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5 Apr 2011

A film review: ‘Gasland’

The second half of the oil age will be very, very different from the first half.  It is truly, to coin the term usually used to describe football, “a game of two halves”.  The first half was awash with cheap, easy-to-find and easy-to-produce oil and gas.  The second half will be the story of expensive-to-produce hydrocarbons, from increasingly inaccessible places, with a rapidly falling energy return on investment and an increasing impact, both environmentally and in terms of carbon emissions.  It will be (unless we are able to break our addiction to hydrocarbons sooner rather than later) a wretched and increasingly desperate time of squeezing fuel out of anything we can.  It will be the societal scraping of the barrel.  If you want to know what that looks like, ‘Gasland’ offers a powerful, chilling, and enraging insight.  Here is the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZe1AeH0Qz8&feature=related

There is a huge boom in natural gas production going on in the US at the moment.  Gas which is locked up in shale and has proven very hard to extract in the past is now being made available through a process called hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’.  Here, wells are drilled deep into the shale, initially vertically, then horizontally, explosive charges then fracture the rocks, and then a highly toxic mixture of over 500 chemicals, many of them known carcinogens, is pumped under pressure into the rocks, followed by huge volumes of water into which the natural gas then dissolves, rather like the bubbles in lemonade.  Think of it as a huge Sodastream.  About half of this water is then pumped out again, the gas removed, and the highly toxic water is then, in theory at least, safely disposed of.

Gasland, in part, tells the story of Josh Fox, who lives in a forest, near a river, in the house his parents built in Pennsylvania, and who one day received a letter from a gas company offering to buy the rights to extract gas from his land.  Intrigued, he set off to find other places where this was taking place.  The film is really the story of that trip.  What he found was that fracking is happening across the US, on a huge scale, and that in many cases, is having a disastrous effect on groundwater and on the communities that depend on that water.  He found communities suffering from all kinds of illnesses, and with water that comes out of the tap dark brown, smelling of benzine and other hydrocarbons, and, in many cases, in some of the film’s most spectacular moments, that can actually be set on fire by holding a lighter next to the water.  Being able to set your kitchen water on fire is as sure an indication as you could want that something is wrong somewhere.

‘Gasland’ reveals how the organisations supposed to be protecting many thousands of people aren’t, and how one of Dick Cheney’s final acts when in government was to change the legislation so that the companies carrying out fracking are exempt from the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and a raft of other environmental legislation.  The industrial system’s model of find a resource, trash the place trying to get it out and to maximise the economic return, then get out doing the least possible to remedy the impacts of what you have done, is thrown into stark relief in this film.  The polluted water, once stripped of its gas content, is left to sit in ‘holding ponds’ where it often leaks out.  In theory it should be sent to landfill, but in one of the scenes that stayed with me the longest, some places now have machines that ‘evaporate’ the water, turning it into mist which blows away, taking its poisonous contents away to wherever the wind carries it.

Watching this film in the UK, you might find yourself thinking that this is another film about the US and some of the more outlandish things that happen there, but it isn’t an issue here.  However, fracking is now underway in the UK.  The first hydraulic fracturing wells are being sunk, as we speak, on a farm 4 miles from Blackpool, and many more sites are in the process of being identified.  The terms of their license mean that Cuadrilla, the company undertaking the drilling, doesn’t have to reveal the results of the explorations until 2015.  Many more are planned, and the Department of Energy and Climate Change has made it clear that it has no plans to call for a moratorium on the practice.

So, given the potential of the environmental impacts being so clearly experienced in the US, it might be worth asking what are the benefits of turning to fracking?  The UK imports much of its gas, currently from Qatar and Russia, among other places.  How might this affect our national energy security?  According to a recent report from the Tyndall Centre, displacing 10% of the UK’s current gas consumption would necessitates about 2,500-3,000 horizontal wells spread over some 140-400 square kilometres, requiring 27 to 113m tonnes of water.  ‘Gasland’ sets out clearly how the authorities who are meant to protect people from things like fracking are failing them horribly.  One woman reports confronting a public representative and saying “if you aren’t going to protect us, what should we do?”, and being told “get an attorney”.  However, with gas fracking starting here in the UK, we can naturally be assured, one would hope, that the powers-that-be are all over it, and intent on keeping a close eye on things.

However, when asked about the Blackpool drilling, the Department of Energy and Climate Change wrote that:

“Cuadrilla, currently operating near Blackpool, has made it clear that there is no likelihood of environmental damage resulting from its shale gas project, and that it is applying technical expertise and exercising the utmost care as it takes drilling and testing forward.”

Oh that’s alright then.

I would highly recommend this film as a powerful and graphic immersion in what ‘scraping the barrel’ looks like in practice.  In ‘The Transition Handbook’ I referred to the Alberta tar sands as the equivalent of an alcoholic going to the pub, finding the beer is off, and being so desperate for a drink that he thinks “over the years there must have been thousands of pints spilt on this carpet, I’ll boil it up and drink that”…  Gas fracking is like starting to blow bits of the house’s foundations up in order to find any spilt beer that made it through to the brickwork.  It may be marginally better than coal mining and all the horrors associated with that, and we can debate, as George Monbiot has been increasingly in recent weeks, the role of nuclear in all this and whether it is better or worse than coal or gas fracking, but really surely the message of this film, with its closing shots of huge windfarms, is that we can do better.

With the publication last week of a report showing that a rapid transition to a completely renewable infrastructure is possible by 2030, and Germany setting a record last year for the amount of renewable energy installed, the sooner we can leave the second half of the oil age behind the better.  The sooner we can shift our expectations, use less, and get a sense of the increasingly abusive process that filling our cars makes necessary, the better.  I found ‘Gasland’ a very sad film to watch.  Here is something that makes nobody happy, and represents corporations completely out of control.  It also takes you on Fox’s journey through learning more and more about gas fracking, to the point where it all gets too much for him and he stands and weeps by the side of the river.  I think it is vital viewing, and absolutely deserves the Oscar it came so close to winning.

You can order the DVD of Gasland here.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.

12 Comments

Dan Olner
5 Apr 5:41pm

“Being able to set your kitchen water on fire is as sure an indication as you could want that something is wrong somewhere.”

That sentence wins my understatement of the year award. Oh my God.

Another little insight into how things work in the US at the moment: “Last Thursday, tea party activists rallied on Capitol Hill to pressure Republican lawmakers to cut government spending. Crowd estimates ranged from ‘dozens’ to ‘fewer than 200,’ yet the event attracted dozens of reporters and significant media interest, producing hundreds of stories in local and national press. At today’s rally [against Koch Industries] which was ten times bigger than the tea party one, ThinkProgress spotted three reporters — none from mainstream publications.”

Charlie
5 Apr 6:16pm

Hi Rob,

Many thanks for posting this. I tried to get my hands on this DVD last August after I heard about the fracking attempts near Blackpool, but it was not available in the UK at that time.
As part of Transition Town Clitheroe, it is something very close to us, and it was portrayed in the local media as a positive boost to the local economy!
I very much look forward to getting my hands on this and showing it to people in our area. The last I heard of this is that a local county councillor was taking on the company on the ground that it posed serious health hazards for humans. I am not sure at what stage this is at…

Tom A
5 Apr 6:22pm

Thanks for the review Rob.

The report you link to (http://iprd.org.uk/?p=6877) is fascinating. I’d be interested in any critiques of this, but if they are right then it makes the nuclear debate a bit more interesting (inudtrialisation of the landscape with wind and solar v safety, resilience and storage concerns for nuclear).

Either (or both) ways it seems we can produce enough power to provide decent lives for everyone on the planet without coal / oil / gas. Looks like it’d take 40 years to get there if we pull our fingers out. I’m up for some work re: helping people in power remove their digits from dark places ;-)

VIVIANE TITS
5 Apr 6:44pm

Thank you very much. This video helps me a lot of. I work a lot of time and I have no time enough to go see this film. In France the oil companys want to take this oil but the people doesn’t want to that.

Katie
5 Apr 7:16pm

Rob- Such a deep thank you for publishing your review and making Josh’s work go global. The following is a copy of my letter that is part of an ongoing dialogue in PASA (Pa. Assoc. for Sustainable Agriculture):

The natural gas industry has done a truly incredible job of seeing that our state budgets do not even allow funding for Environmental Impact Study research to be done in Pennsylvania prior to the industry setting up shop (so claims the Delaware River Basin Commission, a federally mandated commission established to protect the waters of the Delaware River. Alas, 3 of the 5 commissioners are gas leaseholders) as well as assuring that local conservation districts have had their budgets axed, thus removing one more official from the process who might be in the field to detect and enforce violations. They have now made a greater farce of the regulatory process by ensuring that it will be lost in a bureaucratic maze, requiring that all citations for violations be funnelled through a position in the government which is essentially in the hands of the gas industry, as is the position of governor of Pa.[this refers to the latest act requiring any violations be okayed by the Acting Secretary of the Dpt. of Environmental Protection] Imagine if a policeman couldn’t issue a citation for someone committing a crime until it had been passed through an approval process that ended up in the office of a person funded by the very company that committed the initial crime? We all know how much the keys of the Commonwealth have been handed over to the industry. The industry personnel now work for the government and government personnel now work for the industry.

At a time when education and public services budgets have been axed statewide, our Governor still insists that it would actually be a hardship to the industry if they were to pay a severance tax. Do you see where this is going? has gone already???

What is so very appalling is that there is so little discussion about where this toxic water is already(!)/is going to be processed when it is known that all toxicity cannot be removed from the wastewater. With the thousands of wells already approved and the approval of thousands more waiting in the wings, does anyone know how this wastewater is REALLY going to be kept out of the water supplies? Are we expected to assume that the industry is going to abide by any high standards of disposal when there are no treatment plants in existence at the present time that could effectively treat/purify? the water for truly safe use? Such plants would take several years to build and yet we are already seeing the industry rush into drilling as fast as they can get past anything holding them up. In the meantime it is known that the industry is selling the residue of fracking to counties in SW Pa. who are using it to spread on their roads to melt ice in the winter and to keep dust down in the summer. Check the websites of the organizations below to find out more. And possibly subscribe to the weekly newspaper “The River Reporter”, our beacon of light in Gasland, which dares to print both sides of the issue in very clear terms. The daily “Scranton Times-Tribune” also does a very good job of showing both sides of this issue.

The industry claims they can store the waste in open pits in the meantime. What lining could possibly hold up to such corrosive materials indefinitely? What happens when there are rains that cause the pits to overflow?

I came onto this discussion only recently and wonder if you have seen the series in the NY Times regarding exposing to the public the workings of the industry:

http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/us/series/drilling_down/index.html?scp=2&sq=fracking&st=cse

Those of you in the northern tier of Pa. are already facing what is coming to the rest of the state. The exposure to airborne radium can’t be good for any lifeforms.
The following link will prove invaluable to people elsewhere who are now having to deal with the deceit of a verrry powerful industry:

http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/gas-drilling#axzz1Ifjjr600

Stay informed with what is going on through:
Damascus Citizens for Sustainability: damascuscitizens.org,
Frack Alert: frackalert.org, and
Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy: catskillcitizens.org.

The public comment period for the DRBC draft regulations is still open until the 15th of this month. The DRBC is attempting to draft regulations for which the studies have not even been completed by the federal DEP and won’t be for another two years.They are throwing out the science on which their studies should be based in order to allow the industry to get to work ASAP. Your comments are vital. Please take a few minutes to submit your comments in the next 10 days. For guidance in how to present your comments, go to the websites of the above mentioned groups. Your action could help make a difference.

Kate Baxter, Pleasant Mount, Pa

James Samuel
5 Apr 8:17pm

“Fracking” is also being proposed here in “Clean Green” New Zealand! Between this and Deep Water Oil and Tar Sands we should be getting the message pretty soon – it’s a finite planet!

The question I have is: Are we leaving it in a better state than we found it (for the next generations), and if not, why not, and is that OK?

John Weber
5 Apr 9:51pm

As long as we, me too, are willing to continue to use fossil fuels, we will continue to do these things to others. to the earth, to ourselves.
This paragraph below from:
The Curmudgeon Report

We will do anything and everything to maintain our present personal level of energy use and the comfort it affords us. We will do anything and everything to the earth, to other people and even to ourselves to continue on this path. And if we don’t have the energy level we see others have, we will do anything and everything to the earth, to other people and even to ourselves to attain that level. The proof of this assertion is simple; we are doing it.
http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/02/curmudgeon-report.html

tony Buck
5 Apr 11:09pm

Dear SIr,
I’ve been reading your very interesting Appalachian Fracture System notes and I wondered:
Could the lubrication of the Marcellus shale field in Pennsylvania, USA, with billions of gallons of high pressure water, release pent-up stresses causing the various masses to move in an earthquake-like scenario along its length?
Reply:
Hi Tony:
Yes, but these are very, very small earthquakes…..
All the best,
Terry Engelder
Professor of Geosciences, Dept of Geosciences, Penn State University, USA

Stephen Watson
6 Apr 9:28am

I haven’t even seen the film, but Rob’s powerful description of it nearly had me in tears. Sadly John Weber’s point seems to be clearly borne out …

Katie
6 Apr 3:10pm

re: john weber’s comment-
yes “we have met the enemy and he is us” in the words of Walt Kerr, expressed through his character, Pogo, over 30 years ago. What is important is to realize more so how we have all been the victims of just the right kinds of collective conditioning and deceit that allowed/encouraged! us to buy into the dream of more being better, that it’s all about growth as a measure of success and well-being. And wonderfully, Transition steps into the picture to awaken us from that illusive dream and presents the methodology that can help our communities, at least, and perhaps have some effect on lessening the jolt of the energy descent we are in the midst of.

In the US, it was a sad day indeed when Jimmy Carter left office 30 years ago, we all took our sweaters off and the solar panels were removed from the White House. There went the leadership at a national level that could have helped reduce the extent of our present circumstances.

Gasland requires us to become involved and not just sit on the sidelines thinking we are disempowered, helpless, or to wring our hands in despair, symied into inaction. I live 10 miles from Dimmock, Pa., where the faucet water can be lit with a match. My water is presently the purest I have ever known from a tap but I am surrounded by leaseholders who will turn a blind eye to the industry because they have signed agreements prohibiting them from speaking out against the problems should there be spills, illegal dumping, etc.

Josh Fox is a local hero, but he’s also been taqgged as a terrorist, as have others in our community who dare to speak out against the lies and cover-ups. There is still time to challenge the industry and this greater exposure is what makes that challenge hopeful, to keep our air and water from being fouled because of the Cheney loophole that doesn’t even require the industry to have their radioactive, carcinogenic wastewaters classified as toxic and hazardous wastes, thus allowing it to go through traditional treatment plants before being released into the rivers.

Our complicity must be reduced and hopefully stop somewhere. And for those of us who are and have been low to no-impact people, we are strengthened by the knowledge of skills and ways that are separate from mass consumption of non-renewable resources. True, there is little in the average home and lives that is not somehow a product of fossil fuels. And this is what TT is about – raising this awareness. The bigger issue is to get the governments to own up to what they know about energy aside from fossil fuels, but it’s like Tucker fighting the Big 3 auto conglomerates in the mid 1900′s, and being ruined in the process by the enormous power in the coporatocracy. Thank goodness for all the work being done on so many fronts around the world, as exemplified by TT and the multitude of organizations mentioned in “Blessed Unrest” by Paul Hawken.

My concern is that knowing how we have been complicit in the consumption of fossil fuels, fouling our planet, etc. [insert your evil of the day here] should not stymie us from exposing the lack of ethics and responsibility that seems so inherent to the fossil fuel industry. Too many people have been weakened and stymied, instead of strengthened into action, on whatever front they are able to work, from the home to the planet. Every voice raised in opposition to all that is antagonistic to our living in harmony on the planet helps to raise that critical mass of awareness that can help change the collective consciousness.

yan tomlinson
15 Apr 7:47pm

‘ . . . when asked about the Blackpool drilling, the Department of Energy and Climate Change wrote that:

“Cuadrilla, currently operating near Blackpool, has made it clear that there is no likelihood of environmental damage resulting from its shale gas project, and that it is applying technical expertise and exercising the utmost care as it takes drilling and testing forward.”’

It might be more sensible to ask the Health and Safety Executive whether and how they are monitoring this work. What independent surveys have been done to establish the ‘benign’ effects of fracking?