06/23/2010 10:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

HBO Documentary: It's a Gas

The movie Gasland makes a compelling case for the precautionary principle.

2010-06-23-Gasland300x208.jpg In Gasland, filmmaker Josh Fox explores an explosive issue: hydraulic fracturing in the production of natural gas production and its unwanted side effects.

On Monday, inspired by that bastion of balanced thinking known as the Wall Street Journal editorial board, I posted on the precautionary principle and Obama's application of it to restrict deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. (The update, by the way, is that the federal judge struck down the president's bid for a moratorium on drilling, apparently eschewing the principle. The government says it plans to appeal.)

Today my subject is similar, but the inspiration is different.

On Monday night I watched a fascinating and disturbing documentary.

Gasland chronicles the experience of filmmaker Josh Fox as he travels the nation, discovering and chronicling the ugly side of hydraulic fracturing or fracking -- the process of pumping more than a million gallons of water along with a mix of sand and fluids [pdf] deep into the Earth to break apart the rock below and free the gas locked inside it.

It's a technique that's been used for decades to extract oil and natural gas from shale, but it has seen a growth spurt in recent years, thanks to technological advances, like hydrofracking, that have made it more competitive economically [pdf]. (See graphic below for more details on the process.)

A Legal Loophole Opens Way to Opening of New Gas Plays -- and New Fracking

Fracking is without question a potential game changer in the nation's energy scene, opening up vast new reserves of the so-called clean fossil fuel -- potentially mitigating our need [pdf] for more coal and perhaps even oil. Because of the advances in fracking technology, U.S. natural gas deposits that had been thought to be unrecoverable are now counted in the recoverable column. And so, U.S. natural gas reserve numbers are up, and naturally the natural gas industry is jumping on those newly accessible deposits, jumping on the fracking bandwagon in the process.

But that bandwagon would never have been quite so huge had it not been for a little help from Congress. That help came in the form of a provision in the 2005 Energy Bill (see Section 327) that exempted the highly toxic fluids used in fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (or CERCLA, better known as the Superfund law). And this despite two separate decisions in 1997 and 2001 from a U.S. appeals court that found fracking indeed falls under the underground injection provisions in the SDWA.

As of 2010, more than one million hydraulic fracks have been made in the United States, and, according to testimony [pdf] before a House committee in 2005 by Victor Carrillo, chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, it's a process that's helped complete "over 90 percent of the oil and natural gas wells drilled in the United States." Other industry experts report that up to 60 percent of today's gas production is produced using hydrofracked wells. In Texas alone, according to an industry group, more than 11,000 gas wells [pdf] have been hydraulically fractured.

The widely used technique of hydrofracking can be found in natural gas wells in states as far flung as Utah, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas to Michigan and Pennsylvania. Roughly six percent of all the natural gas produced in the lower 48 states comes from the Barnett Shale formation in Texas.

2010-06-23-shale_gasusa1280.jpg Click map for larger image. (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Now the industry wants to expand the technique in new areas, tapping more of the Marcellus Shale, a formation that extends from southern West Virginia up to New York State (see map).

Fracking in the Northeast is especially controversial, since many millions of people currently get their water from unfiltered watersheds located where the new drilling is being proposed. (EPA, expressing "serious concerns" with the potential for such a problem, will be conducting a study to investigate the issue.) If fracking undermines the quality of that drinking water, the costs will be in he many billions of dollars. And that's where filmmaker Josh Fox comes in.

Josh Fox's Travels and Travails in Gasland

At the start of the documentary, Josh, who lives on a tributary of the Delaware River in rural Pennsylvania, gets a letter from a natural gas company offering him about $100,000 for the rights to drill on his land. Before signing on the dotted line, Josh decides to find out more about this fracking process.

What he finds is appalling: people whose homes and lives have been shattered by natural gas drilling, whose water has been so badly contaminated by natural gas -- presumably from the fracking -- that it bursts into flames when lit by a match.

And despite all the evidence to the contrary, the gas drilling companies and the local authorities continue to maintain that these folks' problems are unrelated to the drilling operations. "It's all about the money ... no one cares about the little guy," laments one of the people Josh visits and captures on camera.

I suppose one might argue that the documentary is one-sided. It does show some men in suits -- representatives from the gas industry -- testifying before Congress that there's no evidence indicating fracking has any impact on drinking water. And you might say that that gives the other side its say.

But after seeing shots of tap water from sundry peoples' homes going up in flames (as well as footage of dead birds and a rabbit from a woman's freezer), the businessmen come off as less than believable and even a tad buffoonish. It would've been interesting to see them respond to the specific instances of contamination that Josh captured on film -- perhaps the suits refused to be interviewed. The film documents multiple attempts by Josh to speak to someone from the industry, all to no avail.

One-sided or not, there seems to be more than enough evidence here (and elsewhere such as here) to warrant a careful look at fracking impacts on drinking water before continuing our full-bore leap into the world of greater fracking. Did someone say moratorium?

For me one of the most compelling moments of the movie comes near the end. Josh is in the office of an official from a state environmental protection agency asking him to do something to stop fracking in his backyard. Even though he will not allow drilling on his property, others likely will.

The official says there's nothing he can do -- it's the price we have to pay to get the energy we need. When pressed further, the official gives Josh his business card. "Call me if you have any problems," he advises -- in other words, the industry is going to be allowed to frack, but after the creek you live on is polluted and once your drinking water becomes unhealthy to drink, let us know and we'll be there for you. "And then what? Build me another creek in my backyard," asks Josh. The official shrugs his shoulders and walks out of the room.

And that is an example of the reckless principle. 


(Graphic: © Copyright 2010 Pro Publica Inc.)

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