The Boulder City Club showed Gasland on Tuesday night. As the son of a Texas oilman, a grandson of another, and active investor working with a variety of energy companies from renewable to fossil fuel I was expecting the usual misguided focus on fracking. In almost every discussion of fracking horror stories of fracking fluids migrating thousands of feet upward from target rock formations to shallow drinking water wells take center stage.
A phenomenon without any support in peer reviewed scientific studies. I am not saying it will not occur or that we as a society should not be funding continued study. But, focusing on the theoretical obscures the real policy challenges around fracking.
Gasland has been nominated for or won a host of prestigious awards including wins at Sundance and the Emmys plus an Academy Award nomination. It tells the story of Josh Fox as he researches whether to sign a lease of his mineral rights underlying the family farm his parents built in Pennsylvania in the Delaware River Watershed. That watershed is the source of much of the water for New York City and many other major East Coast cities. As he wanders from his own pristine woods, ponds, and rivers to those of other parts of Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming he exposes stories of fouled tap water spouting flames and murky tales of dangerous conspiracies. Also, I at least, heard a tinge of regret or envy.
None of the landowners appear to own the underlying mineral rights or to have sold them. All the subjects of the film appear to have received the downsides of oil and gas development without the profits. It would be interesting to interview landowners with the same scarred landscape, but also the great wealth possible from the “bzz-ness” (that is the pronunciation in the part of the Texas oil patch I worked in during summer breaks from college).
What I thought was refreshing about Gasland was its emphasis on the known issues with natural gas and to some extent oil development:
- Well head emissions – the enormous increase in development has dramatically increased the cumulative effect of well head emissions; and
- Bad drilling and maintenance practices generate water pollution – a poorly cemented and cased well, as in the BP Gulf disaster, or leaking drilling pits, pipelines, or even illegal dumping release highly dangerous pollutants into streams, rivers, and groundwater.
The good news about both these real and significant issues is that the application of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act and advances in technology should dramatically reduce these two problems. The film is at its best when hammering home some of the exemptions to those acts passed in 2005 that clearly allow for greater well head emissions and water pollution.
Industry was slow to wake up to “Gasland” and is busily parsing some of the movie’s claims. There are times where Fox glosses over detail, such as referring to mule deer and antelope as “endangered”. You can get a full point/counterpoint response on Fox’s website. But the larger claim that the 2005 exemptions enable pollution and are a failed public policy remain without any meaningful rebuttal.
While I recommend the movie, be alert to Fox’s website. He clearly wants to ban fracking, not regulate and radically reduce production generated pollution. As I wrote in my prior post, the environmental luddites are wrong to argue for a ban on fracking. Living in a log cabin off the grid is not an option for a third of the US population living at or near poverty. From both an economic and national defense standpoint increased natural gas production is an unexpected game changing opportunity.
Let’s get on with “can do”, not the “sky is falling”.