The film FrackNation flighted to sparsely populated cinemas in Cape Town and Johannesburg by Ivo Vegter was co-directed by Phelim McAleer. The film, unsurprisingly hailed by the oil and gas industry as a factual and honest representation of fracking, may lose some of its support in the light of this literary comedy posted by McAleer in August 2013.
My response addresses McAleer’s text – point by point.
(See update at end of article)
TEN BIG FAT LIES ABOUT FRACKING
The director of FrackNation explodes the myths put about by fracktivists.
Phelim McAleer, an Irish filmmaker based in America whose pro-fracking movieFrackNation is described by the New York Times as ‘meticulously researched and provocative’, has had his fair share of run-ins with ‘fracktivists’. Here, he picks apart the 10 biggest lies told by the anti-fracking lobby.
1) Anti-fracking activists are nice people who love debate
Actually, far from being liberal, open-minded souls bringing truth to power in a kinder, gentler way, anti-fracking activists have chosen a new disposition: angry! I guess no one told the fracktivists that just because we don’t agree doesn’t mean we can’t get along. Watch Vera Scroggins, for example.
Vera, an anti-fracking, Sierra Club-endorsed activist from Pennsylvania, adds to the ‘dialogue’ with such constructive comments as:
‘You’re a freak.’
‘You’re a male prostitute.’
‘You’re an Irish freak. Go drink some alcohol.’
‘Go get drunk and be a drunken Irish freak.’
‘You’re an alien. You look like a f***ing alien.’
Or take actor and activist Alec Baldwin. In the run-up to a debate about fracking in the Hamptons that he was taking part in, following a screening of the anti-fracking movie Gasland, Baldwin approached the New York Independent Oil and Gas Association (IOGA) to see if it could suggest a speaker who was not as anti-fracking as the other speakers on the panel. IOGA suggested me as an independent voice, a journalist with an international perspective who has researched fracking for over two years in two continents. But suddenly Baldwin was no longer interested in debate or diversity of opinion, and he vetoed me from the panel. Then, a few hours later, he popped up on Twitter and posted the following:
@phelimmcaleer Come debate me, Phelim, you lumpy old gas whore. Who’s paying you?
— ABFoundation, 1 June 2013
@phelimmcaleer Phelim, you are a dreadful filmmaker. But come debate me, you tired old bullshitter.
— @ABFalecbaldwin, 1 June 2013
Sean Lennon – son of peace activists John Lennon and Yoko Ono – thought that someone who disagreed with him on fracking was a good ‘argument for abortion’.
Or, if you’re still not convinced, just peruse the comments on my movie’sFacebook page left by anti-fracking activists. Such pleasant people!
2) Everyone hates fracking
From news coverage, you would think that everyone in America hates fracking. Even the name sounds awful. Who could support such a terrible practice?
Well, it turns out that just about everyone who lives with it loves it.
Dimock, Pennsylvania is one place where all journalists reported that everyone hates fracking. Yes, there were 11 families in the village involved in a very lucrative lawsuit with an oil-and-gas company, and the journalists always interviewed them. But they completely ignored a petition signed by 1,500 people in the community who said their water was fine and had not been affected by fracking. What is 11 out of 1,500? Less than 1%. It’s the 99% who support fracking.
There is one other group that is opposed to fracking in Pennsylvania – the New York elite. This coalition of grumpy hipsters and celebrities have holiday homes in Pennsylvania, or they’re concerned that if a new industry brings wealth and progress to PA then the ‘traditional’ (read poor) way of life there will be destroyed.
So once or twice a year, the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Susan Sarandon and Yoko Ono get bussed in from the city to meet disgruntled locals, and then are chauffeured back to their gas-heated homes after another day of successfully blocking natural-gas development.
If you want proof positive that communities love fracking, look no further than the ballot box. Consider this US Businessweek report on the 2012 election: ‘Anti-fracking candidates in the Southern Tier [New York] were beaten up and down the ballot after intense campaigns, some of which were framed as referendums on shale-gas development.’
At least 20 anti-fracking candidates were rejected by New York voters (New York is supposed to be the heartland of anti-fracking sentiment). But hey, keep protesting, fracktivists – after all, democracy is for the little people, and you can walk all over them on your way to your next starry TV interview about the ‘evils’ of fracking.
3) Fracking is brand new and untested
Pop quiz: how long has fracking been around? Here are your choices:
a) Since 2010
b) Since 1990
c) Since 1975
d) Since 1960
Sorry, you’re wrong. Trick question. The first fracked well was in 1947! And more than one million wells have been fracked in the US since then (2.5million worldwide). In terms of industrial processes, it doesn’t get much older or more thoroughly tested than fracking.
4) Fracking makes your water flammable
No lie about fracking is more widely believed than this old canard. It was popularised by Josh Fox in his HBO-funded documentary, Gasland. In it he shows a man who can light his tap water on fire, supposedly because of fracking.
I asked Josh about reports that some people could light their water before fracking occurred. He didn’t like this question.
He eventually admitted that he knew people could light their tap water on fire decades before fracking ever started but chose not to include this fact in his documentary because ‘it wasn’t relevant’.
There are three places in the US called Burning Springs, and there are historical records of people lighting their water since the 1600s.
5) Fracking contaminates drinking water
If fracking doesn’t make your water flammable, it must at least contaminate it with dangerous chemicals, right?
Not according to Lisa Jackson, the former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and no friend to big business. She testified before Congress that there have been zero proven cases of water contamination due to fracking.
That’s right – one million fracked wells later, there are no examples of contaminated water anywhere. Zero. This is the anti-fracking playbook. Scare people, get media attention. And when the science comes in debunking the scare story, move on to the next scare story.
6) Fracking uses a lot of dangerous chemicals
Fracking fluid is 98.5% water, 1% sand, and 0.5% chemical additives. Some of these additives are also used in making ice cream! Colorado’s Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, drank fracking fluid to prove its safety to his local residents.
But these are still chemicals and we should be scared of them – that is the cry of the fracktivists. But water is a chemical. Coffee has a whole bunch of chemicals in it. Everything is a chemical. Don’t be duped by bad science (like the people these American comedians convinced to ban the scary sounding ‘dihydrogen monoxide’).
7) Fracking causes breast cancer
In his short film, The Sky is Pink, Josh Fox claimed that a spike in breast cancer in Texas was a result of fracking. Turns out he was wrong. Again. (Seems like a theme for Josh.)
The Associated Press interviewed leading cancer researchers who all concluded: there was no spike.
Did Fox apologise for scaring women and families? No. He’s an environmental activist. The media don’t ask him difficult questions or demand that he clears the record. Less than a year later, HBO released Gasland Part 2, Fox’s sequel about the dangers of fracking. There was no mention of breast cancer in it, and he has never withdrawn his original claim. This is the anti-fracking playbook. Scare people, get media attention. And when the science comes in debunking the scare story, move on to the next scare story.
8) Fracking uses a ton of water
Even fracking fans have a hard time swallowing the water stats for fracked wells: the EPA estimates that fracking used between 70 and 140 billion gallons of water in 2011. That sounds like a lot of H2O. Unless you have a lawn.
Americans use 20 times more water on their lawns than they do on fracking.
9) Fracking should be banned because it causes earthquakes
One of the scarier arguments against fracking is that it causes earthquakes, especially if you live in a tectonically charged US state, like I do. Yet all activity under the ground affects the earth, and if you don’t like this fact then you should also campaign to ban supposedly eco-friendly hydro-power, which actually hascaused earthquakes (but they only affected Indians, so environmentalists don’t care – just so long as the energy created was ‘sustainable’).
But the biggest cause of man-made earthquakes is the environmentalists’ favourite power source: geo-thermal. It seems that some earthquakes are more equal than others.
10) Fracking destroys the landscape and disturbs bucolic rural America
The process of fracking (which is separate from drilling) is noisy and looks messy – for a few days. Then the land is reclaimed and the industry moves on to the next area. All the scary photos of huge machinery and big trucks are taken during this initial process. Which is a bit like photographing the building site of a half-built house and saying all house-building should be banned. As a filmmaker, my biggest problem was trying to film working gas wells in a way that would look interesting. They are tiny and often hidden behind hills or behind bushes and trees.
Oh, and fracking does create traffic. That claim is true. Locals call this ‘jobs’. They generally like it. They may complain sometimes but they know that the only thing worse than traffic in rural America is no traffic.
Phelim McAleer is co-director of FrackNation.
Coming out clearly and unsurprisingly, on the side of the pro-fracking lobby, McAleer, proclaims ten ‘big fat lies’ that in his view are propagated by anti-fracking activists.
This critical review of his claims is intended as a factual evaluation.
Lie No. 1 Anti-fracking activists are nice people who love debate
I’m not sure that the adjective ‘nice’ is relevant to a debate on any subject, nor whether it is incumbent on debaters to ‘love’ debating. Having led an anti-fracking campaign in South Africa for three years, it is not my experience that any serious environmentalist, or debater for that matter, relies on being ‘nice’ to score rhetorical or actual victories.
Nevertheless, accepting, for the time being, McAleer’s application of ‘nice and ‘love’’ and the supposed claimthereofby the anti-fracking camp, prompts me to share just one of my own experiences with you.
The following Tweets about me were posted (by a pro-fracker) around April 15th, when I was in San Francisco to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa. They were posted by Nick Grealy, aka @shalegasexpert, who hails from London and professes to ‘working to de-risk the aboveground in shale energy.’
Grealy, at the time of these tweets proclaimed on his Twitter profile that ‘Shale gas is far too important to be politicised’. It is relevant that Grealy had never met or spoken to me personally and so had no personal knowledge of me, or of my political persuasion. I quote the Tweet and then explain what material (if any accompanied it).
Tweet 1: “Saw this and thought of @timelesskaroo pic.twitter.com/k4CqvO1hWs” (The published picture was a signboard from decades ago in South Africa, posted at public facilities, and saying (reserved for white people).
Tweet 2: “Bury gas and bury black people, the @timelesskaroo way”. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-afr (the link is to a video in which I was interviewed by BBC London).
Tweet 3: “Part of the Karoo that J Deal wants to keep timeless. And reserved for the those (sic) with more interest in the earth. pic.twitter.com/5Ik0933m9O (The picture is of a slum dwelling in SA)”
Tweet 5: “The new apartheid: Greens v everyone else http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22151746 … “(Same link to the BBC interview, now using Apartheid)”
Tweet 6: “The Truth behind @tonybosworth South African pals (link not working).http://www.iol.co.za/business/business-news/racial-twist-in-debate-on-gas-fracking-in-the-karoo-1.1304441#.UWwqOr855zg …”
Tweet 7: “@goldmanprize The majority view from South Africa on your sickening support for Jonathan Deal. (Link no longer available, but appears to have been about the pro-fracking group – Karoo Shale Gas Forum.)
Tweet 9: “SA fracking warrior is the Green de Klerk, not Mandela @goldmanprize @RHarrabin @tonybosworth http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22151746 … “(Another link to the BBC video, this time juxtaposing me as De Klerck with President Mandela.)
Tweet 10: “@tonybosworth Torturing is what your mates in South Africa do to keep people in poverty.”
The point here is to reveal that in every individual or collective ego, one may identify and expose aspects that are not ‘nice’, and of course to dispense with McAleer’s absurdstatement by saying that – for every Baldwin he can find, I can find a Grealy. And that’s no lie.
Lie No. 2 Everyone hates fracking
McAleer doesn’t offer a source for this statement. But let’s accept that he heard it or read it (and can provide the source). I have never, and would never rely on such an obscure statement to support my view on fracking. What does interestingly emerge from McAleer’s views on ‘lie No 2’ is that he may unwittingly or knowingly have propagated a lie of his own. I quote: “Well, it turns out that just about everyone who lives with it loves it,” claims McAleer. Using the town of Dimmock, PA, some NYS election results and a sweeping statement of his own about grumpy hipsters and celebrities against fracking, McAleer conveniently ignores the more than 210 current (and growing) bans, restrictions or moratoria in various countries around the world, on fracking or parts of the shale gas mining process.
McAleer, would do well to substantiate his allegation in defense of ‘lie No2’ by telling readers within the context of his statement what he means by “just about everyone.” Is that 99 out of 100, 500 out of a 1000, 3 out of ten, all the people in one street? No Mr. McAleer, I don’t believe your claim, or the claim that everyone hates fracking. I wonder if this factual void is a benchmark for the truthfulness of your film?
Lie No. 3 Fracking is brand new and untested
Once again, we’ve never used that line in the way that you present it, and although I have heard it used, it certainly does not represent the mainstream and informed anti-fracking view. Your ‘quiz’ just went ‘pop.’ Why? Simply because you disingenuously seek to do exactly what the real liars (the oil and gas industry do), when referring to fracking. Simply put, a ‘good ole boy’ wildcatter in Texas in 1947, using dynamite to frack a well is a long stretch from high-volume, horizontal, slickwater fracking that has been commercially practiced for less than 15 years. McAleer also claims 2.5 million fracks (1.5 million outside of the US) – proof please?
Here, in the interests of sparing you further embarrassment, should you choose to repeat this tripe, are some facts, with the sources:
Plain, early and rudimentary fraccing
Hydraulic fracturing was introduced in the United States in 1949 by Stanolind Oil. Carl T. Montgomery and Michael B. Smith, NSI Technologies in ‘Hydraulic fracturing – History of an Enduring Technology’, write: “Fracturing can be traced to the 1860s, when liquid (and later, solidified) nitroglycerin (NG) was used to stimulate shallow, hard rock wells in Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Although extremely hazardous, and often used illegally, NG was spectacularly successful for oil well “shooting.” The object of shooting a well was to break up, or rubblize, [sic] the oil-bearing formation to increase both initial flow and ultimate recovery of oil. This same fracturing principle was soon applied with equal effectiveness to water and gas wells.”
“In the 1930s, the idea of injecting a non-explosive [sic] fluid (acid) into the ground to stimulate a well began to be [sic] tried. … [B]ut it was not until Floyd Farris of Stanolind Oil and Gas Corporation (Amoco) performed an in-depth study to establish a relationship between observed well performance and treatment pressures that “formation breakdown” … became better understood. From this work, Farris conceived the idea of hydraulically fracturing a formation to enhance production from oil and gas wells.”
“The first experimental treatment to ‘Hydrafrac’ a well for stimulation was performed in the Hugoton gas field in Grant County, Kansas, in 1947 by Stanolind Oil. … [D]eliverability of the well did not change appreciably, but it was a start. In 1948, the Hydrafrac process was introduced more widely to the industry in a paper written by J.B. Clark of Stanolind Oil. A patent was issued in 1949, with an exclusive license granted to the Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company (Howco) to pump the new Hydrafrac process.”
“Howco performed the first two commercial fracturing treatments— … in Archer County, Texas—on March 17, 1949. In the first year, 332 wells were treated. Treatments reached more than 3,000 wells a month for stretches during the mid-1950s. The first one-half- million-pound fracturing job in the free world was performed in October 1968, by Pan American Petroleum Corporation (later Amoco, now BP) in Stephens County, Oklahoma. In 2008, more than 50,000 frac stages were completed worldwide at a cost of anywhere between USD 10,000 and USD 6 million. It is now common to have from eight to as many as 40 frac stages in a single well.”
The chronology of high-volume, horizontal, slickwater fracturing
It is accurate to say that hydro-fracking has been done for over sixty yearsin the United States. It is inaccurate to infer that the relatively new process of high-volume, horizontal, slickwater fraccing has been practiced for over 60 years. There is ample evidence to prove that the advent of modern-day ‘fraccing’ in the United States is recorded as coming into commercial production during the 1990’s. “The first horizontal shale gas well was drilled in 1991; the first slick water fracture took place in 1996; and the use of cluster drilling from one pad in 2007.”
“According to Slate, the US DOE subsidized George P. Mitchell’s Mitchell Energy “to drill its first horizontal wells, covering any costs beyond a typical vertical well, and the federal government provided unconventional gas tax credits. The Bureau of Economic Geology created high-resolution images of rock surfaces that yielded information about their porosity. Union Pacific Resources, the Fort Worth-based exploration and Production Company, shared its superior method for hydraulic fracturing. DOE’s Sandia Labs contributed micro seismic fracture mapping software that helped the operator make adjustments to improve the flow of gas. Mitchell put it all together, and by the time he sold his company to Devon Energy in 2002, the idea of extracting natural gas from shale was about to turn from technological pipe dream to very real economic powerhouse.”
[SourceWatch quotes]: “According to Cornell University engineer Anthony Ingraffea, only in the last two decades have four different technologies made it possible to fracture deep shale rock formations one to two kilometers underground. They include directional drilling (wells that go down a kilometer and then extend horizontally for another kilometer): the use of millions of litres of fracturing fluids including sand, water and toxic chemicals; slick water (the use of gels and high fluid volumes at 100 barrels a minute) and multi-well pad and cluster drilling (the drilling of six to nine wells from one industrial platform).”
McAleer’s lie No. 3 about lie No. 3 dispensed with.
Lie No. 4 Fracking makes your water flammable
McAleer rightfully points out this highly contested issue. There is no doubt that methane has and does occur naturally in water aquifers in many countries around the world. Shrewdly, McAleer focuses on instances relating to Josh Fox’s controversial film, but chooses to ignore evidence from independent tests that show increased methane levels in areas where natural gas drilling has taken place. I don’t forward this observation as defense of the statement that ‘Fracking makes your water flammable’ as there are most certainly places where drilling has taken place where people are not lighting their water on fire. However, the opposite (as McAleer seems to suggest by labeling this statement a lie) i.e. Fracking does not make your water flammable is similarly untrue.
McAleer’s lie No 4. About methane in water up in hot air.
Lie No. 5 Fracking contaminates drinking water
Assuming that he has banked the last point, (on flammable water) McAleer, points those opposed to fracking as desperately seeking proof of some other nefarious side effect of fracking. “If fracking doesn’t make your water flammable, it must at least contaminate it with dangerous chemicals, right?” McAleer quotes Lisa Jackson from the EPA, but conveniently fails to place in context for the reader, the many non-disclosure agreements signed between gas drillers and people who have left the homes that they used to live in. Some of the homes within 30 minutes drive from the where the star of Fracknation lives.
But the self-administered coup de grace in connection with this ‘Lie number 5’ is this statement from McAleer’s own pen: ‘That’s right – one million fracked wells later, there are no examples of contaminated water anywhere. Zero.’ Rewind. Did you write one million fracked wells? What happened to 2.5 million?
McAleer sets the scene for his next exposē by suggesting that science has debunked the ‘scare story’ and so anti-frackers, ‘move on to the next scare story’.
6) Fracking uses a lot of dangerous chemicals
McAleer faithfully repeats the proportions of water, proppants and chemicals quoted by the gas drillers. Linking the word ‘chemical’ with such acceptable substances as coffee, toothpaste and ice-cream, McAleer quotes Governor Hickenlooper (whose state is currently facing a plethora of fracking bans – from all those people ‘who live with fracking and love it’) as having consumed fracking water on TV. Now, sure as God made little apples, McAleer, Hickenlooper and anyone possessed of basic skills of deduction and reasoning know full well that if three samples of fracking flowback water are selected from three different states in an independent, random and scientifically-monitored selection process, neither Hickenlooper, nor McAleer, or even Arnold Schwarzenegger would chug it down. And that’s the truth! McAleer neglects to point out that .5% by volume in a 5 million gallon (20 million liter frack job) will be around 25 to 30 tons of liquid and solid chemicals. That’s an awful lot of toothpaste, coffee and ice cream Phelim.
Lie No. 7 Fracking causes breast cancer
Well, perhaps the lie could be rephrased to say, “If you are exposed to sufficient dosages of fracking related chemicals via air, water, direct, or secondary contact, it may result in breast or other cancers.”
Dr. Theo Colborn, (who surely must be known to one able to write so authoritatively on fracking as McAleer does) has written and lectured widely on the human health and environmental threat posed by endocrine disruptors and other industrially produced chemicals at low concentrations in the environment.
Dr. Colborn serves as the President of TEDX and holds the academic rank of Professor Emeritus, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. TEDX’s programs and finances are overseen by a Board of Directors, whose specialties include public health service, environmental policy development and analysis, environmental advocacy, medical ethics, philosophy and children’s environmental health.
In the experience of Treasure Karoo Action Group, TEDX reports are peer-reviewed.
Perhaps the so-called lie should be turned around – seeing as it is framed as a lie: ‘fracking doesn’t cause breast cancer’? Who would be lying then?
Lie number 8 Fracking uses a ton of water
Oh, my word! Is McAleer writing for primary school children? Even people that live in other countries can do the math on that one. The documented issues surrounding water and fracking, wherever the technology is taking place, are well known, and by attempting to sweep them under the carpet with such a meaningless comparison, McAleer exposes himself as an inexpert liar.
Lie No. 9 Fracking should be banned because it causes earthquakes
No lie. But that’s not the only reason that fracking should be banned. Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas have their own case studies by scientists from both sides of the debate. The link between fracking and earthquakes under certain circumstances and parameters is conclusive. It does not automatically follow that seismic activity is a reason for a blanket global ban on fracking. In areas where additional man-induced seismic activity could result in earthquakes that may damage property, aquifers or endanger human life, there is a good reason to ban it in that location. Not clever to hang the whole point on an extreme, Phelim.
Lie No. 10 Fracking destroys the landscape and disturbs bucolic rural [sic] America.
One statement (excluding the tautology) that I am prepared to support, with a proviso. Fracking destroys the landscape where it takes place and disturbs ‘bucolic’ rural America.
McAleer endeavours to skillfully dismember fracking from shale gas mining by writing: ‘the process of fracking (which is separate from drilling) is noisy and looks messy – for a few days…’ He goes so far as to write that ‘working gas wells’ are ‘tiny and often hidden behind hills or behind bushes and trees’.
Perhaps I could make use of this opportunity to supplement the No. 10 lie with one that McAleer, based on his text, appears to suggest: “You don’t need any part of the shale gas mining process to frack – you just arrive with a big pipe, frack the ground, take the gas and go.”
Enough already. If any serious pro-gas adult is prepared to align themselves with the TEN BIG FAT LIES of McAleer, they deserve to be treated with the same derision and amusement afforded the stars of Dumb and Dumber and Beavis and Butthead.
It is remarkable that the director of a film so enthusiastically endorsed by oil & gas and Opportunista’s would place his supporters in the position of defending his (may I use the word again) tripe. Anyone with experience in the issues of the global shale gas debate that is prepared to endorse and propagate what McAleer has written here is either stupid or a big fat liar.
 Montgomery, Carl T and Smith, Michael B. http://www.spe.org/jpt/print/archives/2010/12/10Hydraulic.pdf
 Shell South Africa Country Chairman, Bonang Mohale, on behalf of Royal Dutch Shell in SA 2011. Claim repeated frequently by Shell executives in South Africa.