Will natural gas money buy the Oscars?

Hydrofracking graphic.

Hydrofracking busts up rock with millions of gallons in toxic chemical baths to extract small quantities of natural gas from well after well. And a good amount of the time you get a dry hole! Infographic: Gaslandthemovie.com.

The oil and gas industry broke out the bigger-than-big guns this week in an attempt to discredit film maker Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland.

It’s not simply the usual industry objections to the film, as we reported earlier, in our review of Gasland.

Would that kind of industry money play so lackadaisical? Not if the past is any guide.

Instead the industry, through front group Energy in Depth, has called on Hollywood to evaluate the film’s qualifications for the Academy’s documentary category, arguing in a letter that Gasland fails to meet the standard.

Gasland puts forth a thesis on natural gas development in the United States founded on a mistaken understanding of the process required to access these resources, and factually incorrect interpretation of the myriad rules and regulations in place designed to safeguard those operations wherever they may take place. Along the way, the filmmaker alternates between misstating and outright ignoring basic and verifiable facts related to the impact of these activities on the health and welfare of humans, wildlife and the environment.

Interestingly the group fails to mention how hard Fox tried to get comments by industry insiders. But director Fox fought back on the film’s Website with “Affirming Gasland,” a point-by-point rebuttal of the industry charges.

Monopoly is not just a board game

Just the other day I wrote a brief piece on the Wal-Mart Black Friday stampede that ended the life of lowly worker Jdimytai Damour. In that case, Wal-Mart fought a $7,000 fine with millions of dollars in defense all to avoid setting a precedent that would make the corporation more accountable.

A similar tactic appears at play in the gas industry attack on Gasland.

In spite of the fact that under then Vice-President Dick Cheney’s leadership, in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the industry won legislation exempting hydrofracking from almost every major environmental law of the last quarter century, including the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Clean Air Act, the oil and gas industry is willing to invest millions to fight any concern or criticism about fracking to protect its rapidly shrinking slice of the viable energy pie. (And this doesn’t even address why, if fracking is safe, it would need such exemptions?)

Money talks

For the average struggling rural landowner, gas drilling land contracts may represent a few hundred or few thousand badly-needed dollars. But at the end of the day, leasing your land to a driller also means that there may ultimately be a choice to be made between clean and healthy drinking water and warmth.

Sure, you can sit in your 85 degree house playing X-Box in shorts and a tank top while it’s freezing outside. But all the while you may be cooking an intestine full of cancer via potentially polluted drinking water coming out of your taps. Or you may be sucking in harmful fumes, which might also be explosive. That’s the valid concern of many citizens across the country who appeared in Fox’s film. It’s also the concern of other observers who have questions about whether the risks to water are worth the advantages of natural gas when it comes from the more difficult to access shale deposits. They also ask whether we can really call natural gas a clean fuel when it’s extraction process uses so many chemicals, many of them hidden from public scrutiny.

What’s worse, says Earth Works, an advocacy group, is that the known chemicals involved in fracking include:

potentially toxic substances such as diesel fuel, which contains benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene, naphthalene and other chemicals; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; methanol; formaldehyde; ethylene glycol; glycol ethers; hydrochloric acid; and sodium hydroxide.

Doesn’t sound like a cupcake recipe, that’s for sure.

Earth Works goes on to explains that “very small quantities of chemicals such as benzene, which causes cancer, are capable of contaminating millions of gallons of water.”

Really? Millions of gallons?

So creeks, and streams, and rivers, and bays. And just where are the public’s rights here when our environmental protections were sold out from under us?

It’s elementary, my dear Watson

There’s no question that as a society utterly dependent on not only the scalable use of fossil fuels, but also on the excessive, even addictive uses of it, we are governed by a flip-the-switch mentality in our relationship to energy.

The global industrial economy would certainly be nothing without the cheap, abundant energy of the past century. And though it’s running out, and we must transition or die, we’re still straddling both paradigms as yet. And here’s where it gets sticky, when the remaining fossil fuels are that much more difficult to extract, with more risks and problems, too. We have to pay attention.

Even so, at its most basic level, human life depends on air and water long before it depends on the extra degree of warmth, convenience, economic “growth” and one could even argue, luxury that fossil fuels allow— at least compared to all of the rest of human history.

But do we really have to live with a corporate gun to our heads forcing us to choose between potentially irredeemably toxic water and more fossil fuel exploration? And do those same corporate guns really get to gut our laws for their profits?

Or do we deserve a bigger voice in this debate?

— Lindsay Curren

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