Two weeks ago, the British Geological Survey revealed that below the north of England sits up to 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas. That’s enough to make the UK energy self-sufficient for decades and, inevitably, Fracking was thrust onto the national agenda. The politicians piled in. In the spending review, Danny Alexander announced shale gas drilling to receive some of the £100 billion capital investment over the next five years, and Energy Secretary Ed Davey hailed the find as an “opportunity to make sure we have our own home-grown gas supplies”.
Before we start investing taxpayers’ billions, the British people need to decide if fracking for shale gas is something they really want. We need the facts in order to make reasoned judgements. In complex scientific concerns such as this, film and television have the opportunity to lay out the evidence in entertaining, well-rounded and digestible fashion. Unfortunately, the most prominent efforts of recent times are not up the task.
Two weeks ago, as if in anticipation of the BGS announcement, we had ‘Fracking: The New Energy Rush’ at prime time on BBC Two. Professor Iain Stewart – an expert in geosciences communication, recently appointed MBE, and the BBC’s go-to interpreter of all things geological – investigated the energy needs and shale potential of the UK by looking at the impact of the natural gas revolution in the USA. The shock and awe spectacle of epic tanker ships, flashy Shaleionaire cars and a post-Strictly Come Dancing energy surge reduced scientific explanation of gas extraction to diagrams on the side of a dusty pickup. We did get some proper science when it came to the effects of fracking. Robert Jackson of Duke University explained how he had found water near extraction sites was more likely to contain methane. However scientifically sensible it might have been, Jackson’s non-conclusive caveat that the water could easily be naturally occurring would have been infuriatingly cagey for many. Prof Stewart seemed to imply that a stricter regulatory framework in the UK would make the process safer, though the reality of British fracking was never fully explored. Some critics saw the programme as a dumbed down, safe BBC production. For me, it placed shale gas within the wider energy context and in just an hour presented an acceptable introduction for a mainstream audience.
If you want something a little less restrained, then dig back a couple of years and watch Josh Fox’s Emmy-winning documentary ‘Gasland’, a love letter to his home on the Delaware river, which flows into a journey of discovery through the many US states that fracking has transformed. Using drawling narration, an apocalyptic colour palette and shaky camera work, Fox’s gonzo documentary portrays family after family who claim to have suffered health problems, had their water supplies corrupted and seen their countryside torn up, after signing over the drilling rights to the land below their feet. ‘Gasland’ is raw and shocking, even without the infamous flaming faucet scene. It is no considered scientific exploration – Fox makes no claims as such and its headline moments have been under heavy scrutiny – but a bitter attack on politicians like Dick Cheney and corporations like Halliburton who have trampled on the lives ordinary Americans. How well the ‘Gasland’ model of fracking would apply to Britain is unclear – regulation will likely be tighter and the crown, not individual citizens, has ultimate ownership of the land – but Fox unveils terrifying glimpses of what can happen if things go wrong.
And finally there’s Matt Damon’s feature film, ‘Promised Land’. Since opening in December 2012, the film has taken a modest $7.5m dollars at the US box office. This tale of a small Pennsylvania town considering the sale of fracking rights to natural gas company ‘Global’ – of which Damon is the top negotiator – is hardly blockbuster material. Combining Damon’s environmentalist credentials, part-funding from Image Nation Abu Dhabi and a pre-emptive backlash from gas lobby group Energy in Depth, one might expect a cinematic assault on America’s newest boom industry. In fact, ‘Promised Land’ is less about fracking than the decline of small town agricultural America and its manipulation by large corporations. The only fracking science we’re shown is a primary colours explanation to a class of elementary school children (in which an entire toy farm is set on fire) and it’s revealing that that ‘Promised Land’ was originally meant to tackle unsightly wind farms instead of shale gas exploitation. Still, it’s a touching and beautifully shot lament that muses on the pace of rural change.
I make no claims to a comprehensive survey of fracking on film, but these three examples highlight the gaps that need to be filled. If films are going to provide the public with all the necessary information, they must present the science of hydraulic fracturing in unashamed depth, lay out the range of potential environmental effects (within that scientific framework), outline the wider energy context and explain the particular British situation. Film is a wonderful medium for explanation. But we deserve a film that places environmental or financial interests aside and describes accurately the entire landscape that sits before us.
Gasland II will air on HBO on 8 July, this time investigating the role politics and the media play in leading the dash for gas. Will it be the film we sorely need? On previous form, I don’t think so.