I watched the documentary Gasland which was put together by Josh Fox a month or so ago and really enjoyed it. Well maybe enjoy isn’t the right word. Since then my information journey into oil has spilled into the very similar world of natural gas (the csis.org talks on the subject in particular) so I feel I can comment on the film.
In this last decade production from unconventional gas has grown from almost nothing in 2002 to around 25% of North American gas production in 2011 (with shale gas and coal bed methane accounting for around 10% each). It is a boom of epic proportions that has it’s roots in a 1980′s tax break for unconventional gas production. Since the ’80′s experimentation has taken place in the Barnett Shale region (Texas) of methods to unlock the “tight” gas through various techniques. Through a lot of trial and error a breakthrough was made in 1998 where the right mix of water, chemicals and sand was pumped down a well bore under extremely high pressure in a process called hydraulic fracturing, fracking (or fraccing) for short. It basically untightens the gas by generating lots of mini earthquakes that create cracks in the rock which are propped open by the sand allowing the gas to flow (increasing permeability).
The basic premise of Gasland is that this method of gas production is harmful to the environment and to human health. Josh’s main concern is that natural gas is now being found in water aquifers used for drinking water purposes and once they are contaminated there is no going back. Water from then on will have to be treated and being an ex water industry employee I can testify that that will be very expensive. This is demonstrated with alarming precision with the numerous kitchen taps that are lit on fire. He also raises questions about the chemicals used in the fracking fluids which the companies can keep secret as they are propriety knowledge needed for competitive advantage as well as the impacts on air quality to local residents health. All throughout the film Josh questions why there is not sufficient regulation in place to prevent this.
Unsurprisingly there has been some criticism directed towards this documentary for not being “accurate”. Most notably comments about how methane can be naturally occurring in groundwater, something which is not mentioned throughout the documentary despite Josh apparently knowing this. The extent of the importance on this point I cannot comment. But for me the main point of the film is how can a process so new, with so many questions surrounding it be allowed to carry on without the gas industry proving that it is indeed safe before they proceed with one of the greatest gas booms in history?
This is an extremely legitimate question and one in which the US Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu asked forming the SEAB subcommitee to look into it. These questions still stand, most notably:
- the degree at which best practice fracking operations are conducted.
- the amount of monitoring conducted establishing a baseline and showing the post-frac effects.
- the quality of well casings installed, assumed to be the main cause of leakage into aquifers.
- the ability of fracking to generate small surface earthquakes.
For me one of the main questions is the amount of fugitive gas (mainly methane) emissions that are released over the lifetime of the well. One of the main reasons there has been a rush to gas is that is seen as a cleaner, more climate change friendly fuel. The perfect fuel to help the transition to a zero carbon energy system. But it would only take a small percentage of leakage for the overall effect of shale gas to be just as bad as coal. And for those who know that the immediate warming effects of methane are much higher than CO2 (72 time over a 20 year period, 25 times over 100 years) we can legitimately ask what is the point, especially when it further deflects spending on renewable energy sources.
So I can only hope that the rest of the world is in not such a hurry as the US is rushing into shale gas without first answering the many questions that Gasland helps to raise. Europe, particularly France, does not seem keen on it. But without China and India proceeding with similar caution the climate change game could well be over.
Here is what I believe to be a shortened version (46 mins) of the full hour and a half Gasland film. Please see the full length film through legitimate means or at least donate via www.gaslandthemovie.com (which is a little hypocritical of me, but sorry Josh I’m keeping my limited funds for my own war chest). Should 46 mins be too long for you, you can get the cliff notes from the 7 min clip at the bottom.
Dylan Ratigan Show clip