Do We Want to Live in FrackNation?

Jan 23, 2013

The new movie, FrackNation, is a propaganda piece that shucks and jives around the truth in effort to assure us we can safely, and should, frack, baby, frack.

This film had its broadcast debut last night on AXS TV. FrackNation is less about the science behind hydraulic fracturing to free up oil and gas from shale rock formations, and more about warped definition of progress and our faith in technological miracles.

Fracking, as it is commonly called, involves directional drilling, fracturing the rock formation, and injecting a mixture of chemicals (some toxic, some carcinogenic), sand and water into the well under high pressure. This method of energy exploration and production came into widespread use in the U.S. only after the industry was exempted from some provisions of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Superfund (CERCLA) Act in a piece of 2005 legislation. This is known as the Halliburton loophole, because Halliburton is a huge oilfield services provider making a gazillion dollars fracking wells for the industry. This change in the law was reportedly shepherded by former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney while he was Vice President of the United States.

FrackNation poster(Click on images to enlarge them)

FrackNation attempts to assure us fracking is safe and wonderful. It will save family farms from bankruptcy and will power progress. But even after 77 minutes of pro-technology, pro-growth propaganda, one is still left to wonder, if fracking is so safe, why would the industry need those exemptions?

FrackNation is chock full of spin, side-steps and trickery to make you think it has made a solid case for the safety of fracking. Such tricks are easy for me to spot; before I saw the light, much of my career was spent producing spin for big business – including energy and chemical companies. Yes, you can cherry-pick the data and couch your words carefully to give the impression you are debunking environmental or health concerns.

Like the cement casing of these wells that frequently fails, FrackNation is full of holes. I’m tempted to write a minute-by-minute critique (and I may, yet), but today I’ll focus on big-picture, philosophical thoughts about the film and the fracking controversy gripping communities around the world.

GasLand PosterFrackNation is largely dedicated to rebutting the Academy Award nominated 2011 film, GasLand, which drilled serious holes into the reputation of the drilling industry. Millions have seen this film and become concerned about water contamination, air toxification, cancer, neurological damage and other very negative impacts associated with drilling and fracking. FrackNation credits (blames) GasLand for numerous fracking moratoriums in effect around the world today.

You may wonder: How can GasLand make a convincing case for banishing fracking to the history books alongside thalidomide, asbestos and DDT, while at the same time FrackNation argues the exact opposite? Shouldn’t it be possible to easily prove one film or the other is patently false?

I can see how Joe, the plumber could emerge from viewing either film thoroughly convinced of that film’s perspective. Viewing FrackNation, one would have to have a close eye on her bullshit detector and spin-radar to recognize its case is very weak. I don’t think the same is equally true of GasLand. Clearly, GasLand director Josh Fox worked hard to make his case against fracking, and did not go out of his way to offer any information that might raise questions or doubts about that case. This is standard operating procedure for an advocacy film. It has a point of view. I did the same with my film, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. However, I don’t think Josh Fox or I stooped to the trickery level of FrackNation director Phelim McAleer.

But I digress. The point I want to make here is that there are plenty of doubts surrounding this issue. Health impacts are difficult and expensive to prove. No one can directly view the migration of water and toxins underground to see where they go. Proving cause and effect with certainty can take years and be expensive and difficult, if not impossible.

Additionally, many players in the drilling/fracking controversy WANT to believe it is safe. If it is safe, that can mean big royalty payments for landowners, tax revenue for governments, profits for many businesses, schools and parks for kids, and cheap gas and electricity for moms and dads.

Worldview also comes into play. The cornucopian worldview has faith that the world has unlimited resources, it is here for us to dominate, we can innovate our way around any limitations, and economic and population growth make our lives better. People with that worldview WANT to believe FrackNation. The pot of gold at the end of the perpetual growth rainbow depends on our ability to forever find new technological miracles to wring more food and energy out of our universe. Surely we’re smart enough to find ways to do this safely, or at least limit the damage to “acceptable losses.”

Sevareid’s Law: The chief cause of problems is solutions.

The scientific/reality worldview depends less on faith and more on what we’ve been observing as we fill up the planet. Those of us with that worldview recognize the unintended consequences of technological solutions. We know the Earth and its resources are finite, and we believe we have to learn to live within our means on the planet. The message of GasLand resonates with us, because it just makes sense that if you pump toxic chemicals into the ground you are asking for trouble.

It’s very likely FrackNation will not change the minds of those concerned about the dangers of fracking. And just as likely GasLand will not influence the drill, baby, drill crowd. It is possible those who are undecided might be persuaded one way or the other if they see only one of these films. But it’s more likely their worldview will dictate where they fall on this issue. Only when we have years of solid evidence will worldview play a smaller role.

Finally, some important questions:

Why now does it makes sense to inject toxic chemicals and millions of gallons of water into the ground, passing through our aquifers, hoping it will never leak into our water supply?

Why now is the pressure on to drill in our cities, wildlife refuges, deep water, and fragile arctic environs?

Might the reason be that we have filled up the world, we have extracted the easy, cheap energy, and if we are to pursue perpetual growth the only way forward is to take greater and greater risk?

If so, to what end?

Drilling and fracking may be coming to a neighborhood near you. The risks of drilling and fracking in your town are another cost of growth. Are you benefitting from growth such that you want to take that risk?

Dave Gardner
Filmmaker & GrowthBuster

19 Responses to Do We Want to Live in FrackNation?

  1. Michael says:

    Facts please. Your argument seems to be that there is no way to prove that fracking is bad, so we must rely on our common sense to tell us that pumping water and chemicals into the ground is bad. However, Fracknation did take the time to look at this issue from many angles, the most compelling of which was an interview with Bruce Ames who suggested that a cup of coffee was more dangerous than the chemicals used in fracking (given the amounts present.) I grant that there was emotionalism in Fracknation just like there is in every documentary, but please deal with what they said specifically. Those of us who care would love to be educated instead of manipulated.

    • Dave Gardner says:

      Thanks for your comments, Michael. First, I’m not saying there is no way to prove fracking is bad. I’m saying it can be difficult to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

      Second, I didn’t find that Bruce Ames interview very compelling. An energy company would seek out someone like Ames who will offer carefully worded quips that sound like scientific evidence. If you listen carefully, he said that there are toxins in a cup of coffee and in broccoli. And he offered the old saw that cancer studies produce cancer in lab animals at very high concentrations of the toxins. He was probably careful not to say outright that the toxins used in tracking, in the quantities used, do not cause cancer. He could not truthfully say that.

      I haven’t yet researched Ames thoroughly, but my suspicion is we’ll find he gets some income from the industry. I believe he was on the advisory board of THE ADVANCEMENT OF SOUND SCIENCE COALITION, an astroturf group funded by the likes of Exxon and Dow Chemical.

      I will probably try to write more about things like this, but these things take time, so be patient. Hope you’ll subscribe to this blog so you won’t miss it when I do!

      • tim nalley says:

        I have seen Gasland a few times and before that I was aware of the dangers of fracking. Going into last nights showing of “FrackNation” I honestly had no idea what it was, or, where it fell on the debate.
        It became obvious very early on that the film maker was far more interested in debunking Josh Fox, than offering any “proof” of the sunny rainbows and green grass painting he was trying to lay on the viewer.
        Like FOX “News” he used the same old trickery of making mention of the problems presented by anti-fracking groups, without actually telling the viewer WHY those concerns existed in the FIRST place. He merely says we shouldn’t concern ourselves with 596 chemicals that ore pumped into the wells with , and I quote “scary looking names” Sorry, Benzene IS in fact a human carcinogenic even in small quantities, and, thats only ONE of the chemicals used in this “stew” that WILL inevitably end up in aquafers.
        Just the fact that he goes after wind, solar, and basically ANY renewable energy source tells me that his view is totally biased and I suspect that somewhere down the line he will be in some way tied to the fossil fuel industry. This film was nothing but a puff piece, disinformation campaign designed to muddy the water on the issue. It a typical pro-big business anti-environment propaganda piece that brings up the slight CHANCE that it MAY be SORT of safe to do. Much like the climate change deniers and others on the far right side of the equation, the folks that buy into this, won’t be convinced until they go to the bathroom and their urine stream resembles a blowtorch. Thats just how these folks are.
        That said, they will be the FIRST to try to sue the companies, or the government 20 years from now when their grandkids are born with 4 thumbs and 80% of their relatives have died from some rare form of cancer.

        • Bill S says:

          Ok, Tim. Can you do what environmental-lobby EPA has thus far not been able to do, which is to prove that fracking has contaminated ground water or well sites, over the past 60 years of this method being used by drillers? C’mon, show me just one instance of proven pollution, please.

          As to your rant about FrackNation “go[ing] after wind, solar, and basically ANY renewable energy source tells me that [McAleer's] view is totally biased and I suspect that somewhere down the line he will be in some way tied to the fossil fuel industry”, that’s a mouthful there, mate. First, the issue is not about renewables as such, but rather, problems with energy density, power density, scale, and cost. Once upon a time, like you, I was a big proponent of renewable energy, especially wind farms. However some years ago, I had the opportunity professionally to evaluate a wind farm proposal that was being pitched to the company I worked for (in that the proposal required our company to purchase all power generated from the wind farm for that facility to receive private investor funding). So far, ok, power generation station requires a buyer for the power it generates in order to have a successful business case that will convince investors to commit capital funds, right? But I came to realise that there were two insurmountable problems with the business case, as my team reviewed the purchase contract proposal and underlying financials: one, aside from an artificially high price per megawatt (taking into account that the country’s power grid was well over 50% renewable already, almost all hydro), the variability of the wind source would expose my company to very expensive backup power when the wind wasn’t blowing hard enough; and two, without government funding, the business case for the project, should it be required to sell electricity to other, smaller power purchasers or onto the national grid, was badly out of the money. Given that the supply variability risk was too great for my company, all I had to do to kill the project gracefully was to suggest that my company would buy half the power from the proposed wind farm, on the condition that it executed purchase contracts for the other half before coming back to us. Several years later, this project has still not been built.

          Finally, your comment about “climate change deniers” smacks of someone who believes in man-cased climate change with the fervor of a religious zealot. Let me ask you this: can you prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that man-caused climate change is an imminent threat to the public health, that carbon dioxide emissions can be shown to have the same kind of immediate negative effects on the environment, as was demonstrated with the “nasties” of coal-fired power generation prior to 1990 (i.e., carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbon particulates, oxides of nitrogen, sulfur, fluorides, and heavy metals)? Can you show demonstrable chemical proof that carbon dioxide is causing deforestation like acid rain once did, or that it is affecting farm animals like fluoride emissions once did, where fluoride levels were shown to rising in the bones of nearby farm animals? Or are you merely relying on the so-called “consensus” view pushed by those who, like Al Gore, have literally billions of dollars of investments at stake in an issue while they themselves conduct their personal lives like there isn’t any problem at all?

          • Dave Gardner says:

            Bill, first of all the process as practiced today is not the same as has been practiced for 60 years. Your repetition of this industry talking point reflects either that you work in the industry or you are buying its spin. I encourage you to be as skeptical about the industry spin as you are about climate change and renewable energy.

            Secondly, if you require proof “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” before acting to prohibit tracking, you run great risk. How about asking the industry to prove “without a shadow of doubt” that fracked wells and frack flowback disposal wells will never leak?

            My motto is not, “When in doubt, gamble.”

            There is quite a bit of proof hitting the streets these days, of the negative impacts of drilling and fracking. The industry has a well-rehearsed two-step to cast a little doubt on each study. I’m not sure how many studies it will take before there is widespread public acceptance that this type of energy production is folly.

            Perhaps we are so hooked on growth that we will cling to the last shreds of doubt that can be cast on these studies, so that we can go on pursuing economic and population growth without feeling as stupid as we actually are.

  2. Andrew N says:

    I’m watching it right now, and saw Gasland when it came out, as well. FrackNation really starts to feel like bullshit very early on, when a 50s-style animated reel about how fracking companies work with farmers to place wells, and then re-beautify the whole area when they’re done, starts rolling, with chipper music and smiling children. WTF?

    • Chris says:

      I personally like the animated reel, seeing as it actually does a great job of describing what the gas companies do. Has anyone on this site even ever seen an actual well from the pas construction to completion? I have one 400 yards from my house, I live in Bradford County, PA heart of the Marcellus Shale. Maybe if any of you environmentalists actually came to a place where this is happening safely on a daily basis on a large scale your minds would change. This is not a polluted wasteland, this is a beautiful, clean area where I would feel 100% safe raising my children and drinking the water.

      • Dave Gardner says:

        Chris, I have personally visited parts of Colorado where drilling and fracking is taking place, and spoken with the people who live and work there. What I saw and heard did NOT change me mind. It made me feel terrible for what we’ve been putting these people through.

  3. Dave says:

    Does anyone not believe that “GasLands” is full of fabricated, misleading and manipulated stats, figures, lies to try and cause paranoia? Watch both. Do your own real research, and quit relying on others to hoodwink you one way or another!!!!!

    • Dave Gardner says:

      Dave (not Gardner), I am raising my hand. I’ve been looking hard at the evidence out there, and it is – more and more – supporting GasLand. The energy industry and greedy governments have suppressed a lot of this, but it is bubbling up.

      If you think you can take on GasLands on a factual basis, then feel free to do that here or elsewhere. FrackNation didn’t manage to do it.

  4. Jeff C says:

    Wow your article is a load of BS.

    FrackNation is honest and full of truths. The fact that you called it propaganda made me laugh. Propaganda for who? Surely it wouldn’t of needed to be funded by public donations if it was propaganda. They would have got big funding from film companies, just like the REAL propaganda piece did Gasland.

    • Dave Gardner says:

      Jeff, let me suggest you look a little deeper at this.

      1. If the industry was going to fund a propaganda piece, wouldn’t it be best to do it in a way that hides the fact? It would be extremely labor-intensive and maybe impossible to trace the names of all the Kickstarter donors to see how many are industry employees, exec.s and folks getting royalty checks. Plus we have no way of knowing what companies or indiividuals gave money to the filmmakers outside of Kickstarter. The Kickstarter story is a stroke of genius to give the appearance this is a grassroots supported project.

      2. Funding from film companies? What funding do you think GasLand got from film companies? GasLand was produced before the deal with HBO was made.

      3. I’ve looked hard at both films. There’s an excellent followup to GasLand you can find on YouTube called The Sky is Pink. Watch that before you make any final decisions. FrackNation does not prove any of the things it claims to prove. I’ve decided to write extensively about that, so be sure to subscribe to this blog and then I’d love to hear from you after I publish my findings.

      Appreciate the dialog. But the BS is all in FrackNation.

  5. John Batson says:

    As a liberal voting geophysicist with 32 years of experience, I have always felt compelled to let the scientific facts do the talking and to leave personal bias out of an argument. To my knowledge there is no documented evidence that injected frac water from well completions have ever migrated through fractures into the overlying aquifers. This information is from geater than 1 million well completions.

  6. John says:

    What exactly is the problem with DDT?

    • Dave Gardner says:

      DDT nearly wiped out the bald eagle. It has been banned in the U.S. and banned worldwide for agricultural use. It is a known endocrine disruptor and considered toxic by numerous scientific bodies. Of course its ban was delayed for years by an industry more interested in selling it than in the safety of humans and wildlife.

  7. Morgainele says:

    Bill S and others, read this report out of Duke : it very clearly differentiated the methane found in those high concentrations near gas wells, from the methane that can naturally be present. Both the levels and the accompanying chemicals reflect content of marcellus shale and not naturally decomposing leaves etc.Note they also reference other studies to read too…

  8. The seeker of Truth says:


  9. The seeker of Truth says:

    Oh, and if it happens to come up that I didn’t subscribe to be notified of further comments on this post… No I am not afraid of a debate

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