Fracking hell: Busting the natural gas myth

SMH - 13.11.2010

American theatre director Josh Fox didn’t set out to make a film, much less star in one. But when he received a letter offering him $100,000 in exchange for allowing some natural gas wells to be sunk on his farm in a pristine river valley in Pennsylvania, he decided to ask around. What he discovered was shocking — and, he insists, of more than passing relevance to Australians as we embark on a future in which natural gas is touted as a ‘‘clean’’ alternative to oil and coal.

Gas wells are tapped using a process called ‘‘hydraulic fracturing’’, or ‘‘fracking’’, as it is colloquially known. In this, a hole is drilled hundreds of metres down and a mix of highly toxic chemicals and water are pumped down that hole under pressure, forcing the rock base to crack, thereby releasing the natural gas trapped in it.

The problem is, about one-third of the water mix stays below ground, and in many of the sites Fox visits in his documentary, this residue has leached into the water supply, as has the gas itself. Where that’s happened, people can’t drink the water that comes out of their taps any more; in some cases there’s so much gas coming out they can set their water alight.

‘‘This is a huge issue because once you’ve contaminated an aquifer you can’t go back,’’ says Fox. ‘‘It’s impossible to clean an aquifer, so your standard for drinking water should be ‘no risk’. Not ‘risk balanced with energy’, or ‘risk balanced with industry’, just ‘no risk’. Period.’’

Gasland a film of ‘‘direct relevance for Australia as we are faced with the consequences of a coal-seam gas rush,’’ says Adam Bandt, the Greens federal MP for Melbourne.
There’s one other point Fox is keen to make: it’s not just the water that’s the issue, it’s also the emissions.

‘‘ ‘Clean-burning natural gas’ is not a fact, it’s a slogan,’’ he says. Methane, a key component of the gas produced, is up to 72 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, and it is emitted all along the production path as well as when it is burnt.

‘‘So when you burn the gas, sure, it’s cleaner than burning coal. But when you look at the life-cycle of developing it, you’re on a par with some of our dirtiest fossil fuels.
‘‘They’re trying to say natural gas will save the world, when in fact it’s the opposite: natural gas is trying to destroy renewable energy by being its principal competition. This is fossil fuel, and fossil fuel is of the last century. This century’s job is to make sure that’s not what we’re dependent on going forward.’’

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