Tuesday, 15 February 2011
When we talk about polluting fossil fuels, coal and oil are cited as the villains. Coal wins the prize for producing the most CO2 when burnt, as well as heavy particulates which cause ‘black soot’ in the polar regions and respiratory disease. Oil, meanwhile, gets a bad press not only because of its carbon intensity, but more recently for the Gulf of Mexico accident, and for the extraordinarily environmentally destructive project to extract bitumen from soils of Northern Canada.
Gas is often thought of as the ‘least worst’ option – plentiful, easy and relatively sustainable to extract and lower-carbon. However, Josh Fox’s documentary, ‘Gasland’, nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar last month, has begun to change this.
Fox began the film when his family was offered $100,000 for permission to drill for gas on their land. The gas company was proposing to use hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’, where millions of gallons of chemically-laced water are pumped at high pressure into the ground, causing the rock to fracture and natural gas to be released, which can then be stored.
Fox decided to travel across the US to find out what fracking does. He found that in 34 states of the country, communities of people suffer from carcinogen-contaminated drinking water, unexplained illnesses, flammable gas in their water systems, explosions from build-ups, and spillages of contaminated water near where this type of drilling is taking place. The US Environmental Protection Agency has in some cases advised residents not to drink tap water and to use a fan whilst showering to blow away harmful gas.
Hydraulic fracturing used to be a ‘last resort’ gas extraction process, but as accessible supplies dry up it has become increasingly popular. It has been subject to deregulation in the US. A US Energy Bill in 2005 exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and various other pieces of environmental legislation. This has made it incredibly difficult for people to obtain details about the content of water that has made them ill, or to make the companies involved accountable for what they do.
The gas industry, of course, wants the perception of gas as a benign, even ‘green’ fuel option to remain. A propaganda war has begun, with gas companies accusing Fox of manipulating facts, and the film’s website and Facebook page have now mobilised a global outcry at the effects of fracking. The film has put fracking, and ‘unconventional’ fossil fuel extraction under the spotlight and there are signs that legislators are taking concerns seriously. The state of New York, for example, is now considering a moratorium on fracking, and Congress is considering legislation to include gas drilling in the Safe Water Drinking Act again. But fracking is still a growing industry across the US and other countries.
Digging and drilling for more coal, oil and gas - in America, UK and the rest of Europe – is seen as necessary for ‘energy security’, reducing dependence on politically uncertain sources of fossil fuels in Central Asia and the Middle East. With ‘conventional’ reserves of oil and gas dwindling, we may be heading for swapping one kind of insecurity with another, closer to home.
You can find out more about the film at http://gaslandthemovie.com/ and watch the trailer here.