Fracking proponents join the ranks of Big Tobacco and Climate Change Deniers in creating doubt to garner public support for the oil and gas industry
“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest” – from The Boxer by Paul Simon
For those of us who live in the North Texas town of Denton we are hoping to achieve something that has gained world wide recognition when Denton voters go to the polls this November to vote for a ban on gas well fracking within our city limits. The gas industry has struck back with their own study that suggests such a ban on fracking will cost Denton citizens heavily in jobs and tax revenue for the city and the school districts. But a local proponent for the fracking ban, Adam Briggle, has taken a close look at this study and found it to actually confirm “what we’ve been saying in favor of the ban.”
Contending with the deep pockets of the gas and oil industry will be a challenge for the citizens in Denton who support this ban. The industry has also gained some support with a recently released documentary by an Irish free-lance writer named Phelim McAleer. He co-produced and narrates the film FrackNation, a pro-fracking tale whose message is essentially one that attacks the concerns of anti-fracking groups around the country while giving a somewhat embellished view of drilling for natural gas in shale rock deposits.
There are some things to appreciate about this documentary. It’s not a hysterical reaction to the opponents of fracking and its made a fairly convincing case for its point of view before it insults your intelligence at the end of it.
One can also appreciate the fact that the producers didn’t get the oil and gas industry to fund it. Instead they garnered donations from around the globe through a grassroots effort sponsored by the website Kickstarter, a global crowd-funding platform based in the United States.
It begs the question however about who aided them in directing their needs to an appropriate crowd willing to fund such a documentary. Did they reach out to the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for email addresses friendly to the natural gas industry? FrackNation was able to garner some $212,000 from roughly 3300 donors at an average of about $60 each.
And lastly, like it or not, it is professionally made as it cleverly weaves a message that is likely to lead the common lay person to buy into the conclusion it draws. That being said however there is also much to dislike about it and plenty to question about it’s findings.
For the record Phelim McAleer has a history of documentaries that are less objective than they are simply another side of issues that promotes conservative, pro-capitalist, anti-government stands. Steve Horn of Desmogblog.com fills us in about McAleer and his co-directors, Ann McElhinney and Magdalena Segieda, who have previously had ventures of theirs funded by Donors Capital and Donors Trust. A funding source “referred to by Mothers Jones’ Andy Kroll as “‘the dark-money ATM of the right’ and a major source of funding for climate change denial … [and] are listed as ‘experts’ by the climate change-denying Heartland Institute.“
So when McAleer assures his audience that the film’s goal is to “tell the truth about fracking”, tune in your bullshit receptors and pay close attention. The fact that anyone is claiming to tell the “truth” about controversial issues while aligning themselves with known merchants of doubt is always a red flag for me.
FrackNation’s main adversary is the producer of the popular and award-winning documentary GASLAND, Josh Fox. McAleer attempts through several edited film clips to depict Fox as a naive, self-interested blowhard. A tactic that serves FrackNation’s purpose to throw viewers off about much of the value that is presented in Gasland. And though there are a couple of segments in FrackNation covering Josh Fox that appear to weaken Gasland’s credibility, an astute observer who has watched Gasland will see the foibles in these attacks.
So let’s start our critique of FrackNation with its’ adversarial approach to Gasland. My report is more lengthy than normal so you may want to plan on reading it earlier in the day rather than later with a cup of coffee or two and whatever pastry tickles your taste buds. Let me apologize in advance too if some of what I’m fixing to cover has been addressed in Gasland II. I have yet to see that follow-up documentary of Josh Fox’s.
MISDIRECT AND THEY WILL FOLLOW
FrackNation goes after Gasland’s contention about “exploding water faucets” from gas in the drinking water source. Fox does lead his audience to believe that this only occurs because the property owners he interviews live near recently built gas wells. McAleer tells us, rightfully so, that methane in well water has been around long before fracking was with us.
He attempts to get Fox to answer him at a press conference where the Gasland producer is promoting his documentary, about why he failed to note this information in his film. The edited portion shown in the documentary does make Fox appear dismissive, telling McAleer at one point that such information “wasn’t relative“.
We don’t know if Mr. Fox was allowed to elaborate but let me offer a reasonable response to why this fact wasn’t relevant for the purposes of the Gasland documentary. Methane in well water in some locales is a factor of the water’s proximity to pockets of nearby methane and the soil disturbance that occurs when drilling wells, be they purely for water or looking for natural gas. The fact that Fox’s testimonials from people in Dimock, Pennsylvania and elsewhere around the country confirm that methane in their drinking water didn’t exist until nearby gas wells were dug is strong evidence to suggest that it was this activity and not a natural occurrence that put methane in their drinking water.
Another gotcha moment in FrackNation that puts Fox in a bad light is the testimony of Dr Bruce Ames, a biochemist and professor of molecular biology for the University of California at Berkley who when shown a brief clip by McAleeer of Fox’s statement in Gasland about higher cancer rates in the Barnett Shale as opposed to other areas in Texas, has the prominent scientist dispelling such a notion. He uses other studies in the film that equally question the findings used in Gasland to make this claim.
Dr Ames states that if people think that fracking causes cancer “then they they don’t know what they’re talking about”. But does this really take away from the larger issue Gasland makes about fracking fluid chemicals and the larger problem of gas leaks at drilling platforms, condensate tanks and even the tankers that haul the fuel and the tainted fracking waste water over the open roads? Can even a “well-cited” scientist dismiss the threats of fracking fluid outside of any cancer claims?
Stay with me and you will see that other experts mollify the claim that McAleer extracts from Dr. Ames when we talk about air quality in Texas and water pollution from the oil and gas sector in Louisiana. Beyond these two segments in FrackNation, McAleer has little else to challenge and bluster about in their attempt to defame Gasland.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect source of energy. Water contamination from gas well drilling is inevitable” – Pennsylvania Secretary of State John Hanger
FrackLand’s Sleight of Hand
McAleer leans heavily on his interview with the Sautner’s of Dimock, Pennsylvania to disparge Gasland’s premise of methane in drinking water from fracking. Craig and Julie Sautner are the only residents in Dimock that McAleer interviews in his documentary however. The Sautners were never a part of the Gasland documentary but McAleer’s film leaves you with the impression that they are typical of those who Josh Fox did interview in that small farming community.
FrackNation shows edited footage of the Sautner’s that makes them look devious as if they were perpetrating a fraud. By association therefore McAleer would have us believe that all of Gasland’s Dimock testimonials verged on fraud too. But pay close attention to that segment in Gasland later on where Fox is talking to John Hanger, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State at the time.
At first the Secretary says there were 39 households that were tested for contamination by fracking chemicals and that their independent testing “found no contamination of the drinking water by those chemicals …”. Yet when Josh confronts Secretary Hanger with a sample of drinking water from one of his sources in Dimock and informs him that this home was one of four homes in Dimock where the drinking water from contaminated wells was being replaced, Mr. Hanger back tracks and tells Fox that “those [four] were where the problem existed”. So did he lie about four of the 39 homes tested or was he being devious by failing to tell us there were actually 43 homes tested and they only found four “where the problem existed … [from] water contaminated as a result of drilling”.
The Suatner’s may have been one of those 39 where the state claimed they found no contamination in their drinking water but clearly there were some wells that were contaminated “as a result of drilling”. Why didn’t McAleer interview one of those four rather than the Sautner’s? In fact, why didn’t McAleer and his FrackNation production team interview any of the people Josh Fox did in Gasland, not only in Dimock, Pa. but in the other states of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana?
FrackNation didn’t actually go to Dish, Texas but did go to nearby Weatherford, Texas in Parker County. There he provided footage which appeared to discredit homeowner Steve Lipsky and an associate Alisa Rich who claimed that gas wells had contaminated Lipsky’s underground water supply for his home.
But McAleer is guilty of distorting the facts in this case and using the wrong document that is supposed to represent a judge’s ruling of Lipsky’s alleged false claims about gas in his water. Ironically, this use of a wrong document attacking Likpsky is a charge McAleer made against Josh Fox up in Dimock, Pa. You’re left with the impression that McAleer’s characterization of Mr. Likpsky goes unquestioned yet a further, more complete investigation reveals that McAleer walked away from this case before all the details were accounted for, showing Range Resources claims of innocence regarding their gas in Likpsky’s water well to be dubious at best.
As he did in Dimock, McAleer is simply trying to discredit other credible claims through the power of suggestion, associating them with others who he says have perpetrated a fraud.
While in Texas McAleer did interview Bryan Shaw, the chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state equivalent to the U.S. EPA. Shaw claimed their agency did numerous studies and inquiries in Dish and found that of all the samples they conducted, collected and analyzed “none of those exceeded the short-term concentration levels that would cause concern.” The TCEQ Chairman goes on to boast how comforting it is to see “that they have a great deal of data from Dish and the Barnett Shale region that shows that indeed our regulations are protective, especially when you consider this is such a concentrated production field in that area.”
Shaw is an appointee of Gov. Rick Perry who was approved by a GOP Senate in 2007. The TCEQ has been accused on many occasions of being in the back pockets of oil and gas. One reporter noted that “While the [EPA] is a favorite punching bag of right-wing Texas politicians like Gov. Rick Perry, you don’t hear warnings ringing out about the evils of the TCEQ. That’s because, in decision after decision, the Texas agency that’s supposed to protect the public and the environment has sided with polluters.”
Whoops! Funny how McAleer missed this one. Perhaps he fast-forwarded past the testimony from Dr. Al Armendariz, air quality specialist and researcher from SMU in Gasland who would tell Fox things like “the TCEQ had no idea how many gas wells were being put in and were in the ground around the city of Ft. Worth”. He goes on to tell Fox that his department really wanted to get a handle on the amount of emissions coming out of the oil and gas sector. “We didn’t want to rely on the state’s numbers (the TCEQ)” Almendariz told Fox. “The state had just admitted publicly that they didn’t know what the emissions were.”
Outside of his Gasland bashing McAleer employs tactics that are engineered specifically for the conservative, pro-fracking crowd his documentary targets. He takes a few minutes to try to link the right-wing fears of the “lame stream media” and it’s alleged liberal bias that back the fracking opponents. There is also the anti-American, big government meme employed by FrackNation that is masterfully presented as he talks with those farmers in Dimock who are struggling financially and are hoping to stay afloat from the money they would get from the gas industry’s wells on their property.
SOME FACTS TO CONSIDER ABOUT THOSE WAYNE COUNTY FARMERS
Some of the small farmers in Wayne County, Pa., where Dimock lies, find themselves struggling to compete with the large agribusinesses and commercial housing developers that are slowly consuming the land that grows most of the food we eat. This is apparent from the testimony of one farmer, Hank Curtis, who recalls that in 1950 Wayne County had about 1200 small farms. “ Today”, he says “there are only about 70 of them”.
According to the USDA, only 5 percent of the farms selling into the local food marketplace are large farms (with over $250,000 in annual sales), but these large farms provided 93 percent of the “local foods” in supermarkets and restaurants.
The small and medium-sized farms sell nearly three-quarters of the direct-to-consumer local foods (both CSAs and farmers’ markets) but only 7 percent of the local foods in supermarkets and restaurants. – Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America by Wenonah Hauter
The exact causes of the farmers economic struggles goes unmentioned in McAleer’s documentary. The testimonials from some of these struggling ranchers and farmers make clear that they have been hit by economic hard times and maintaining them has made many cash strapped and deeply in debt to banks.
The gas wells then are seen as a god-send to keep the creditors away and prevent many of them from losing their land that has been in their families for generations. So ignore the conditions that put their farms in harm’s way. McAleer would rather have you focus on their inability to access revenue to pay their bills that would come from the sale of mineral rights to the natural gas industry. He attempts to paint the anti-fracking advocates as unfeeling people who would rather deprive the farmers of their heritage rather than trying to prevent unhealthy consequences for all of them if fracking is dismissed as some environmentalist paranoia.
What’s the “truth”? We don’t know from watching the documentary because McAleer avoids any rebuttal from those who support the moratorium that has put gas drilling on hold in Wayne County pending further investigation. Perhaps the farmers in Wayne County, Pennsylvania should talk with the people who live in Sublette County, Wyoming where the property there is dotted with gas and oil drilling rigs. This is another site visited by Josh Fox that McAleer avoided. The moonscape of hundreds of wells cover the terrain and as a result the air pollution in this remote part of Wyoming is worse than that of Los Angeles.
A satellite view of the landscape in Sublette County dotted with drillings wells
The plight the farmers in Wayne County, Pa. find themselves in is regrettable and I would hope they find some way to overcome the economic dire straits that put them there. But to reach desperately for something that poses questionable outcomes for themselves and their neighbors is a risk they may regret over time. How about a federal subsidy for economically strapped farmers who put food on our tables everyday as opposed to subsidies to fossil fuel interests whose profits are already at record levels?
The economic conditions that these farmers face is depressing. It’s apparent too that without some other stream of revenue other than what they generate from the sell of their produce or dairy, some will be faced with foreclosure. Though the deed that has been written up between the farmers and the gas industry promises each of them a signing bonus of $4750.00 per acre, nothing is said about a sustained figure for royalties that they can project beyond the time when their signing bonus money runs out. There are ample reports of people who dreamed of retiring comfortably solely on the proceeds from the sell of their mineral rights to gas companies who have been sorely disappointed.
And one last note about that methane in well water. Though natural methane in well water may be normal for this area long before the gas drillers came to town, one has to wonder if this information came freely from them or at the urging of this free-lance writer. McAleer clearly doesn’t raise the issue of the carcinogens in the fracking fluid with them. He also doesn’t discuss what is amply documented in Gasland about the millions of gallons of water required to frack a single well and how this water, now contaminated with chemicals cannot be recycled for public consumption. Where this may not be much of a factor in Pennsylvania, it would easily raise the hair of those of us who sit over the Barnett and Eagle Ford Shales in drought-stricken Texas and make one think twice before signing over their minerals rights to someone who may put them at risk with diminished water resources.
FrackNation ends this segment by showing a clip of a rally with fracking opponents on the steps of some government-looking building led by Josh Fox praising the grass-roots efforts of those who shut down the government’s efforts that would allow fracking to continue and possibly threaten the Delaware River water supply. To the chants of “thank you Josh, thank you Josh” the screen then fades to those farmers in Wayne County with sadness all over their face from worry about losing their farms with McAleer telling us in the background, “How could this be done to these people. Thousands of farmers have had their lives ruined by a decision in a government office hundreds of miles away in Trenton, New jersey.”
That’s the anti-government meme I mentioned earlier. But wait. There is still yet another conservative fear that gets played out in FrackNation. One that in my opinion truly discredits any claim Phelim McAleer makes about wanting to “tell the truth about fracking”.
“THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING!”
Taking us to London, England McAleer quizzes James Delingpole who he tells us is a “British journalist and author, who has written extensively about energy issues”. Apparently Delingpole is a conspiracy theorist too because soon into the conversation he tells McAleer that environmentalist “with [their] disingenuous objections being raised … [are] funded, I would suspect, by, for example the Russians, who are big producers of natural gas.”
If you get prepared to have hard evidence of this “communist” funding presented by Delingpole, McAleer or anyone else in the film, you will be disappointed. Much of what follows here is a specious argument about how Russia controls much of the natural gas in this region of the world which includes western Europe.
The examples he cites however are typical of all capitalist countries, including the U.S. doing what they need to do to protect their economic interests and thus their economic survival that entails jobs, eduction and technological research. The specter of the now defunct USSR however has been raised by McAleer to further incite his uber-conservative audience.
FrackNation depicts anti-frackers as extremists who would endanger our way of life by blocking efforts to supply us with an abundant energy source. This comes across no better anywhere else than it does when McAleers interviews John Entine “a U. S. media expert”. Without any research or facts to back it up, Entine tells McAleer that the “goal of the anti-shale gas industry – and make no bones about it, that’s what it is – is to stop shale gas development now and for the future. They’re not looking for better regulation. They’re not looking for, uh, better sophisticated technology to make this more efficient. They’re attempting to stop progress in its tracks. Shale gas is a gift from God and if we let hysteria drive regulation , if we let politicians essentially set the ground rules, for what should be a science-driven enterprise, we’re going to set the American economy and the world economy back 50 years. Paleolithic era. That’s what we’re going for”.
Is it just me or does this sound more like a rant than an evidence-based commentary? This hyperbole of Entine’s doesn’t seem to bother McAleer because what? Truth can always use a little help from bullshit? News flash for John Entine. Huge difference between 50 years and the earliest period of the paleolithic era some 2.6 million years ago. Besides, isn’t it biblically blasphemous to speak of a “science-driven enterprise” and “a gift from God” in the same line?
IGNORE THE SCIENTISTS THAT MAKE YOU LOOK BAD
At this point let me now return to FrackNation’s dismissal about the hazards of fracking fluids and the hazards it creates as part of the gas production process.
In the process of drilling for gas and oil using fracking Dr. Armendariz (see above) found that emissions from the gas and oil sector have equal or higher levels of toxic emissions than all of the passenger vehicles on the roads over the last few years in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. Wilma Subra, chemist and MacArthur “Genious Award” recipient, who was interviewed on Gasland tells us that gas and oil wells have contaminated much of the water in parts of Louisiana with heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, chromium and lead. Heavy metals in your drinking water can lead to cancer.
Dr. Theo Colborn, Environmental health analyst, winner of five Rachel Carson Awards and a former U.S. EPA advisor, to name just a few of her accolades, was also interviewed on Gasland. She tells us that there are neurological effects that can come from chemicals found in fracking fluid, starting with headaches and ringing in your ears, then dizziness and eventually one may experience what is called peripheral neuropathy.
Dr. Colborn says that if one gets to this stage you will have irreversible brain damage. It ain’t cancer but it sure as hell isn’t something that you can take two aspirin for and get plenty of rest to cure.
So the suggestion that McAleer alludes to in his interview with Dr. Ames that the chemicals from fracking fluid are nothing to be concerned about is misleading at best.
I’ll only mention here briefly that the comparison McAleer attempts to make between seismic activity caused by geothermal energy sources and that of fracking is laughable. Earthquakes from geothermal activity are natural whereas earthquakes from exploding fluids into settled shale rock (and some not so settled) deep below the surface, even though they’re minor, is man-induced. We have control over one, the other is a force of nature. He might as well make a comparison of streets being flooded from a water pipe break and flooding that results from storms. ‘Nuff said
Equally laughable is McAleer’s assault on wind and solar energy by giving brief snippets discussing the hazards of manufacturing rare earth materials in China for wind and solar products and ignoring that oil and gas well workers here face equally if not greater health threats. Sympathy for Chinese laborers but none for the Americans?
So much for attempts of conveying facts to influence your decision on where to stand in the fracking debacle. FrackNation will end its documentary by appealing to the self-interests of people in a manner that is both logical as it is short-sighted
In the end McAleer tries to convince us that his point of view that “energy matters” requires that we ignore the risks that fracking poses. Though he has implied it throughout his documentary he finally states emphatically that “Josh Fox was wrong about fracking. It didn’t make water flammable. It’s not exempt from environmental regulations. It doesn’t contaminate water. Fracking is not causing dangerous earthquakes and its’ not causing widespread illness and death.”
Yes Mr. McAleer, energy does matter. Whether you oppose fracking or not, no one denies the importance for cheap, abundant energy sources. This is a moot point but suggesting it here along with the unfounded and exaggerated claims about Gasland is simply disingenuous and ignores the flood of testimonies and evidence that you have avoided confronting in your pro-fracking documentary that suggest it is you who is wrong. Perhaps not entirely but by the same standard, neither is Josh Fox.
Claims made by both FrackNation or Gasland regarding “the truth about fracking” are claims that lack credibility at some level. There have been facts presented and testimonies of certain individuals but if we have learned anything in viewing these two documentaries it is that perception, not some absolute truth, is the reality. Truth is merely a word that gets bandied about by those who see what they want to see while disregarding much of everything else. Each of us should be less ready to grab hold of the perceptions presented by others and more willing to use what critical thinking skills we still have to make sound decisions about critical issues, not ones based on ideology and emotion.
I stand opposed to fracking not because Josh Fox’s Gasland has convinced me but because I explored the issues he raises and find them mostly credible. It has led me to talk with and read other knowledgable people who understand the vital importance of sustaining our energy needs while also trying to work through the health hazards implicit in producing this energy. They are not vague or minimal hazards as Phelim McAleer suggests. They are real and have affected real people. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible.
We do have alternatives to dirty, finite fossil fuel sources. The transition to cleaner renewable sources will not happen over night and it will occur only after the fossil fuel industry fights to the last drop of oil, the last fragment of coal and the last cubic foot of natural gas. But that battle needs to be fought on grounds of common concern not ideological footholds. Natural gas can serve as a segue to the future where natural, infinite sources of renewable energy will ultimately meet our energy needs. Researchers are already hard at work to deal with the problems and obstacles that prevent solar and wind from becoming more of a base source of energy.
Investment in this research is critical. The entrenched institutions that defend oil, coal and gas are obstructions that have to ultimately wither away simply by virtue of the fact that these dirty resources are limited. Why wait until we are at the precipice of social calamity before doing what’s necessary to preserve future generations from the consequences of carbon-based sources of energy?