News and views, and history and humor, about the lake I love.

"I can hear my granddad's stories of the storms out on Lake Erie, where vessels and cargos and fortunes, and sailors' lives were lost." ~ James Taylor, Millworker

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cold Water Burning: Gasland and the Fight Over Fracking

A man featured in the film Gasland shows Josh Fox how to light tap water.
This blog is about Lake Erie but sometimes a topic, although not directly related to our great lake, is nonetheless so important that it begs my attention. This is one.

Last evening I was invited to join some friends in a viewing of Gasland, a 2010 American documentary film written and directed by Josh Fox. Over the next two hours I nibbled popcorn and listened silently as Fox narrated this sad tale of industry greed government. By the end credits I felt drained but grateful that I had seen this informative and disturbing film. I also found myself wishing and hoping that a mostly disinterested public would forgo just one evening of Dancing with the Stars and American Idol to watch this important documentary.

In May 2008, Fox received a letter from a natural gas company offering to lease his family’s land in Milanville, Pennsylvania for $100,000 to drill for gas. Wanting to know what made the gas below ground so valuable that the company would offer such a such a sum and what the effects of drilling would mean for his community, Fox, a budding filmmaker, grabbed his camera and set out in search of information about natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale under large parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia. What he found there and in subsequent travels throughout much of the western United States led him to produce this documentary.

The film is well crafted, pulling the reader in with interview upon interview of ordinary folks whose lives have been affected by a relatively new method of extracting natural gas known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. This is a process that involves pumping large quantities of water and a cocktail of sand and chemicals deep underground in order to break apart rock and release natural gas.

Courtesy The Denver Post

Most of the natural gas drilled in the U.S. uses hydraulic fracturing because it is the cheapest and easiest way to get it out of the ground. One of the reasons that it's so cheap is that there is virtually no environmental oversight. Why? As Fox reveals, in 2005, at the urging of -- you guessed it -- Vice President Dick Cheney, fracking fluids were exempted from the Clean Water Act, a tough set of rules designed to protect the country's water supply. Not surprisingly, Cheney's former employer, Halliburton, is one of the largest players in providing hydraulic fracturing services to gas companies.

An obvious concern, then, would be the chemical makeup of the fluid being pumped into the ground. The film demonstrates how some companies have been reluctant to disclose what's in their fracking fluid. Scientists and environmental advocates argue that without this information they can't properly investigate complaints of contamination. The companies argue that the makeup of some of the chemicals used are proprietary and should be exempt from disclosure. State law vary on what may be disclosed. Ohio law favors secrecy.

Gasland names some of the nastier chemicals, a list of which reads like a Who's Who of toxic waste. Fox's subjects recount in agonizing detail their alleged detrimental affects, ranging from pets and farm animals losing hair and falling ill to headaches and more severe symptoms in humans. One by one they told how, once the local gas well went in, the water supply became contaminated, undrinkable. In some cases the water was infused with gas that they could -- yes -- light it on fire, an unbelievable sight that is recreated several times in the course of the documentary.

Needless to say, the film is less than kind to the powerful gas industry, which has gone out of its way to convince the public that fracking is safe. Some would say, gone to extremes. NPR reported last fall that Penn­syl­va­nia gas drilling exec­u­tives had been taped saying their com­pa­nies use mil­i­tary tac­tics to counter drilling oppo­nents. Anadarko Petro­leum exec­u­tive Matt Carmichael was recorded saying,
"Down­load the U.S. Army Marine Corps Coun­terin­sur­gency Man­ual, because we are deal­ing with an insur­gency here."

If it's an insurgency, I don't see it gaining much ground beyond the expected advocacy of the environmental community. The Ohio Environmental Council is doing what it can, including calling for a moratorium on fracking in the state. But opposing a powerful industry will take the support of the mainstream populace. And right now when they're not looking for jobs that aren't there, they're watching Dancing with the Stars.

When the movie ended we spent some time discussing it. Weighing the implications. The arguments were all too familiar. America needs energy, but at what cost? Afterward I walked out into the chill night air. The rain and clouds were gone. Looking up, the stars seemed to dance in the heavens. Lake Erie shimmered. Across the water the lights of Port Clinton twinkled brightly along the shore. As it was after 11pm, I knew that on this cold night the residents of those homes and condos would be safely tucked in for the night, warmed mostly by the reassuring heat generated by natural gas.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Classic Lake Erie Sunset

Living along Lake Erie as I do I've become accustomed to stunning sunsets, but when I saw the bright red sun descending an auburn sky this evening, backlighting a plume of steam rising from the Davis-Besse cooling tower, I knew this sunset was going to be extra special, so I grabbed the Nikon and headed outside. I snapped about two dozen shots as the giant ball of fire sank below the horizon.