Gasland: A review

Last night, Gasland, the film that has stoked an intense debate about the ethics of the shale gas boom in the US, premiered here in the UK.

It couldn’t have been better timed – Cuadrilla is due to begin more drilling at its shale gas site near Blackpool later this month. And the Tyndall Centre, in conjunction with the Co-op, helped get the debate moving on this side of the Atlantic with a report calling for a halt to all such drilling while the risk is properly assessed.

But what of the film itself?

The first thing to say is that it is a well-made, if sometimes meandering, movie. Somewhere near the beginning, director Josh Fox, shows a scene where he playfully pretends to try and choose where to begin his story, eventually deciding to start with his own birth. It encapsulates the film well: charming and personal, if not always sure where it’s going.

It tells the story of Fox’s journey to find out whether he should grant a lease to a gas drilling company to drill on his own property in Pennsylvania. He goes in search of evidence to find out what such drilling brings, only to find stories of groundwater contamination, illness among residents near wells and unseen pollution.

Fox’s personal style and his knack for storytelling help keep the film moving, although the focus on his personal journey makes it difficult to evaluate the various claims made against shale gas drilling – especially fracking – and put them together into a coherent picture.

And that is where the film falters. By failing to evaluate the claims of his interviewees more carefully, he has left himself open to the kind of takedown carried out by Energy In Depth, the oil and gas lobbyists, last year.

There are key problems with the film’s claims, including:

  1. The footage of people lighting gas from their tap did seem shocking. But where was the proof that this came from the drilling, or that it was unfit for human consumption?
  2. Strange natural phenomena (such as the bubbling stream seen in the film) are not unheard of where oil or gas fields are present. In the early days of oil exploration, prospectors often knew where to look because of tales from locals of ever-burning pits or bubbling rivers.
  3. No doctors or other expert witnesses were filmed saying the symptoms of mental illness reported by some residents were definitely, or even probably, the result of local gas drilling. The best we saw was someone talking about what effect the chemicals used in fracking could have.

Another problem is that the film doesn’t properly tackle whether gas can help bring down CO2 emissions by replacing coal, as claimed by the industry. The “secret” emissions seen escaping from condensate tanks in the film are not given any comparison to those released by coal fuelled power production.

In a Q&A session following the premiere, Fox said the methane released in gas extraction was more harmful than CO2. It would have been better if he had made such a point in the film. Even better, in fact, would have been the answer given by Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre, who pointed out that gas-produced energy was more likely to help accommodate booming energy demand from China than to replace coal.

Fox’s defence for any lack of rigour was that he wanted to start a debate, rather than have the last word. But that doesn’t absolve him of the responsibility to thoroughly check his claims.

On two occasions, Fox drifted into commentary about overall energy policy. At one moment he commented of a drilling rig: “It makes you wonder why they couldn’t have built a solar panel here instead.” Then, the film ended with a lingering shot of wind turbines. The point was clear.

This is absurd. The reason to build oil or gas wells rather than wind turbines or solar panels is that those renewable sources produce nowhere near as much energy. We cannot solve an energy crisis purely by using current renewable technologies: some other method is needed to make up the shortfall, whether it is nuclear or, further down the line, carbon capture and storage.

Fox has made a compelling film which should be watched by anyone interested in energy policy – but he could have made one of the most important environmental films of our generation.

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