by Jamie Horgan
First, a grainy image of a hose on fire; next, a slow shot of verdant, rain-drenched woods. That’s how Josh Fox’s documentary film Gasland II opens, and it encapsulates his vision of the two sides of the fracking debate: those who seek to destroy nature, and those who defend it. What follows is more than two hours of disturbing footage of the dangers of fracking.
As the title suggests, the film is a sequel, and Fox ominously, smugly narrates that “in sequels, the empire strikes back.” The empire, in this case, is the oil and gas industry. And in a way, he’s right: there is a heated battle going on right now between green and brown energy advocates. Fox’s first film fudged its fair share of facts, and brown industry responded with a rebuttal documentary called Truthland. Unsurprisingly, oil and gas companies also missed the mark in some of their counterclaims.
Like its predecessor, the new film is an overwrought polemic, but it does raise some legitimate concerns about the dangers of fracking: microquakes, cement casing failures, and groundwater contamination, to name just a few. To the extent that Fox gets people thinking critically about the practice, he’s doing some good. But that good is overwhelmingly drowned out by sheer noise.
And there is a lot of noise: Gasland II is chock-full of errors and falsehoods. Some might be unintentional (Fox readily admits that he’s a “theater guy,” not an engineer or chemist), but at least one seems to be a case of deceit. At one point, Fox throws up a graph purportedly showing the high rate of cement casing failures in fracking wells. Its steeply ascending red bars make for an alarming picture, and as he triumphantly explains, “[gas companies'] own documents showed that cement encasings failed in five percent of wells immediately upon drilling, and that the failure rate increased over time; that over a thirty year period, fifty percent of wells failed.” But the caption to the graph, barely visible in the film explains that it’s showing sustained casing pressure (SCP), a condition that can lead to cement casing failure. Worse, the graph showed the SCP only for offshore wells, explicitly stating, “[t]hese data do not include wells in state waters or land locations,” a fact conveniently left out of the film.
This is only one of many errors, and already we’re seeing pushback, not just from industry groups keen to defend themselves from Fox’s accusations and others whom we might expect to object to the movie’s premise, but also from the likes of the left-leaning blog Daily Kos, which doesn’t have much skin in the game. Via Meadia will be posting a round-up of the errors sometime next week, but suffice it to say that the film is more middling art than serious science. More than that, the documentary is a nuisance; it muddies already turbid waters and makes it extremely difficult for the layperson to distinguish fact from fiction in the shale boom debate. Even when Fox has a case, as he does in his coverage of the town of Dimock, Pennsylvania, he overstates it.
In the coming days and weeks we’ll see more back and forth between the film’s champions and critics. The two camps are too entrenched, the debate too polarized, the middle ground mostly deserted. Fox candidly acknowledges this, saying, “I don’t see a middle ground. What we’re talking about here is a force of people who are trying desperately to change the world, and a fossil fuel industry that is trying desperately to keep ruling it. I don’t know what a middle ground would be.” That’s a shame, because on these kinds of issues, the truth usually is somewhere in the murky middle.
Fortunately, not all in the fracking debate are quite so partisan. Michael Levi is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, and his recent book The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future seeks to cut through the gas company PR as well as the emotional response of the environmentalists to evaluate the American shale boom on its own merit.
Like Fox, Levi went out and visited some of the communities being affected by fracking. But Levi didn’t restrict his focus to those protesting the extraction of shale gas. Instead, The Power Surge points out the more nuanced tragedy befalling these communities: the fractures appearing in tight-knit towns as neighbors are pitted against each other in a heated battle over leasing land for drilling. His descriptions of these towns humanize an argument that tends to become very esoteric.
Not that he shies away from the hard stuff: Levi does a masterful job at explaining some very complicated ideas in simple, accessible prose. Whether he’s explaining why energy independence is impossible as long as the US continues to consume oil, or showing why the logic of the Jevons Paradox doesn’t hold up, he’s an affable guide to the ins and outs of America’s energy landscape.
Levi has the science chops to get in to the energy weeds when he needs to, having studied physics at Queen’s University and Princeton University. For example, he deftly rebuts an argument Gasland II repeats ad nauseum, that natural gas emissions are worse for the climate than coal’s due to methane leakage. Levi read the study it’s based on, and found that the Cornell scientists behind it—one of whom is interviewed as a fracking expert in Fox’s new film—”misread the data.” Based on his own research, Levi found that “the available evidence points strongly to the conclusion that methane leaks aren’t coming close to making gas as bad for climate change as coal is.”
At times the book can be dry, and it doesn’t advance much of a positive opinion one way or another, instead pacing through various scenarios with an “if x happens, then y will occur” rubric that can be sometimes frustrating. But Levi’s refusal to endorse a specific policy line might be what it takes to hold the center of the shale debate these days. And the ultimate message is a good one: The reader comes away from the book with a sense that the choice between green and brown energy is a false one, that the fight between them should not be seen as zero-sum. Today’s polarized debate could use much more of that kind of thinking. Now if only he would start working on a documentary…
[Director Josh Fox attends The HBO Special Screening of 'Gasland Part II' at HBO Theater on June 25, 2013 in New York City. Image courtesy of Getty Images]