Against a background of snow-capped mountains, surrounded by drilling rigs and refineries a gas-masked Josh Fox strums a slow banjo tune. This fittingly apocalyptic visual transitions into a truly terrifying but remarkable story of corporate greed, negligence and the concentration of power. In many ways it reminded me of Upton Sinclair’s classic The Jungle; a world where profits rule and the bodies, minds, and well-being of humans are resigned to the meat grinder of bourgeois history.
The culprit–as it so often is–is the US oil and gas industry who found a loophole in the 2005 Energy Bill that exempts them from the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and numerous other Environmental Protection Agency regulations. The result? Millions of litres of water laced with known carcinogens and neurotoxins leaking into drinking water along with massive air pollution from refineries and storage facilities with no repercussions.
Fox begins by recalling his own childhood near the streams and rivers of rural Pennsylvania and the connections between idyllic youth and the progress brought about by the post-war golden age. A rosy picture of a turbulent time perhaps, but it does give the sense that today we are moving backwards rather than toward some idealized welfare-state future. Instead, this future is tied to our reliance on cheap energy which, as one gas lobbyist remarks, makes us reliant on “foreign oil and terrorism.” Enter natural gas, the clean, efficient and domestic fuel of the future. Conveniently it is trapped between rock layers in a number of shale basins across the US and Canada.
Natural gas can only be extracted from these basins through a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Holes are bored deep into the rock, which is then broken apart by intense pressure and a nasty combination of chemicals known as fracking fluid. You need 80,000 pounds of chemicals for each gas well and 70 percent of this fracking fluid remains in the ground where it doesn’t biodegrade.
The rapid spread of fracking technology has created a new wild west of unregulated natural gas extraction all the way from Arizona to Pennsylvania. Aerial shots show a pockmarked lunar landscape of wells, storage tanks and ponds of fracking fluid sludge between farms, houses and rivers. Fox visits farmers whose animals are losing their hair; people suffering from extreme neuropathy; houses surrounded by condensate tanks constantly venting toxic gases; and a whole lot of people who can set their own drinking water on fire.
Each well requires two to three hundred truckloads of water, which poses the problem of what to do with the toxic afterbirth from these monstrosities. As the contaminated groundwater proves, the easy thing is just to leave it in the ground, but other methods include evaporating it directly into the air or leaving it to vent in storage tanks. Towns in Texas and Arizona are constantly engulfed in a fog of known neurotoxins and carcinogens.
Once again, behind much of the deregulation and lack of environmental oversight lurks the shadowy figure of Dick Cheney. It was the energy taskforce led by Cheney who convinced the Bureau of Land Management to open public lands to oil and gas companies prompting what some call the largest transfer of public lands to private hands in US history. The collusion between powerful state and business interests is clear, but the documentary fails to challenge this power. Instead, Fox finally mumbles around his woodland home reflecting on the beauty of rivers and how we’re all connected. He fails to confront any oil company executives or politicians responsible for this mess and the film culminates in some poorly attended congressional hearings and municipal meetings–hardly an example of citizen response to power. Unlike Sinclair’s Jurgis, Fox has to first confront the jungle in order to escape it.