Josh Fox: Gasland (2010)
Every now and then you have to stand up and be counted, no matter how politically powerless you may feel.
The other day Bronwyn and I finally nerved ourselves up to get out that documentary Gasland which had been staring at us from the shelves of our local video shop for the past year or so. A friend of ours had said that she couldn't sleep after watching it, and that it made her so mad that she wasn't sure whether she wanted to cry or kill someone.
Sounds like a real hoot, doesn't it? And so it proved. As the film made its quiet, understated way across vast devastated prairies of natural gas containers, through the kitchens of shell-shocked ranchers who could literally light their drinking water on fire (as they proceeded to demonstrate) - some of whom were already dying from the carcinogens that had been introduced into their water without any warning - down devastated streams festooned with dead animals, we felt as though the end of the world might have come at last.
And - guess what? - it's all perfectly legal! The Bush government passed a bill in 2004 which stated that fracking (short for "hydraulic fracturing") is not subject to clean air and clean water legislation. And why not? Because it wouldn't be tolerated for a moment it it was! Because it's so desperately harmful to the environment - and human health - that if the burden of proof to show that it's safe were ever to be shifted to the industrial giants who use it, they'd all be out of business immediately (not to mention immured in court for the rest of their natural lives). So a very necessary piece of legislation, that one. Dick Cheney's idea. Good ol' Dick.
What's more, these myriad companies, with their innumerable different fracking "recipes", are not required to tell anyone exactly which bizarre and inimical chemicals they've been pumping into rock-seams, because it could be deemed "commercially sensitive information." So if you happen to be dying of cancer from the chemicals from a nearby Natural Gas installation, it's up to you to commission an independent study to find out exactly what they've been releasing into the air and the water near you. They don't have to tell you. Or anyone else.
Then, once you've actually started your lawsuit, chances are they'll settle out of court for an undisclosed sum - plus a commitment on your part never to communicate any details of the case to anyone. Only in America, huh? Free enterprise run mad: the right to poison and kill other people in the pursuit of profit ...
"We've got to make sure that it never happens here," said Bronwyn. "I mean it, Jack. We have to start a petition."
"Are you joking?" I said. "We're already doing it." (Though I didn't know, as I spoke, that it had been going on here for over twenty years).
A couple of nights later, we saw on the television news the present Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, remark with a chuckle that - since she had such a small office - she hadn't yet got around to completing the large-scale report on the matter which she undertook last year.
What she has said so far, though, in advance of the full report, is that she sees no need for a moratorium but instead recommends "tighter controls" on the practice. With environmental watchdogs like that, who needs corporate lawyers? She certainly couldn't be accused of staying up nights worrying about it.
Oh, she did also comment, in passing, that "she couldn't rule out the possibility fracking could cause large earthquakes, like the series of tremors that destroyed much of Christchurch over 2010 and 2011."
Correct me if I'm wrong - as I often am - but doesn't that seem rather a casual tone to take on a matter of such seriousness? "Whether fracking is acceptable in a given location will depend on a number of variables, including the location characteristics, the competency of the explorer, the way wastewater is disposed of and whether there is potential for aquifer contamination," states Gary Taylor of the Environmental Defence Society.
Quite so. But if no-one's actually investigating those things at all seriously (and who would, in a John-Key-led administration?), and if there's even a minuscule risk that the practice might have unforeseen long-term effects on the environment, such as seismic instability, as well as all the already well-known side-effects such as watertable contamination, air pollution, compromised health, etc. etc., wouldn't it be quite a good idea to check it out sometime soon? Just why is Jan Wright's office so small, anyway? And shouldn't there be a few other studies going on somewhere else, as well?
Now I do understand that fracking is not the only environmental nightmare that besets us. I also understand that proponents of even more obscene affronts to human existence such as nuclear fission can use opposition to fracking to argue for their own filthy ends. Nor am I blind to the fact that everyone who uses energy (as I'm doing right now by typing on this keyboard) has to get it from somewhere, from some large-scale industrial process which is bound to be ecologically disruptive at least some of the time.
As I watched Josh Fox's film, though, and saw the squad of fakes who'd been flown in to a Congressional Committee hearing on the subject all testifying one after the other that there was no evidence of adverse effects from fracking, and that all the cases to date which had been reported over the many states that allow it had already been investigated and found to be without substance, I was reminded of those Big Tobacco executives who used to testify routinely to the lack of evidence for adverse health effects from smoking cigarettes (as shown memorably in that old Al Pacino / Russell Crowe movie The Insider). Their lies were cut from the same cloth: not even intended to be believed by anyone, but simply stated in order to put them on the record for the purpose of kickstarting future avalanches of bureaucratic delay and confusion.
Michael Mann, dir.: The Insider (1999)
If there's ever a Nuremberg trial for crimes against the environment, I fear that these guys and their bosses may find that simple obedience to orders is not an acceptable excuse. And can anyone seriously doubt that these industrialists - together with the chemists and lawyers and politicians they employ - are all equally culpable of conniving at the systematic degradation of the air and water all of us depend on for life?
Personally , I don't want to see any more laughing and kidding around at press conferences on the subject in future. It's not particularly funny that no resources are being put into investigating it here, just as virtually none have been allotted to checking up on it in the USA.
Since our present government apparently regards any enquiry into their activities which doesn't actually convict them of criminal misconduct and recommend immediate prosecution as a clear green light (the Sky City Convention Centre affair, for example - not exactly a whitewash for the National party, but that's how they took it - or the slew of court cases over the Maori Council's attempts to delay their asset-sales: again, not exactly adding up to a clean bill of health), I'd suggest that perhaps the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment might need to consider resignation if the point of the job is really to rubberstamp pre-formulated business decisions. Even she says our present government have "dropped the ball" on the environment ...
Oh, and by the way, the industrialists involved have informed us that there are "many errors" in the Gasland film:
Energy in Depth (EiD), launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, has created a web page with a list of claimed factual inaccuracies in the documentary, and produced an associated film titled TruthLand. In response to the EID's list of claimed factual inaccuracies, the Gasland website offers a rebuttal.As so often on these occasions, it's the Defence position that causes more genuine disquiet than the Prosecution. All they appear to have been able to come up with is the statement that gas leaks from deposits hundreds of feet below couldn't possible have made their way up through so many impermeable strata to contaminate ground water - a claim now denied by a "2011 study by Duke University." Oh, and an extended rigmarole about the precise "distinction between biogenic and thermogenic gas." The film, it seems, confuses the two. However:
Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, D. C. Baum Professor of Engineering at Cornell University ... has said that drilling and hydraulic fracturing can liberate biogenic natural gas into a fresh water aquifer. That is, just because gas is biogenic does not necessarily indicate that it reached a well by natural means.Obviously I can't venture any opinion on such technical matters, but if that's really the best they've got, against the compelling moonscapes of devastated horror exhibited by the film, then I have to conclude that we really are in trouble here.
So, sorry, our present inertia and tacit tolerance of fracking as somehow superior to stripmining or offshore oil drilling is no longer an acceptable position. This is actually something we might still be able to do something about. Writing to your MP (unless it's John Key), or - better still - to Dr. Jan Wright might be a good start, though.
So what if Straterra says that "fracking in New Zealand is nothing like how this technology is portrayed in Gasland"? What's next - an endorsement from Ken Ring? Don't you "industry spokespeople" understand that it simply isn't enough to say that the film hasn't proved every one of its devastating claims? The point is that if any of them are true, then it's time to stop.
This is not just our future, but our children's children's children's future. Some of the damage done now can never be undone. We have to know that it's safe before it's allowed to proceed. And - guess what? - I suspect that even our own "clean green" variety is going to turn out to be a colossal can of worms before we're through.