By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
One of the talking points that has convinced Americans to look politely away from the muck and dirty water while the oil and gas industry fracks tens of thousands of gas wells in Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wyoming, Colorado and beyond is the promise that the U.S. is “The Saudia Arabia of Natural Gas.”
Leaving aside the irony of the world’s richest democracy aspiring to be like a desert kingdom (albeit a wealthy one) dependent on a single finite natural resource, the spin goes something like this: Just hold on for the ride, and soon the America will be rolling in a vast supply of clean-burning, security-assuring natural gas, the fuel of the…ah, if not exactly the future, the vital “bridge fuel” that moves us away from dirty, polluting coal. Oh the jobs we’ll create! The manufacturing we’ll support!
The wells and watersheds we’ll contaminate!
That last sentence is not part of the script obviously.
But it is part of the reality. No longer can the defenders of gas drilling honestly say that they’ve never heard of a water well that’s been soiled by nearby drilling (unless they live in purposeful ignorance). A second documentary by filmmaker Josh Fox, Gasland: Part II, which premiered Monday on HBO, gives us a detailed, frightening look inside that reality, peeling back the oil and gas talking points to show us what’s really happening on the ground in the states “lucky” enough to be sitting atop shale oil formations being tapped for natural gas.
Fox, you’ll recall, sounded the early alarm about the side effects of fracking in his ground-breaking Gasland, 2010, which alerted Americans to the dangerous chemicals and methods involved in a newfangled way of drilling for natural gas called “fracking.”
Gasland II follows up by again taking us on a wild tour of mostly rural America, meeting the angry, lovable, crazy everyday folks affected by the now full-fledged onslaught of fracking that’s sweeping the nation.
In Fox’s alternate-universe version of “America the Beautiful,” we feast our eyes on cloudy glasses of contaminated water; flaming hoses from water wells infected by methane; houses rendered valueless by next door gas wells; a smiling lady punching violent holes in a paper plate to demonstrate what’s happening beneath Arkansas and family albums of people with rashes and bloody noses that started after the air wafted in from nearby gas operations.
It’s a wheeze-worthy panoply of dire outcomes, leavened with appearances by celebrities like Yoko Ono and Pete Seeger and crusty characters like the cussing-mad Vietnam Purple Heart winner whom Fox jestingly blames for sabotaging the film’s G-rating.
But Fox doesn’t just leave us feeling bad for the unlucky IMBYs (look it up) who failed to get out of the way of the frackers. He moves into territory that’s even more fertile for exploration, asking, why is it that natural gas gets a pass?
Natural gas fracking, which injects a watery solution of dozens of corrosive, even carcinogenic chemicals thousands of feet into the earth, has been exempted from the Clean Water Act under the infamous 2005 “Halliburton Loophole.” It makes no sense, knowing that over time a percentage of the well’s concrete casings will breakdown, enabling fluids to migrate outside the well. ( A phenomenon that Fox shows even the industry acknowledges in internal documents.)
Another potential powder keg of problems is that fracking wells and storage facilities leak tons of climate-damaging methane, making it not so clear that natural gas is “better than coal.”And yet the industry is hailed as producing a clean-burning, climate-saving product, and politicians at every tier, but particularly at the federal level, mimic the PR points instead of asking hard questions.
In Gasland II, Mr. Fox goes to Washington, where he interviews the handful of elected officials who agree to meet with him. Rep. Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) hits the nail on the head. The U.S. has no energy policy, but simply lurches from idea to idea, he says.
The policy void creates the perfect platform for the oil and gas industry, wealthier by orders of magnitude than any nonprofit espousing emerging green energy, to fill in the blanks. Lobbyists blanket officials with contributions — thanks Citizens United — and presto, the U.S. national policy is to build a Saudia Arabia of Natural Gas.
But wait. It gets worse. The U.S. doesn’t even really need all the gas it’s extracting, because it has adequate wind, solar, wave and hydroelectric power to fulfill its needs (for powering buildings anyway), should it choose to move in that direction; though Fox only presents one primary expert on this point (many more would concur).
And so the plot thickens. Natural gas, it turns out, is destined for markets overseas, a plan that’s well underway and which Fox demonstrates by showing maps of all the pipelines and export depots in the works. This Plan B, which is really Plan A, is obviously not much discussed in public forums because it conflicts with the “energy security for America” message that the gas and oil companies have used to persuade the public to offer up the commons.
It does explain, however, why companies are rapidly punching holes in the ground, despite the fact that pricing for natural gas has not been that robust in the U.S..
Exporting will be lucrative for U.S. gas companies, as Fort Worth financial consultant Deborah Rogers tells Josh Fox. And once the gas is on the global market, where demand and prices already are higher, the overall price of natural gas will shoot up.
Then, we’ll be trapped, she predicts, saddled with a natural gas infrastructure that depends upon a finite fossil fuel prone to rising prices. It’s monopoly building.
It’s just like, oh yeah, the oil industry. So we really are going to become Saudia Arabia.
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