Gasland brings sickening reality of fracking home
“Water’s not supposed to bubble like that unless it’s Perrier,” exclaimed the detective, as he examined tap water from a cattle ranch adjacent to natural gas drilling wells. The detective proceeded to light water streaming from the tap on fire.
“Methane…benzene…all these chemicals are implicated in cardiovascular and respiratory disorder, endocrine disruption…nerve system destruction” a doctor explained to a lab technician, who presented the doctor with water sample results from the ranch.
These are the scenes from a recent episode of CSI, but sadly, it is not just television drama. These are the effects Albertans and Americans are living with as a result of oil and gas companies employing a technique called hydraulic fracturing to drill for natural gas. The stories of these residents have been featured in CBC’s Passionate Eye and Gasland, a Sundance Festival Special Jury Award winner.
Here in British Columbia, where the “unconventional gas” industry is burgeoning, we have much to learn from the experiences of our neighbours.
It’s become a cliché that water is the new oil. Experts predict that clean, fresh water will, by the end of the century, be as precious and hard to find as black gold is now. Business magazines and websites are already instructing investors on how to profit from the coming market in water. (See http://seekingalpha.com/article/117760-water-the-new-oil.)
But in the movie, Gasland, directed by Josh Fox, homeowners light their drinking water with a match and watch it burst into flames. Is this the future?
Gasland, the winner of Special Jury Prize - Best US Documentary Feature - Sundance 2010, warns that it will be, unless policy makers stop natural gas companies from developing more and more reserves---in backyards of ordinary people all over the world. Hydraulic fracturing is spreading across the world, Fox tells viewers. And before you know it, your drinking water may be combustible, too.
It is happening all across America and now in Europe and Africa as well. Rural landowners wake up one day to find a lucrative offer from a multinational energy conglomerate wanting to lease their property. The reason? In America, the company hopes to tap into a huge natural gas reservoir dubbed the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. Halliburton developed a way to get the gas out of the ground—a hydraulic drilling process called fracking—and suddenly America finds itself on the precipice of becoming an energy superpower.
But what comes out of the ground with that natural gas? How does it affect our air and drinking water? GASLAND is a powerful personal documentary that confronts these questions with spirit, strength, and a sense of humor. When filmmaker Josh Fox receives his cash offer in the mail, he travels across 32 states to meet other rural residents on the front lines of fracking. He discovers toxic streams, ruined aquifers, dying livestock, brutal illnesses, and kitchen sinks that burst into flame. He learns that all water is connected and perhaps some things are more valuable than money.
All about fracking
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking (also fraccing), is a method used by oil and gas companies to extract elusive sources of gas. Millions of gallons of water are mixed with sand and chemicals, then injected underground at high pressure in order to fracture the rock, allowing natural gas to flow.
Increased demand for fossil fuels and technological advancements, such as fracking, have made previously more difficult and expensive sources of gas – the “unconventional” kind - more profitable to extract. Coalbed methane (CBM), tight, and shale gas are among the types of unconventional gas.
The make up of fracking fluid is a proprietary mix that is as tight-lipped a secret as Colonel Saunders’ secret spice mix. But there are more than 11 secret herbs and spices, more like hundreds of toxic and/or cancer-causing chemicals.
Toluene, naphthalene, ethylene glycol, used in paint thinners, mothballs, and antifreeze, respectively, are some of the chemicals on the ingredient list. While some of the concoction can be recovered, much of it remains underground, and where it flows is unpredictable.
Effects of fracking
Somehow methane and other chemicals are finding their way into residents’ water supply. Water wells and homes are exploding. Animals, fish, and people are getting sick. A chemist in Louisiana, recounts in Gasland, the experiences of athletes who were suffering from arsenic poisoning as a result of drinking large quantities of contaminated water. Their doctors asked “Do you think your spouse is poisoning you?”
Testing of drinking water that has reportedly become murky and flammable after gas drilling began in the vicinity of homes provides little reassurance for residents. Companies like Encana, who has operations on both sides of the border, conclude that the methane is “naturally” occurring. (Plutonium and mercury are also “naturally” occurring.) Other companies tell residents there is “nothing wrong with the water that can be a result of oil and gas production” in the area.
Because homeowners do not often think to test water quality before drilling occurs nearby, it is difficult to make the link. It is even more difficult to point a direct finger at industry when companies are not required to disclose the chemical contents of the fracking fluids.
Companies will not admit culpability. They will, however, happily truck in water to families who live in areas adjacent to drilling as a neighbourly gesture. In return, some residents are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Why fracking is allowed
In the US, a loophole recommended by former vice president Dick Cheney, exempts fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act. This loophole has become known as the Haliburton Loophole, because Haliburton is one of the main companies that produces hydraulic fracturing chemicals. (Recall that Cheney was former CEO of Haliburton and holds shares worth more than $12 million.)
In B.C., the Water Act, which prohibits dumping contaminants or substances that would adversely affect groundwater quality, does not apply to any wells drilled for oil and gas. Under the Oil and Gas Activities Act, companies need to obtain permits to frack, but they are not required to disclose the secret ingredient list. The Oil and Gas Commission, the agency that oversees oil and gas industry in British Columbia, has said that future amendments to the Oil and Gas Activities Act may require companies to list fracking fluids.
Fracking in British Columbia
Companies like Shell are actively developing unconventional gas sources in the northeast corners of British Columbia. Shell also has its sights set on drilling for coalbed methane in the headwaters of the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine Rivers in NW British Columbia. This area, known also as the Sacred Headwaters, is a pristine complex of alpine lakes and streams, home to bears, moose, goats, sheep, and salmon, and is culturally significant for many First Nations. Shell’s proposal earned the Sacred Headwaters top honours on the Outdoor Recreation Council of British Columbia’s Most Endangered Rivers list this year.
Since fracking has leaped from documentary world to prime time television, perhaps this signifies the beginning of a much needed public dialogue. Unconventional gas development in British Columbia is on a major growth trajectory, and now is the time to discuss how our water resources are managed.
Gasland will be showing Sunday, November 21st, 3.45 at the VanCity Theatre.
Image from Gasland