— January 17, 2011 —
Sustainable Culture is a column by super/collider, exploring the intersection between science, culture and ecology. Please do not print
Still from Gasland Imagine waking up to find that the water coming out of your kitchen tap is as flammable as petrol. You strike a match, turn the tap and find your sink full of flaming liquid, coming straight from your municipal water supply. Or imagine being evacuated from a campsite in a protected forest reserve because it’s raining a mix of mysterious toxic chemicals. Both scenarios aren’t imaginary — or happening in some remote country where the words ‘health’ and ‘safety’ are unknown. They’ve both happened already in the United States, where residents are now living in the shadow of a new and worrying form of gas drilling: hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ as it’s nicknamed.
The subject of a new documentary called Gasland, the technique involves pumping a combination of water and chemicals deep underground to force gas to the surface. It’s the same method used to help get more oil out of oil wells in the North Sea, but legislation in America introduced during the Bush years means that gas companies don’t have to worry about contaminating nearby water supplies — since they’re exempt from the law thanks to a legal loophole. The result, as Gasland explores, is a series of landscapes and towns blighted by exploding water wells (!) and chemical-laden drinking water —not to mention the danger of more blow-outs like the one that cause the evacuation on Moshannon State Forest in Pennsylvania.
The documentary — part Blair Witch and part Erin Brockovich — brings cause for both despair and hope. Techniques like fracking seem symptomatic of our reliance on ever-dwindling supplies of fossil fuels and a refusal to consider other, less-profitable options. Similar to the vast tar sands scarring Western Canada or the removal of entire mountaintops to mine coal, the idea of pumping vast tanks of chemicals into the earth to squeeze out a bit of gas in return seems insane. At the same time, Gasland shows that with today’s culture of DIY documentary filmmaking and a healthy public appetite for eco-exposés (see An Inconvenient Truth and The End of the Line) a single person can set out with a camera and make a real impact.
Gasland opens tonight at the ICA, with a panel discussion featuring director Josh Fox and representatives from The Co-operative and WWF. For more on the film and a visual guide to fracking, check out www.gaslandthemovie.com
UPDATED APRIL 2012: Sign the petition here to oppose bringing hydraulic fracturing to the UK.
Chris Hatherill is co-director of super/collider, a London-based collective which explores science and ecology through the creative industries.