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:
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.