Thursday, November 10, 2011

Prepared Remarks About "Gasland" Documentary

Tonight I will serve as a panelist and moderator for a discussion following the documentary Gasland. If given the opportunity to make a few short remarks, this is what I have prepared.

In my Introduction to Agricultural Economics class I give a few lectures about environmental pollution and regulation, and to demonstrate what a world without regulation would look like, I always show them the scenes from Gasland where kitchen sinks and streams burst into flames. I do so because students are amazed and appalled when they see water from a kitchen seek burst into flames. I do so because of the video's effectnot because the video is actually a good depiction of a regulation-free world, and I immediately tell the students that I have deceived them slightly, because it turns out that the flammable sink water in Gasland was likely naturally contaminated by gas, and not the result of horizontal fracking.

Now, hear me out before you judge what I am trying to say. There are some truths communicated in Gasland, there is no doubt about that. However, it seems that many of the facts purported by the documentary Gasland are not true—or, at least, questionable. But to me, strange as it may sound, that is okay. This is because I do not view documentaries primarily as information sources. In fact, I would argue that it is very difficult to produce a successful documentary without much of its facts being called into question. I like showing well-known documentaries in class: like Food Inc. and Capitalism: A Love Story, but I do not do so for the information they relay. I do so for the attention they earn and the discussion they encourage.

A documentary that is completely factual is, unfortunately, boring to most people—more importantly, it would not motivate the activist within us. Activism of any sort requires symbols, traditions, beliefs, experiences, and notions in which the activists can use to define their cause, enhance the uniformity of their beliefs, and reinforce their enthusiasm for promoting the common good. That is exactly what Gasland does, and it is important, because a moderate level of activism is healthy for a democracy. I promise you this: we need energy companies questioned about their actions constantly; we need regulation of any energy extraction; we need laws that allow us to sue companies if they are at fault for environmental damage. There is such thing as too much activism, of course, but Gasland helps to ensure we do not have too little.

So, what dangers does fracking pose? After searching around for what I thought to be a reliable source, I settled on Scientific American magazine. Here is what I learned. Horizontal fracking differs little from vertical fracking, which has gone on for decades. But there is a difference, and that difference is that we simply don't know much about horizontal fracking, we will only learn by experience, and there are some potential dangers unique to horizontal fracking. One promising technology is an additive companies can add to their chemicals, whereby if the gas contaminates water supplies, this additive will allow us to determine which company (if any) is at fault. We can then sue them. For a lot of money. Knowing this, companies will be more responsible.

As we learn more, both government and environmental interest groups should be allowed to monitor, report, and interpret data collected from horizontal fracking. Gasland helps to ensure this is the case. After all, if it were not for Gasland, we would not be here tonight talking about horizontal fracking.

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