Must-See Gasland Part II on HBO Monday: Natural Gas, Once A Bridge, Now A Gangplank

If you liked the Oscar-nominated fracking exposé “Gasland” by Josh Fox, you’ll love the sequel Gasland, Part II, which is being broadcast on HBO Monday night.

I think it’s a better movie, more entertaining and even more compelling in making a case that we are headed on a bridge to nowhere — a metaphorical gangplank — with our hydraulic fracturing feeding frenzy.

Future generations living in a climate-ruined world will be stunned that we drilled hundreds of thousands of fracking and reinjection wells:

  • Even though we knew that fossil fuels destroy the climate and accelerate drought and water shortages;
  • Even though we knew that leaks of heat-trapping methane from fracking may well be vitiating much of the climate benefits of replacing coal with gas; and
  • Even though each fracked well consumes staggering amounts of water, much of which is rendered permanently unfit for human use and reinjected into the ground where it can taint even more ground water in the coming decades.

Perhaps you have been persuaded fracking is a good idea by the multi-million-dollar industry campaign for fracking and against Fox — which includes backing a counter-documentary by two anti-science filmmaker’s best known for a film smearing Al Gore. If so, I’d urge you to read the Propublica exposé in Scientific American, “Are Fracking Wastewater Wells Poisoning the Ground beneath Our Feet?

After fracking — injecting a generally toxic brew into the earth to release natural gas (or oil) — wastewater wells are used to reinject the resulting brine deep underground. Here’s the bad news:

There are more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide, more than 150,000 of which shoot industrial fluids thousands of feet below the surface. Scientists and federal regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of the sites are leaking.

… in interviews, several key experts acknowledged that the idea that injection is safe rests on science that has not kept pace with reality, and on oversight that doesn’t always work.

“In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted,” said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA’s underground injection program in Washington. “A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die.”

A ProPublica review of well records, case histories and government summaries of more than 220,000 well inspections found that structural failures inside injection wells are routine. From late 2007 to late 2010, one well integrity violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined — more than 17,000 violations nationally. More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking. Records also show wells are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.

The documentary does explore the climate impacts of methane leaks from fracking (see below). And it also presents the clean energy solutions that we can use instead of fracking, such as the recent Stanford study that New York State can eliminate fossil fuels from its energy mix entirely by 2050.

But the film’s primary focus is the immediate impact on water and people:

Fox makes a very compelling case. As the New York Times TV reviewer explains, the movie “paints a convincing picture: homeowners at the mercy of the oil and gas industry wait while government agencies make tentative moves toward regulation that eventually come to nothing or are reversed.”

The review makes clear that while “there are questions, large and small, that can nag at you”:

Most of Mr. Fox’s material isn’t open to question, however. Recordings of a gas industry conference at which public relations managers are told to study the Army’s counterinsurgency manual — because “we are dealing with an insurgency” when it comes to protesters and angry homeowners — are both hilarious and horrifying. Mr. Fox’s account of the Pennsylvania government’s hiring of a private company to monitor fracking protesters, an episode not widely covered outside the state, is particularly valuable.

It’s hard to take issue with Mr. Fox’s resigned conclusion that economic and political forces will soon spread fracking around the world, no matter how harmful critics say it may be to the environment and our health.

I’m not entirely sure Fox is completely resigned to that conclusion. I was able to interview him last month and he is committed to spreading the word, fighting this fracked future, and pushing clean energy alternatives.

The movie also covers methane leakage in the context of global warming. Recent research continues to vindicate those who have warned that fracking has a high leakage rate of methane, which is up to 105 times as effective at trapping heat than CO2 over a 20-year period. See my January post, “Bridge To Nowhere? NOAA Confirms High Methane Leakage Rate Up To 9% From Gas Fields, Gutting Climate Benefit.” See also the the recent Christian science Monitor piece “Methane leaks of shale gas may undermine its climate benefits,” which explains “If methane leak rates are more than 3 percent of output, fracking of shale gas formations may be boosting greenhouse gas emissions rather than lowering them.”

What is so frustrating about the frenzy to frack is that even ignoring the leakage issue, we must stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure the middle of this decade to have a realistic chance of crossing climate tipping points that will ruin our children’s future.

To get beyond all the hand-waving analysis asserting “gas is better than coal for the climate,” you need a comprehensive energy and climate model — and an emissions or temperature target.

If your goal is 2°C or 3.6°F total warming, then we’ve just about finished building every hydrocarbon-burning power plant we can. That is the conclusion of two of the (very few) groups that have such models — the International Energy Agency and Climate Interactive, which has done climate and energy modeling for everyone from the State Department and the Chinese government.

Climate Interactive used their En-ROADS global energy model to explore “the goal of the Copenhagen Accord – to limit temperature increase to 2°C is still in reach.” They found:

Even if the world also has sustained success eliminating deforestation, reducing emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gasses and improving energy efficiency, new investment in fossil fuel infrastructure can’t occur much beyond 2015 in order to maintain a 50% chance of limiting temperature increase to 2°C in 2100. Having a higher probability of achieving the 2°C goal or keeping these even odds of meeting the goal but delaying the end of the era of fossil fuel investment would require additional measures such as shutting down already-constructed fossil-fuel-using infrastructure before the end of its useful lifetime, further reducing energy demand, or achieving so called negative emissions, where CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and sequestered.

In this thought experiment using the global energy system model En-ROADS, there is no new investment in fossil fuel using infrastructure after 2015, but the long lifetime of the existing infrastructure means that fossil fuel use continues well into the century.

The concept of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” was pushed by the American Gas Association as far back as 1981. It’s the longest bridge in history!

Averting catastrophic warming means it makes little sense to invest tens of billions of dollars in gas infrastructure and gas-fired power plants over the next few years — unless you plan to shut it down within two decades.

This is very similar to the conclusion that the IEA reached with its energy model.

The IEA made clear that natural gas isn’t the “solution” if your goal is staying far from 7°F warming — see IEA’s “Golden Age of Gas Scenario” Leads to More Than 6°F Warming and Out-of-Control Climate Change. It must be noted that even that IEA gas scenario, which results in too much warning, assumes that not only does global oil consumption peak around 2020 — but so does coal! So if one or both of those peaks don’t happen — and they wouldn’t without a high price of carbon and aggressively clean energy deployment starting now — then the Golden Age of Gas is just the “devastating” scenario laid out in last years’s World Bank report, a “world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.”

And remember, neither the IEA nor En-ROADS models the impact of methane leakage.

Tragically, just about the time we wake up to the reality that fracking isn’t the solution to climate change, we’re probably going to wake up and find that we’ve poisoned billions of gallons of water — much of which will be in regions of the country that are turning into a permanent Dust Bowl thanks to climate change.

Or we could wake up now and start getting off fossil fuels immediately. A very good wake up call is Gasland, Part II. You can see it on HBO Monday.

31 Responses to Must-See Gasland Part II on HBO Monday: Natural Gas, Once A Bridge, Now A Gangplank

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Good summary, Joe, as usual. I couldn’t wait for the HBO showing, and saw the movie at a theater in Encino last week. It was especially valuable to include an interview with Howarth, though I wish the NOAA study about methane releases had also been included.

    I need help from someone on this figure: How much land in the US is currently being fracked for natural gas? There are several ways to measure it, but I need an authoritative figure for an upcoming article of mine.

    Fox has been quoted as saying over 140 million acres, but that doesn’t jibe with the number of wells and pad size.


  2. john atcheson says:

    Great article. “Once a bridge, now a gangplank,” just might be the best subhead ever written.

  3. fj says:

    That fracking is even considered when we must be moving at lightspeed in the opposite direction is totally wrong.

  4. Lou Grinzo says:

    I want to stress something Joe mentions in this excellent piece, a detail that I think far too many of us overlook: Even if you assume zero leakage of methane in the fracking, delivery, and use of natural gas, we STILL shouldn’t be expanding our use of it. We should NOT be getting into this absurd war of words and factoids about whether fracking leaks X% or Y% that we see endlessly. It’s just another flavor of the denier tactic to make it look like there’s a controversy where none exists.

    I highly recommend the video Do the Math (available on YouTube), in which McKibben talks about our remaining CO2 emissions budget being about 565 billion tons. While I have deep reservations about that number being accurate because it’s tied to the simplistic, flawed 2C temp guideline and is almost surely too high, I think it’s worth pointing out that the number is several years old. Subtracting from that 565 our actual emissions for 2011, 2012, and the first half of 2013 brings us to around 485 billion tons of worldwide CO2 emissions remaining.

    In that context, how do we possibly justify an increase in the use of any fossil fuel that doesn’t employ near-100% effective carbon capture and storage?

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    You’ve got a point, Lou, but if we communicate the information that gas is just as bad for GHG’s- with water contamination thrown in- it could get people off the gas bandwagon.

  6. BobbyL says:

    With about 1,200 new coal-burning plants being proposed globally it doesn’t look good for staying under 2C, or probably even staying under 3C for that matter.

    “Many of these proposed new plants are in China and India, which account for 76 percent of proposed capacity. Turkey and Russia also have big plans. And a growing number of coal plants are being proposed for developing countries such as Cambodia, Guatemala and Uzbekistan, nations that are looking to cut-rate sources of energy to fuel economic growth…in Europe and Japan, once-moribund coal plant proposals are being revived after nuclear reactors were shut down in the wake of the Fukushima disaster… If even just a quarter of these 1,199 proposed plants were built, that would be the same thing as doubling the coal capacity of the United States. ”

  7. Yes, and here’s another part of better framing on this issue. If we do enough efficiency in natural gas use in buildings and industry, we can keep gas use constant or declining at the same time as we switch some critical loads to natural gas, thus decarbonizing. I prefer that we use natural gas in the electricity sector, to minimize leakage (and because coal can be easily displaced there). We found this strategy to work well in our Clean Energy Futures work for DOE about a decade ago:

    Brown, Marilyn A., Mark D. Levine, Walter Short, and Jonathan G. Koomey. 2001. “Scenarios for a Clean Energy Future.” Energy Policy (Also LBNL-48031). vol. 29, no. 14. November. pp. 1179-1196.

  8. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Reading this as well as ‘suing for the right to pollute’ reminds me of Ronny Laing’s saying that the sane ones are locked up in the asylums, ME

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘We’ don’t justify anything, Lou. ‘They’ do, the rulers of society, the rich Rightwingers who will profit from this obscenity while wreaking ecological carnage. At the very least, they simply do not care if others are poisoned. However, if you have studied the Right to any degree, you must, I believe, come to the conclusion that the Right get some type of satisfaction from harming others. You see their psychopathology more and more often openly expressed these days, as with the WSJ editorial the other day, praising the military coup in Egypt, and hoping that a Pinochet will rise to power there, because he, or some junta, will introduce neo-liberal ‘reforms’ ie more inequality, more opening of the economy to financial pillage and more hunger and poverty for the masses. The murders, torture, ‘disappearances’, electric shocks etc, are a price that is ‘worth it’ if I may quote another Rightwing worthy.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You forget that massive pollution and the resulting burden of disease in increased morbidity that it causes, is a real boon to the economy. Cancer is particularly profitable, being long(ish)-term in effect, treatment being hideously expensive, particularly with ‘miracle’ drugs pushed by BigPharma (usually by roping in some poor devils facing wretched and premature death, paraded by PR hacks before the camera, preferably with weeping spouse and children in tow)that provide a few months extra existence, if you are lucky. A society with no morality but self-interest and gain, no purpose but to maximise profit, run by elites whose greed and egomania are literally infinite, must exhibit extreme social cruelty, utter indifference to the suffering of the poor and helpless and extreme social and economic stratification. As we can see all about us. And those who resist are ‘insurgents’ to be treated like ‘insurgents’ in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq etc. And in Rightist hatemongering, the journey from ‘insurgent’ to ‘terrorist’ is but the batting of an eye-lid. Please do not say that you weren’t warned.

  11. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Have a look at Hardaker’s article, Searching for Egypt’s Mandela, on the Drum, ME

  12. I had myself convinced for a few years that NG could be a “bridge” to a lower carbon future, that it could displace coal so we could meet the early carbon-reduction goals. In this context, Lou’s comments make sense, and it makes sense to measure whether fracking increases fugitive methane.

    But I’ve since become persuaded that all fossil fuels are additive, at least in the absence of an explicit government policy to phase out coal in favor of gas, with very tight regulations on that new gas. It’s still something of the Wild West in the world of fossil fuel production, and it’s all additive as long as making money is the number one priority.

    If the anti-fracking movement is a tactic to reduce overall expansion of fossil fuel use, then it has some value. I still worry that all the issues people worry about are addressable, and we’ll be left with further expansion.

    The recent Duke study that points to increased infiltration of methane into ground water is interesting and helpful. But it needs to be replicated, just the same way that cancer studies related to tobacco had to be replicated in order to be conclusive. It also needs to be demonstrated that the water problems are endemic and wide-scale. I doubt those things are true because the rate of gas production increase has not been accompanied by a similar increase in the volume of fouled water. In any case, we don’t have that much time.

    I don’t have a pragmatic alternative. Mulga has his usual points, which are pretty inescapable. As long as there’s money to be made in fossil fuels, the resistance to reducing them will be strong to the point of sociopathology.

  13. Jack Burton says:

    The “Fracking Industry” has done a marvelous job in covering up their pollution. In fact, most Americans now believe that Fracking has no negative impacts at all. I keep my ears open and read an enormous amount of news on the internet. But Facking seems to get off free. I do not believe any main stream media or news source would EVER run a story on the negatives of Fracking.
    Their PR campaign has been epic and a complete success. Are they not working on laws that can get you arrested for claiming Fracking is dangerous to ground water and the chemicals allowed to vent to the air are also dangerous in any way.
    We live in a corporate controlled nation. They bribe the politicians and the politicians write the laws the corporations tell them to. It is that simple.
    Global Warming is going ahead unchecked.
    Fracking is going ahead unchecked.
    Global corporate power is backed by the bribed politicians, the media that corporations own and by the police forces and military forces who answer to the political system that is corporate controlled. In short, the people are losing in this fascist USA. To call it anything else is a lie. The USA is a fascist state, corporate and government power linked together and using police and military forces to subjugate the people.
    The class war is OVER, we lost! They won. To see how big their victory really is, just turn on the main stream media any day any time and listen to them extol their victory over democracy. We the people are just a joke to the corporate and media powers who control us. The power of Fracking is just one example of how corporate power is dictatorial in 2013 America. These same forces are right now preparing full scale war in the Middle East. They will drag Americans into another decade of war, only mush worse as the US is planning to invade Syria, Lebanon and Iran. To do this, they will confront Russian forces who are supporting Syria and Iran. Our leaders are even ready to push us to the nuclear brink in the year 2013. That is how mad they truly are.
    It is probably too late to take back our democracy and constitution, the patriot act ended both of these by a congressional vote.

  14. Mark Belgium says:

    “Brutal numbers” as Professor Anderson would say.

  15. Superman1 says:

    “With about 1,200 new coal-burning plants being proposed globally”. How do you account for the discrepancy between these 1,200 proposed plants and statements we see posted that renewables are price-competitive? China and India are not known for throwing money away; why aren’t they building the equivalent with renewables?.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The populations of the UK, the USSR, Germany and Japan made far greater sacrifices during WW2, with remarkably little dissent, for less constructive and noble causes. And the Right always expects the poor, minorities, welfare recipients, students etc to make sacrifices in the name of ‘austerity’ and ‘fiscal rectitude’ far greater than those required to fight this good fight. The sacrifices must, however, be proportionate. Those with the greatest wealth MUST make the most sacrifices, not the other way around, which is the Rightwing, ‘Free Market’ ideal.

  17. Raul M. says:

    Some smart ones are saying how it is very important to get river and stream water analysis before so that any horrible change is documented as it happens. Safe water may be enough reason to document water quality now.

  18. Adam R. says:

    Because, Superman1, coal plants do not require the sophisticated grids of mutually supporting types of power generation that wind and solar need in order to be major contributors. They can be built and put on line relatively quickly, with little concern about covering for intermittency.

    Coal power is dirty and dangerous, but it has the virtue of simplicity, at least in countries where emission regulations are lax.

  19. While mining gas out of the ground isn’t an inherently bad idea, the current hydrofracking methodology, with its dependence on a top-secret chemical stew, happens to contain a lot of room for nefarious activity that I’m afraid is part of what’s happening to people’s water. I’ve followed a lot of black market toxic waste distributors around, and know that many of the spent, PCB-laden chemicals they pick up from the loading docks in back of clean rooms is the same stuff — benzene, toluene, etc.– that’s being used to blow up shale and release the precious gas. It’s a seriously mobbed-up, dirty business. Meanwhile the president’s global warming “sollution” is a hack job. The “president” really doesn’t have a choice about pushing natural gas; he sold out to the oiligarchs while still a do-nothing Senator. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t scream at him about it and do everything in our dwindling power to make him and the rest of the gasoholic cabal wish they’d never been born. Indeed, part of what the moribund U.S. environmental movement needs is a significantly angrier soundtrack, not bogged down with insipid musical baggage from old, hippy-dippy environmental campaigns. Here’s a new American anthem guaranteed to stir the soul of any red-blooded environmentalist, as well as lure a few emotionally sensitive people over from the dark side. Feel free to use it. Scream your anger!

  20. Joe Romm says:

    This is perhaps your most nonsensical comments to date and is completely indistinguishable from a troll comment.

  21. Superman1 says:

    That doesn’t answer the question I raised!

  22. Superman1 says:

    Whenever I see this type of invective, I know I have the Truth right in the cross-hairs!

  23. Superman1 says:

    It might be useful to see what the Chinese themselves have to say. From the Premier: “We will prevent blind expansion in our capacity to manufacture solar energy and wind power equipment.”

  24. Superman1 says:

    That’s one part of a much larger problem. Much of our consumerist economy is based on generation of completely unnecessary items, with profit being made at each step, and typically with (non-human) energy required to accomplish each step. Therein lies the dilemma: eliminate the waste and excessive non-human energy use, and the economy tanks! How do you sell that to investors and workers alike?

  25. Superman1 says:

    And why are we not using the approaches that motivated these populations to make the sacrifices they did? Many in the climate change movement tend to preach seamless and painless transitions, while solution to the problem requires major sacrifice. We need to use the type of approach the Special Forces or Marines use to get new recruits. They focus on sacrifice and meeting the challenge, not the soft approach. Let’s tell the grim tale as it is, and appeal to whatever it takes to meet and overcome the challenge.

  26. Superman1 says:

    When you step back and see what the Chinese Premier is really saying (in the link above), it’s not fundamentally different from what President Obama is saying: All of the above!

  27. Joe Romm says:

    Name these “many” now or just stop posting this crap once and for all.

  28. Superman1 says:

    PART 1. First, we need to define ‘painless’. The latest Nature paper on allowable emissions translates to 20% global emissions reductions/annum for a 2 C ceiling, with perhaps 30% or more required from the advanced nations. That will lead to economic pain (tanking of the global economy) and individual (severe restrictions on any fossil fuel use).

  29. Superman1 says:

    PART 2. I will turn your question around; has Obama, McKibben, JR, Secular et al ever mentioned these types of severe economic and personal sacrifices in their proposals? Answer: not that I have ever seen. All I ever hear from these proposals are the new jobs, the new prosperity, and other features that are completely orthogonal to what is required.

  30. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Egypt’s Mandela’?- I suppose that will be the Great Man who ‘liberates’ the people, only to turn them over to the tender mercies of the IMF, the World Bank and ‘The Market’ as occurred in South Africa, where inequality and poverty are now even worse than under apartheid. And that’s not cynicism-that’s cold, hard, reality.