8 Dec 2010

Gasland -- The Review

[I guess that Rachel Carson's work is not yet done...]

JD insisted that I watch this documentary about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the US. (Aquadoc's detailed summary of the film and review is here; also see wikipedia.)

In the film, Josh Fox travels in areas that have "experienced" fracking for years, collecting stories and data about damage to the environment and people's health that result from fracking in shale formations. (The most appalling scenes in the movie are where industry representatives try to deny that they have anything to do with polluted surface and ground water, using the old "those claims are over-stated" and "we have no evidence" excuses to cover up their activities.)

Here are a few of my thoughts:
  • Dick Cheney's secret energy taskforce was directly responsible for the legislation that exempted fracking from regulation under the clean water act. (Iraq appears to have been a hope for the energy folks, but that invasion was more about neoconservative's pipedreams of democracy, I think.)
  • Some environmental regulators (from PA and NY, e.g.) appear to think that their job is to protect the energy industry, not the environment.*
  • Halliburton (the company that admits it was using weak concrete on the Deep Horizon wellhead) does a lot of fracking work. Cheney is also its ex-CEO (and apparently, he's being sought by Interpol for bribery in Nigeria). Bad news.
  • Fourteen percent of Americans get their water from wells; these people often live in rural areas where fracking happens. These people are the ones losing their water supplies. It's ironic (and sad) to me that these stereotypical pro-fossil fuel Republicans are getting screwed by Republicans and the fossil fuel industry.
  • Companies that take responsibility for polluted groundwater often provide drinking water. This does nothing to replace polluted water that cannot be used (safely) for livestock, irrigation, etc.
  • The famous "flaming tap water" scenes in the movie may be caused by methane instead of natural gas.**
  • The FRAC Act to close the "Halliburton loophole" by requiring that chemicals used in fracking be disclosed and that fracking operations comply with the safe water drinking act is still stuck in Congress.
But I have three big conclusions from this film:

First, the problem with fracking is not necessarily the chemicals that are injected underground. Those may or may not be dangerous. The problem is how the fracturing allows ANYTHING to mix with groundwater -- polluting it with **methane, natural gas, arsnic or any other substance that was previously isolated from the aquifer. It's in this sense that fracking operations may be causing the most damage.***

Second, the infrastructure for moving natural gas is responsible for significant pollution (e.g.,  Dallas-Ft. Worth has the same pollution from pipes and compressors as ALL the auto traffic in the area.) -- this pollution should be added to the pollution from production AND consumption to get the REAL cost of pollution from "clean" natural gas.

Third, I blame (like with the BP spill) inadequate regulation drafted by corrupt politicians. The 2005 energy bill gave frackers the exemption from clean water laws; citizens are not allowed to sue (under common law) for damage to their water supplies when companies "comply with the law." Yes, of course the companies are responsible for pulling the trigger -- in running operations that rape the earth and destroy the environment and health of the people, plants and animals in the area -- but those companies were given the gun and permission to fire by politicians. It is in this sense that Dick Cheney (with help) is the equivalent to Stalin, Mao or Hitler -- willing to sacrifice "his people" for his selfish pursuit of glory, money, etc.

Bottom Line: I give this film FOUR STARS for highlighting the cost of "All-American Clean Natural Gas"
* NY's legislature put a moratorium on fracking last week. That's good news for NYC's drinking water.

*** In recent news (via aquadoc), farmers in Wyoming (Cheney's home state and location of many fracking operations) are selling more of their groundwater to oil companies. The state engineer is approving these sales, but they are going to deplete groundwater more quickly (because water is being used more rapidly AND not recharging aquifers) and probably result in more polluted water (via return flows from fracking, produced water, etc.)


Roadrunner said...

Just a question, since I'm not quite sure what your point is: you know that "natural gas" and "methane" are largely the same thing, right? Natural gas is 97% methane, and the "natural gas" you get to your house is 100% methane. (The other 3% are other gases like propane, butane, etc.)

The point about the fire water is that the study found that the methane in the water is *naturally occurring* rather than *related to oil and gas activities*. The study isn't distinguishing between "methane" and "natural gas", it's distinguishing between "natural" and "result of energy production".

If you know all of this and I'm just confused by your sentence, my apologies!

David Zetland said...

@Roadrunner -- thanks for the clarification. I guess I am agreeing with you, indirectly, in the sense that the "methane" was released by fracking. I guess that the methane WAS the nat'l gas targeted by fracking. Either way, the flaming taps were the result of fracking. Thanks for the chemistry lesson, tho :)

JD said...

JD would like to do ostrich act.... Bury head in sand and pretend that nobody could really be dumb enough to allow anything that may pollute our water forever. But no ostrich available to me. Darn!

Did you see online that there are defense studies saying that the polluted water is not necessarily a result of fracking? .....and these studies are (surprise) funded by the frackers!


TF said...

Of your three takeaways: the first is less transparent than you portray. A mile of rock is a mile of rock. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen—it has and probably will again—I’m saying your conclusion may not be as accurate as the documentarians would have you believe.

Second, the lifetime carbon analyses take this into account. Just like locomotive emissions are added to PRB coal. NG still wins.

Third, yes. Of course, the technological advance wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Sometimes corrupt politicians (is there any other kind?) unwittingly achieve a marginal positive. Beware the Luddites. I’m not sure you’re being fair to Cheney, either. My understanding is that he is fiercely loyal to his peeps—he got way mad at your boy W when he didn’t pardon (that American patriot) Scooter. (Wow, I just defended Mr. Burns…)

A couple other observations:

You pick on Halliburton as a service company. Do you know who their competition is?

The FRAC Act provisions are already in force in WY.

This summer I stood on a single well pad with 56 wells on it. If you care about the surface, fracking is marginal positive.

Anonymous said...

Not to defend frackers, or the regulatory capture process, but it is certainly true that well water can emit flammable gas in areas remote from any fracking or other interference. And many areas where natural gas reservors exist have localized shallow gas migration; there are places where people used to heat their houses with natural gas emanating from their wells or from seeps. So trying to sort out whether a specific instance of flaming tap water is directly caused by fracking or not, seems to me a very technically complex question.

Nevertheless, fracking by its very nature involves damaging the natural low-permeability barriers to fluid flow that protect shallow groundwater from potentially harmful deeper fluids. It would be foolish to expect that fracking could be done perfectly every time; occasional fuckups are inevitable. See Macondo, or Chernobyl. Perfect engineering is impossible.

Mister Kurtz said...

Like so many things, the answer here is "it depends". I don't know about other states, but in California, the State division of Oil and Gas has extensive regulatory oversight to ensure that potable aquifers are not disturbed by oil and gas development. When completing a well, a cementing procedure known as a "squeeze job" can isolate the zone the operator wishes to frac. Because it would be a waste of effort to apply energy and expensive frac fluids to zones the operator was not interested in, this process is very common. However, depending on the proximity and types of rock, it is theoretically possible for a confined frac to affect a nearby aquifer. Again, in California, potable water aquifers are rarely, if ever, anywhere near (like a mile or more) away from potential producing zones.

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