Unearthed – fracking and the price of progress

by Amar Patel in


Unearthed_doc_minnaar

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you’ll know something about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as the process is commonly known. This involves "the high-pressure injection of a cocktail of water, sand and a variety of chemicals thousands of feet underground to crack open rock formations and stimulate the release of natural gas (source: Huffington Post)." Governments and energy companies around the world tell us that shale gas is a panacea for our energy shortages, a boon for national economies, even a life-changing source of revenue for land owners in countries such as the US. At a time when the world's population is exploding towards the 10 billion mark by 2050 and energy consumption is projected to rise by more than 50% between now and 2040, surely this untapped resource is good news? Or is fracking as sinister as it sounds?

It depends on who you speak to. Fracking has certainly raised environmental and health concerns ranging from water contamination caused by potentially carcinogenic chemical and methane leeks from poorly constructed wells, to the demanding levels of water required to stimulate them and the significant amount of toxic wastewater produced in the process. There is profit to be had, but at what cost?

Bouyed by the news that her poverty-stricken homeland in the Karoo region is next to benefit – South Africa has more than 485 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural shale gas, announces one news reader inside 10 minutes – young filmmaker Jolynn Minnarr decides to find out more. Initially she is optimistic and her aim is to promote greater awareness in her country where fracking is largely a mystery. Then she receives a Skype call from the elusive Mr Gee in Pennsylvania, which fills Minnaar with deep suspicion. She is compelled to start investigating what's happening on the ground, and beneath it, by flying half-way around the world. 

A semi-arid region of the Eastern Cape in South Africa, which, we are told, has with an average rainfall of 50-350mm per year, a population density of 4 people per sq km, 25% unemployment

A semi-arid region of the Eastern Cape in South Africa, which, we are told, has with an average rainfall of 50-350mm per year, a population density of 4 people per sq km, 25% unemployment

That was back in 2011. You could say the whole thing has snowballed since then. A simple question developed into a 10-minute clarion call of a short film, which then evolved into this documentary feature film, Unearthed. Thoroughout this journey the director was determined to maintain her impartiality, rejecting funding from those with a vested interest, as she explains here. The media communications professional was also very savvy when it came to attracting public interest in the project internationally through Facebook and by attending various meetings, from village gatherings to conferences. Campaigning but also consulting far and wide.

Tap water in the McEvoy residence, Butler County. Nothing to worry about according to the Department of Environmental Protection, who describe it's black appearance as purely "aesthetic"

Tap water in the McEvoy residence, Butler County. Nothing to worry about according to the Department of Environmental Protection, who describe it's black appearance as purely "aesthetic"

It's the depth of Minnaar's research that is truly extraordinary: over an 18-month period she interviewed "close to 400 people on all sides of the debate – from the heads of multinational energy companies to US senators, hydrogeologists, workers in the field and communities living in drilling areas." The latter are particularly moving, putting a human face on the bodily suffering, which companies such as Shell refuse to acknowledge as being directly linked to fracking despite quite damning evidence here. Then there is the matter of those interviews that were cut short or blocked by non-disclosure agreements. All very suspicious. 

Janet McIntyre, a resident of Butler Country, Pennsylvania, who found out that drilling casing failure occurred at the same time she became sick with leukaemia

Janet McIntyre, a resident of Butler Country, Pennsylvania, who found out that drilling casing failure occurred at the same time she became sick with leukaemia

As Minnarr delves deeper, the disturbing revelations begin to take their toll. She visits the McEvoy residence for example, where the following words are uttered as tears begin to fall: "I went into hospital in 2008, the same time as her father. I eventually made it out, he didn't. They tried to accuse me of poisoning my father. Everyone who drank the water became sick. The dog drank the water and he died."

Minnarr's emotionally involved and you are right there with her, feeling the frustration, yearning for justice, perhaps screaming for alternatives. Is this simply another case of big business crushing the little people in the pursuit of profit? The filmmaker plays the role of earnest journalist with a winning combination of naivety and sincerity. Unearthed may not be the first documentary to expose such dark operations – see Josh Fox's Oscar-nominated Gasland – but there's a beating heart here that draws you closer and closer.

There's also a lot of good thinking to ponder. The science and clever animations of course, but also the acute observations; how drillers ultimately can't see where they are going or what precise geology they are dealing with. One strong argument, besides urging caution and calling for further investigation, is the need to direct more funds towards heavy renewable energy investment instead of fossil fuels; something we should have done 30 years ago according to one interviewee in the film. It's a slow transition period, of course there are logistical challenges, but you have to start somewhere.

This Bloomberg Sustainability Indicators report made grim reading back in 2011, stating that worldwide government subsidies given to the fossil fuel industry the year before were more than six times this provided for renewable. Fast forward to the year 2030 and this recent New Energy Finance report offers some hope… "By 2030, the world’s power mix will have transformed: from today’s system with two-thirds fossil fuels to one with over half from zero-emission energy sources. Renewables will command over 60% of the 5,579GW of new capacity and 65% of the $7.7 trillion of power investment."

Director MInnaar, together with Professor Gerrit Van Tonder of the Institute of Groundwater Studies at the University of Orange Free State, discovers that toxic fluid levels migrating up to an old test well in the Karoo are high enough to catch alight

Director MInnaar, together with Professor Gerrit Van Tonder of the Institute of Groundwater Studies at the University of Orange Free State, discovers that toxic fluid levels migrating up to an old test well in the Karoo are high enough to catch alight

Despite their South African government's staunch determination to start drilling in the Karoo, the film seems to have had some effect as regulations governing fracking will be published next January by the Department of Mineral Resources. The world is watching. For now, it's important to watch films like Unearthed and spread the word because this issue affects us all, not just those in the Karoo or Pennsylvania. Only this week I came across a revived campaign to block the UK government's plan to drill for shale gas under our homes without permission, despite 99% opposition to legal changes.

Perhaps shale gas will help to power future next generations towards a new age of prosperity.

Perhaps reports of opposition to fracking have been greatly exaggerated, as FrackNation director Phelim McAleer claims. "Dimock, Pennsylvania is one place where all journalists reported that everyone hates fracking. Yes, there were 11 families in the village involved in a very lucrative lawsuit with an oil-and-gas company, and the journalists always interviewed them. But they completely ignored a petition signed by 1,500 people in the community who said their water was fine and had not been affected by fracking. What is 11 out of 1,500? Less than 1%. It’s the 99% who support fracking."

Perhaps, as this New Scientist article claims, it's more a case of equipment teething problems rather than the inherent danger of the natural resource itself: "Since these gases are leaking as they are piped to the surface, rather than seeping up through the ground from deep tracking sites, improving the integrity of drill holes and pipelines could curb the problem of water pollution."

Perhaps…

In the meantime, we do as Minnarr has done: keep asking questions and seeking answers.

Unearthed_fracking_still3


Amar Patel

On this day

by Amar Patel in


MY HOLIDAY FROM HELL

A summer spent travelling in the US should be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for a university graduate. Unforgettable it was – for all the wrong reasons

hoto taken on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 by Allegra Imhoff

Tuesday. Another day, another dollar in the sweltering South.

Look for toys. Ask questions. Beware the dog. 

Knock knock … and knock again. The door opened. There I stood, side on, a few paces back from the entrance just as I had been taught. My smile, although false and contorted with a grimace of desperation, offered a glimmer of hope. "I am a professional educational consultant. I can do this," I thought.

In front of me stood a hulking figure, in ripped denim jeans, sleeveless check shirt, stubbled face and frayed trucker's hat, under which sat two piercing eyes; the kind that meant trouble. It was the look of a man with nothing to lose. Before I could get into my stride and explain why this charred, clipboard-carrying figure was standing on his porch, he reached to his side and pulled out a shotgun. Raising it slowly and pointing it at my midriff with real intent, he hissed these chilling words: "Boy, you got a lotta nerve showing up here right now. Get off my porch."

How had it come to this? Well earlier that year, impulsive and unsuspecting, I had signed up for a business programme selling educational handbooks to families door-to-door. On paper it felt like a raw deal. I would have to raise all the money for flights, two weeks of training in Nashville, accommodation, food and 'office supplies'. Upon arrival in my designated area – Roanoke, Virginia, a sleepy, hilly expanse known as the "Star City of the South" – I would have to go from door to door asking if anyone had a spare room to let that summer. Once I strapped on my book bag and began wrestling with my map I would be working on 100 per cent commission – no guaranteed wage.

So why do it? The thrill-seeker in me, perhaps. Seduced by the road, that rebellious sense of adventure that crackled from every page of Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson that I had read up to that point, there seemed no option but to meet uncertainly head on. But on that particular day several troubles were weighing me down: colleagues who had jumped ship, poor sales figures, the fallout from countless six-day weeks of fourteen-hour toil in 90 per cent humidity and brushes with death while peddling along the freeway though the pitch-black night.

The neighbourhood I was working in seemed quieter than usual: no toddlers playing with their house-bound 'moms', no nannies busying themselves around the garden, no traffic. Greetings at the door were more hostile than usual, accented by a different reaction. A traumatised stare. Confederate and stars and stripes flags were drooping half-mast.

On to the next house. An elderly lady – the church-going type – recoiled from the door. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” she declared. I moped along, confused. Was I missing something here? A public holiday, a hard-line ban on peddlers, the colour of my skin perhaps?

"Keep going," I thought. I turned the corner, surveyed the street and singled out a beautiful white bungalow with a "welcome" mat in front of the door and all manner of flowers delightfully arranged around the garden. Surely I'd be safe from harm at this sanctuary? And thankfully I was right. A compassionate Irish lady ushered me in with worrying urgency. Inside, the television was on full blast. It sounded like an episode of NYPD Blue. “The plane have just crashed into the building.” She paused, looked out at the garden for a moment and continued. "I think my son-in-law’s in there,” she muttered. “I’ll fetch some tea."

The date? 9/11.

Out to anybody that lost somebody that day. 



Amar Patel