While natural gas production is helping to lead an economic recovery and secure America’s energy future, the technology that has generated stunning production increases is also attracting its share of hysteria. Despite the fact that hydraulic fracturing has been used safely the past 60 years in more than 1.2 million wells without a single case of groundwater contamination, natural gas critics have sought to convince the public that it is a new, dangerous technology. One prominent foe is amateur filmmaker Josh Fox, who makes a number of meritless claims about unconventional shale gas in his 106-minute film, Gasland.
Just in time for the build-up to the election, Fox’s Gasland II is in production and is expected to air on HBO this fall. If the first Gasland is any indicator, the 2012 sequel promises not to let the truth get in the way of a good story.
For example, in the original Gasland, Fox characterizes the process of hydraulic fracturing as “[blasting] a mix of water and chemicals 8,000 feet into the ground. … In order to frack, you need some fracking fluid – a mix of over 596 chemicals.” However, Fox fails to mention that many of the additives that are classified as chemicals are non-toxic. In fact, one of the most frequently used substances is guar gum, a food thickening agent found in everything from ice cream to pudding. Moreover, no one fracturing fluid contains 596 different kinds of chemicals, as Fox’s statement would lead you to believe.
To this point, a joint U.S. Department of Energy / Ground Water Protection Council report states, “Although the hydraulic fracturing industry may have a number of compounds that can be used in a hydraulic fracturing fluid, any single fracturing job would only use a few of the available additives.” The reality is that water and sand account 99.5 percent of the mix, while the small amount of additives used are specially formulated to hold fractures in the shale formation open. Without this step, hydraulic fracturing would be much less effective. It is also important to note that most states require public disclosure of these additives, and 160 oil and gas companies voluntarily disclose the composition of fracturing fluids through the FracFocus online database.
Fox’s sensational misrepresentation of the facts doesn’t stop there. For Gasland’s visual centerpiece, Fox is seen turning on a water faucet in Fort Lupton, Colorado and lighting the flowing water on fire—a phenomenon that he argues is the result of nearby natural gas production. This claim was subsequently discredited by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources in a point-by point refutation of Gasland’s link between natural gas drilling and flammable well water.
Contrary to Fox’s claim, the flammable quality of the water wasn’t a result of natural gas drilling but the result of naturally-occuring methane. Methane-borne water is actually a phenomenon with which even Gen. George Washington experimented in 1783, when he ignited New Jersey’s Millstone River. Even the left-wing ProPublica website explained, “Drinking water with methane, the largest component of natural gas, isn't necessarily harmful. The gas itself isn't toxic -- the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't even regulate it -- and it escapes from water quickly, like bubbles in a soda.”
In another visual sleight of hand, Fox credits natural gas drilling for dead fish in Pennsylvania’s Dunkard Creek. This claim, too, was debunked by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA reports that the fish deaths were the result of toxins released from a naturally-occuring “algae bloom” and not natural gas drilling.
Regardless of Fox’s cinematographic propaganda, the United States remains the largest natural gas producer in the world. But the dramatic rise in domestic production means that natural gas will inevitably have some critics. The proven safety record of hydraulic fracturing and the boom this technology is helping to foster an American energy boom provides an inconvenient truth for Josh Fox and his anti-fracturing friends.
Despite the doom and gloom of the Gasland franchise, natural gas promises to play a key role in securing our energy future. That is, if we stay the course. North America’s reserve of natural gas is so vast that it can supply America’s electricity needs for the next 575 years at current consumption rates. With that volume of proven and affordable energy under our feet, the nation’s future looks bright. As for Josh Fox’s Gasland project, the continued hysteria and half-truths will doubtlessly continue.