Freelance journalist Phelim McAleer has a new film called FrackNation that has been getting positive notice on the right, though it is flying under the mainstream radar to a certain extent. It does not appear to have had a theatrical release, and aside from an airing on the satellite channel AXS TV in January it hasn’t been before the general public in any substantial way.
The main channel of distribution seems to be conservative groups. This past weekend the local Tea Party (which is still alive and well despite recent pronouncements of its death) sponsored a screening. Pen and paper in hand, I attended and made some notes as it played. (I believe that all the quotes below are verbatim, but since I was scribbling in a darkened room with no chance to rewind, some may be a word or two off. Even if that happened, though, the context and intent have been preserved.)
Through many encounters with pro-fracking individuals I have learned to spot one particular argument that causes my brain’s real-time bullshit detection software1 to pop up a huge red alert: the claim that fracking has been going on for a long time. It’s not the only discrediting claim pro-frackers make, but it is definitely one of the most common. And it is such a piece of rhetorical flim-flam that anyone who uses it is either not knowledgeable on the subject or is trying to put something past the audience.
What is generally thought of as fracking is the deep and horizontal drilling that has only been in widespread use for the last decade or so. That technology did not exist until the late 90’s, where it was first used in Texas’ Barnett Shale. After several years of development it made its way east, initially to Pennsylvania. FrackNation focuses primarily there, and it was not until 2004 that Range Resources drilled the first Marcellus Shale well. These new wells are fundamentally different from shallower, vertical wells because the industrial activity they require is much more intensive.
Here are just two examples. Horizontal wells require enormous quantities of water, and after mixing the water with toxic chemicals the flowback must be disposed of. The competition for water, and the hazards posed by getting the waste to some final, reliable resting place is a substantial difference from vertical fracking.
Second, horizontal fracking is much more damaging to the air than vertical fracking. Chemical release on site combines with diesel fumes from the fleets of trucks required to transport materials to create ozone. (There are other effects from this as well: Noise pollution created by the constant traffic and the associated degradation of roads and other infrastructure - which, it should go without saying, the industry does not compensate communities for.)
A speaker who says we’ve been fracking for decades has just gone a long way towards discrediting himself on the subject. So when, early on in FrackNation, McAleer says fracking has been around since 1947 and is “not new technology,” he tips his hand as to just how straight he aims to be with his audience. The rhetorical slipperiness of the “we’ve been fracking since the 40’s” line is characteristic of much of the film.
He clearly spent a lot of time in farm country while putting it together, because he has no shortage of hay to build his straw men from. He mentions the Halliburton Loophole and says critics allege it “removed all regulation from fracking,” but I have not heard a single reputable opponent of fracking say any such thing. The Halliburton Loophole exempts drillers from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Instead of addressing the reasons critics object to the Halliburton Loophole, McAleer characterizes opposition in an extreme way that doesn’t square with reality.
He also spends a good chunk of time discussing the seismic hazards of fracking, a relatively remote risk that is not a major point of emphasis for those opposed to fracking. He lets pass unchallenged the charge that people are saying “every well is going to pollute all the time,” which is absurd. But instead of, say, claiming that the percentage of well violations is small while forthrightly acknowledging it still adds up to a lot of incidents (some appalling), McAleer moves along without comment.
Where he isn’t wholly fabricating arguments from nonexistent critics, he is selectively focusing his camera. In the same way that he zooms in on one link of the industrial chain for his “we’ve been fracking for a long time” claim, he uses Dimock, Pennsylvania’s water as the sole measure of fracking’s impact. In the wake of an EPA report that declared the water it tested in Dimock safe to drink, McAleer spends a great deal of time trying to get on-the-record comments from one particularly upset couple in the area. Since these appear to be ordinary citizens not part of some grand conspiracy to defraud the public, there isn’t much of a Truth To Power angle here. McAleer’s crusading style doesn’t really work well when used against relatively anonymous people who feel like their quality of life was severely damaged and just want to get on with things.
Focusing on Dimock keeps McAleer from looking elsewhere in Pennsylvania where there appear to have been problems, or in Pavillion, Wyoming, where the same EPA whose work he extols in Dimock found that fracking had indeed polluted the water there, or on the longer term issues of shale permeability raised by fracking (those injection wells need to retain their integrity for a long, long time before they can be considered successful).
McAleer keeps the blinders on when looking at methane. He starts with a few uncontroversial premises: Methane occurs naturally underground; it often occurs naturally in drinking water at safe levels; there are plentiful pre-fracking examples of it occurring in high enough concentrations to turn water flammable. But from there he makes some fantastic leaps. He implies that anyone who has methane in their water had it there all along or would have had it migrate there independently of fracking. There is no acknowledgement that there is often a remarkable tendency for methane that has been resting underground for sixty million years to migrate to water supplies right around the start of nearby fracking operations. Further, the impact of methane that is released into the air is completely ignored.
There is a similar narrow focus on those selling their mineral rights. In a segment heavy with human interest there is talk of how the oil and gas industry is working “together with farmers” to help small landowners continue owning land that has been in their families for generations. Not all farmers think this is an encouraging development, but FrackNation has no time for them. Moreover, when it comes down to competition for resources, the industry has already shown it is willing to put its own interests ahead of farmers. This too mysteriously stays off camera.
Perhaps this would be beyond the scope of a movie like FrackNation, but the distress of homeowners not just in Pennsylvania but across the nation is intimately connected with the vast fraud that began to unravel on Wall Street several years ago. In any event, desperate farmers selling the resources under their land in exchange for environmental risk and a (perhaps temporary) reprieve is pretty much a textbook definition of disaster capitalism. Chesapeake Energy is not exactly a nonprofit land trust, after all.
Finally, there’s the just plain weird stuff. Comparing the chemicals used in fracking to the chemicals in broccoli or coffee, for one - as though hydrochloric acid is something we all just ingest every day as a matter of course. There’s some good old fashioned red baiting (paging Senator Cruz!) when one interviewee darkly suggests activists are “funded, I would expect, by the Russians.” My favorite WTF is when McAleer says wind power is terrible because turbines kill birds, a talking point last seen being hauled away from the curb at Dr. Will’s house.
I suppose there is one more thing I should mention. McAleer uses the central conceit of Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” in FrackNation: An Everyman’s fruitless quest to meet with a powerful but indifferent/hostile figure. McAleer’s Roger Smith is Josh Fox, the producer of Gasland. He pokes holes in Fox’s movie, makes several guerrilla attempts to question him, and generally plays his effort for laughs with broad strokes. He takes up a good part of the film with this, and seems to consider Fox the author of much of the opposition to fracking. All I can say is this - the activists I know are aware of him, but don’t consider him an authority. I’ve never heard the kind of undiluted praise for him that I have for, say, Anthony Ingraffea.
So even the main narrative thrust of FrackNation is a failure. His antagonism towards Fox is clearly driving him more than any kind of dispassionate investigation of a major public issue. In the end it’s just two guys with big egos engaging in a pissing contest. McAleer seems to regard Fox as a low, dishonest man, and his film a cheap piece of propaganda. He appears to have wanted to answer Fox by creating an equivalent film from the opposite side of the debate. In that regard, at least, he succeeded.