Movie Review – Gasland – More Useful Than I Expected

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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:

  1. Well head emissions – the enormous increase in development has dramatically increased the cumulative effect of well head emissions; and
  2. 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”.

 

3 COMMENTS

  1. Regulating and reducing pollution will not solve the problem. If you can come to terms with the fact that where ever drilling takes place, there WILL be water pollution, then go ahead and advocate for regulations. But the research shows that there is no safe way to do it. The piping and casing has to last literally FOREVER, and it won’t (many have already cracked, leaked, failed, the ratio is alarming). Once the piping weakens, methane can travel through the casing and infiltrate the water system. The piping is a gateway for the gas in the shale to travel to the water supply. Places that already have fracking are the ones that needs regulations, but in New York we still have time to prevent it from happening at all.

    That’s why he’s calling for an all out ban. Because fracking is unsafe for any water supply anywhere, the casing simply CAN’T hold up for centuries in the future.

    https://vimeo.com/44367635

  2. Thanks for your comment, but the video proves my basic point:

    1. The issue Gasland highlights has nothing to do with fracking, rather it is drilling ANY gas or oil well – conventional, fracked, whatever.

    2. Both air and water pollution are inherent in hydrocarbon production and they ought to be regulated and the best available technology used to reduce that impact – clearly we need more comprehensive, science based regulation.

    3. To say that b/c an industry has environmental costs, so we have to PROHIBIT IT is to take people, not oil co. execs., but landowners w/ mineral rights or mineral rights owners property away from them – that’s constitutionally dubious.

    4. The cement and casing is a real issue obviously. 11 guys died in the BP disaster from it – we need much tighter regulation.

    5. It’s also so conspiratorial – you can’t on the one hand site to industry records that are published and at the end say “these are the documents industry doesn’t want you to see.”

    6. The well technology is also not really a fair rendition – clearly any time a well leaks the drillers should have to pay – we may need some sort of swift administrative or court system to deal with claims and to provide interim relief based on a tax on production – a good area for smart regulation. But most wells are going to get plugged w/c is not even dealt with here.

    7. Finally, you cannot ignore the national security benefit of stopping paying for foreign produced fossil fuels, w/c fuels terrorism, makes us vulnerable to blackmail, and transfers enormous wealth from a democracy to tyrants dragging down our economy.

    These are real problems – it is absolutely not true that they can’t be solved – the industry can be held to a much higher standard, people can lower their costs and increase their own wealth if they own mineral rights or invest in domestic energy. People’s retirement, including plenty of union and other blue collar workers, depend on investing.

    It’s easy to say we can solve a problem, by taking other people’s money.

    Let’s actually get on with solving the problems – that’s the American way.

  3. Great piece on natural gas production – https://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/13/turning-a-coal-mines-gas-problem-into-a-ski-resorts-co2-and-energy-solution/

    Note that the most recent cornel study that demonstrates well leakage of methane in the bore is not gasland’s 6% but 1.5% and using solar and wind as 100% better on climate change than coal, then gas is 40% better.

    Prohibiting gas production is enviro irresponsible, endangers national defense, and empowers foreign tyrants. We need to regulate the air and water emissions much better and compensate much more quickly than today anyone harmed.

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