportunity to explore some longstanding questions - like what balance we strike between the interests of a relatively small number of rural residents and those of wider society - is missed. It becomes a black-and-white tale of little people against malevolent corporations. By starting from his own situation, Fox might think he is providing human interest, but it felt more like he was saying: ‘I’ve got this rural idyll, how dare you screw it up.’ With his smug manner, I was less inclined to sympathise with Fox than fantasise about punching him.

The possible problems associated with fracking represent a serious enough story without Fox reaching for hyperbole and scaremongering, but he does that anyway. By throwing up a few liberal dog-whistle ideas - like ‘chemicals’ and ‘Dick Cheney’ - Fox tries to turn problems with a new technology that need to be sorted out into a wider suggestion that ‘fracking’ is fundamentally unsafe. And hey, if you don’t care about Fox’s water, he throws in the idea that shale-gas drilling could ultimately poison the watershed that supplies New York and New Jersey’s water. Scary enough for you now?

It would be naive to ignore the fact that energy companies have a trillion-dollar reason to downplay problems related to shale gas. But in many respects, that’s as much a consequence of Americans’ bad habit of solving every problem by litigation, and a wider culture of risk aversion where anything new is treated with suspicion. In principle, fracking is a safe way of producing energy. Where companies screw up, they should learn the lessons, clean up the problem and compensate those affected.

What’s missing from Gasland is the equally pertinent observation that environmentalists are desperately trying to find a reason to scare people away from a cheap new source of energy that isn’t renewable or zero-carbon. If shale gas takes off, as it seems to be doing, the pressure from scares about ‘peak oil’ and the dangers of deepwater drilling for energy won’t have the same purchase in the public’s mind.

As one analyst wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year: ‘I have been studying the energy markets for 30 years, and I am convinced that shale gas will revolutionise the industry—and change the world—in the coming decades. It will prevent the rise of any new cartels. It will alter geopolitics. And it will slow the transition to renewable energy.’

For Britain, this debate is now playing out closer to home. In 2010, test drilling started in north-west England on shale gas deposits there. With supplies from the North Sea declining and dependence on gas from overseas growing, a new domestic source of gas would be welcome. Yet there have been calls by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, in a report funded by the Co-operative, to halt work on exploiting these reserves. (The Co-operative is also backing Gasland in the UK.)

This seems mad, even in environmental terms. When UK carbon emissions fell in the 1990s, it wasn’t because of concern about the climate, but because of the so-called ‘dash to gas’ as a wave of gas-fuelled power stations were built to replace coal-fired plants. Because gas contains a higher proportion of hydrogen to carbon, burning gas is regarded as ‘cleaner’ in climate-change terms. Encouraging gas usage would seem like a good way, therefore, of reducing carbon emissions while still getting affordable, reliable energy - something wind, solar and other renewable energy sources are failing to provide right now.

Gasland has been nominated for the Oscar for best documentary, much to the gas industry’s dismay. Rather like a previous winner of that award, Al Gore’s global warming diatribe An Inconvenient Truth, Gasland cranks up alarmism at the expense of a balanced discussion of an important issue.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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