Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Of Gas and Water

Typically I see about two movies a year, but this year, for reasons unknown, I'm consuming them like nobody's business. Inception. Toy Story 3. The Last Airbender. Shrek 4. Astro Boy. Despicable Me. Needless to say, the majority have been movies I went to with my kids, but still. I must be looking for some of that fantasy I keep telling everybody we've got to avoid.

But the most recent movie I saw, Gasland, is anything but fantasy. It's grim reality, a documentary about the disastrous environmental and human costs of drilling for natural gas in the shale formations that underlie many states, including my home state of Pennsylvania. The natural gas industry's method of extracting the gas, called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," involves pumping water mixed with various chemicals (the exact composition is a trade secret) under high pressure deep underground, where it breaks up the shale and releases the gas. The resulting toxic waste water is subsequently disposed of in ways that are patently unsafe (and in some cases illegal): left in huge open pits where it seeps into groundwater or evaporates into the air, or discharged back into streams and other waterways. What allows the industry to run roughshod over environmental protections is the infamous "Halliburton exception," pioneered by Dick Cheney during the Bush administration, which exempted natural gas extraction from certain provisions of the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations. Cheney also masterminded the opening of public lands to natural gas extraction. The end result: millions of gallons of public water contaminated, millions of acres of public lands despoiled, millions of dollars in the pockets of the selfsame companies that brought us such natural wonders as the $4 gallon of gas and the BP oil spill. And all of this in the supposed name of a cleaner-burning, domestic alternative to oil.

Gasland isn't entirely credible at all moments. Its writer/director, Josh Fox, is as much a master of innuendo as Michael Moore; he lets dour expressions, ominous pauses, and jerkily edited interviews suggest far more horrors than the facts he was able to collect appear to warrant. But if even half--heck, one-tenth--the horrors he suggests turn out to be true, this expose of corporate greed, government indifference and collusion, and just plain institutional stupidity is enough to make you weep.

There are movements afoot to place moratoria on fracking until more study of its environmental effects has been conducted, or even, in my hometown (where the industry wants to frack for gas underneath urban neighborhoods), to deny private industries the right to extract resources from public lands. It's a tea-party-like protest with a liberal spin: a refusal to allow Big Business and Big Government to impose liabilities on citizens who were not party to the contract. It's a growing movement, and it has what many environmental movements (including the fight against global warming) lack: local effects, therefore local concern, therefore local activism. If the movement works, it might become a model for those other movements.

If it doesn't, we may all be in deep, deep shit.

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