Josh Fox, the documentary filmmaker who gained international notoriety after the release of “Gasland” at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, delivered a 10-point case against fracking for natural gas at Sweet Briar’s 2014 Waxter Environmental Forum last night.
He called for a total ban on hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, arguing that the practice cannot be made safe by regulation. The process involves injecting millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals under high pressure to release gas trapped in shale formations deep underground. The drilling technology has led to a boom in natural gas production in the country, generated jobs and pushed down energy prices for Americans, all the while reducing dependence on foreign oil.
It also, Fox said, contaminates surface and groundwater — the latter being a harm that cannot be undone — potentially affecting millions of people downstream of drilling sites. It pollutes the air, industrializes once-pristine landscapes, and endangers the health of the industry’s workers and residents whose communities also become divided when oil and gas development occurs.
Those are among the things fossil fuel companies refuse to be honest about, he added — the real costs of fracking and other forms of what the industry refers to as “unconventional” extraction methods. Fox’s term is “extreme energy.” For him, it also encompasses tar sands oil development, mountaintop removal for coal and deep-water oil drilling.
Fracking’s impact on climate change is one of Fox’s 10 points. The natural gas industry says gas-fired power plants emit half the carbon dioxide of coal plants, but that claim ignores the methane that enters the atmosphere when gas is produced and moved, he says.
“Methane traps up to one-hundred-and-five times more heat in the atmosphere than does CO2 in [a twenty-year] time frame,” he said.
“Which means if you have just one percent leakage of that methane, the gas that you’re harvesting at the well head or anywhere along the pipeline, you’re on par with how bad coal is for warming.”
He says studies show cumulative methane leakage rates are actually between two and 17 percent in oil and gas fields, enough to offset any benefit from switching a plant to gas from coal.
“So when the president goes out and advocates for emissions standards on power plants as a way of stopping climate change, it’s rhetoric. It’s not science.”
Unless more people get involved in the democratic process on energy regulation, Fox is not optimistic about climate change, calling present circumstances “dire.”
“Just at the moment when conventional oil and gas, we were seeing the end of it, and that was a good thing from a planetary climate perspective, extreme energy has come in and offered all of this new oil and coal and gas to the world,” he told the audience in Murchison Lane Auditorium.
“It’s no longer going to be ‘Oh, wow, we ran out just in time for us to not cook the planet,’ it now has to be a choice on behalf of our leadership and citizens to leave the carbon in the ground, whether that’s coal, oil or gas. … And if you aren’t studying the effects of climate change, start. Because it is the issue of the next generation.”
Fox says “fracking the media” and the taking of democracy from ordinary people are also reasons to advocate for a total ban on hydraulic fracturing. He is referring to the millions of dollars energy companies spend in advertising to create what he believes to be a false public debate about the costs and benefits of unconventional extraction and in lobbying to shield themselves from environmental regulation.
Without the influence of oil and gas, we could move to renewable energy sources now, he says. He calls this idea “fracking the future.” As long as fossil fuels are encouraged by public policy, wind and solar can’t compete, even though he believes the technology already exists to make them viable replacements for carbon.
His answer is organized activism, which he notes worked to achieve moratoriums on fracking in New York state, several Colorado cities and his own home county in Pennsylvania, which he once feared lost to the gas industry.
“I would like to suggest you have the power to do that here,” he said, referring to a proposed 15-year ban on fracking in the George Washington National Forest.
No drilling bans on public lands currently exist and energy companies want to keep it that way, so it can be argued there is a lot at stake if such a precedent is set in the GWNF.
Fox urged his audience to reach out to existing organizations, such as Earthworks and the Southern Environmental Law Center, to get involved and be heard. Washington’s water, and that of some of the country’s richest counties, comes from the Potomac, which originates in the national forest, he noted.
“You should go to Barack Obama and say, ‘Frack the first well on the Potomac with the water supply that comes into the White House’,” he said.
“You can tie together this place — and this is a very particular circumstance, not a lot of places can do this — with the center of power of the United States of America and say it’s your water supply.”
Click here to view the full video of Fox’s presentation.