I went and saw Frackman: The Movie a couple of nights ago and my consciousness was well and truly ‘fracked’. It had everything you would want in a film – drama, suspense, humour, tears and even a love story. However, it was missing one thing: concrete evidence. This isn’t to detract from this stellar film though, as The Guardian noted “… given the subsequent increased awareness about the effect fracking [the process of fracturing the earth via drilling to access trapped gas deposits] has on the environment, Todd [the director] felt the film didn’t need to go deep into science and opted instead to concentrate it around his dyed-in-the-wool subject.”
This emotive approach may leave the viewer in a state of flux, as if the film hadn’t quite dealt the irrefutable killer blow. Just to bring you up to speed, this is an Aussie indie-film about a self confessed ‘accidental activist’ who seeks to take on the coal seam gas industry after they elbow their way into his neighourhood in south-west Queensland. The protagonist and the director have been travelling around the nation after the films’ release, speaking at screenings and trying to get the word out about the perceived dangers linked to coal seam gas (CSG). You could argue that it’s a media-driven evolution of the public debate taking part in Australia on the issue of fracking, after the American indie-films Gasland I & II explored similar themes, with the Ethics of Fracking and the pro-CSG FrackNation also hitting screens recently. What we’re seeing at the moment is a struggle for the moral and ‘official’ narrative in the debate over fracking, with silhouettes of burning faucets and slick editing skills dominating the debate seemingly at the expense of science. The reason that all these films are dominating this debate is twofold:
1. The issue is highly emotive. Children with bleeding noses. Taps and bubbling rivers catching fire. Clashes with the authorities, large multinational corporations and politicians. It all makes for bloody good viewing. The ‘immersive experience’ spectacles of the screen dominate the debate, increasingly leaving evidence and fact to feature a distant second.
2. There is a knowledge vacuum on the debate, with the unknown dominating the discourse. For example, a major theme running throughout the Frackman film is that of a man trying to discover what chemicals these extraction companies are really using – because amazingly nobody really knows. Gasland and Frackman would like to dress up this lack of information as some kind of corporate conspiracy, but the answer is actually much more simple than that. As fellow blogger and chemical engineer Erik Hare notes, the reason these corporations won’t tell us exactly what going on is…
… not because they [the gas companies] are evil and uncaring, it’s because they think they have a technological edge over the competition.
They don’t want the public to know what they’re injecting into the earth to help them extract gas, because it might make them un-competitive. The main bogeyman in the Frackman film is Halliburton, and what better character to play the villain! To jog your memories, the corporation pioneering the fracking phenomenon in Australia is the same corporation that played a big part in the Deepwater Horizon explosion, plus was a major beneficiary of the illegal invasion of Iraq, with strong ties to the Bush administration.
So where does this new trend of fracking frenzied films leave us? On a contextual level I think Frackman is really saying this: raw capitalism in the example of fracking seems to be trumping the protection of the environment and the health of its citizens. This is how it works – to remain dynamic and ahead of the pack these fracking corporations need to protect their product with everything they’ve got, even at the expense of everything else. It’s a major contradiction of modern capitalism referred to as ‘Schumpeter’s gale’, a theory that postulates that the creative-destructive forces unleashed by capitalism will eventually lead to its demise as a system… but sadly not before taking everything else down with it. The protagonist hints at this by boldly stating that if CSG is left unchecked it will ultimately ‘destroy’ Australia. But not before the industry makes a hefty profit first…
In the film, the hero of the documentary asserts that fracking is “the biggest fraud perpetrated on the Australian people since the asbestos disaster”. I’d written briefly in a previous post about the asbestos issue too – corporations know that you don’t need to necessarily win a debate, but a great stalling tactic is to muddy the waters as good as possible to stall the tide of public opinion against you. Once the game is up you silently slink away, count your profits in private and giggle menacingly to yourself whilst reminiscing about how you managed to trick so many people for so long. The misinformation previously perpetuated on tobacco smoking and asbestos, and currently the science of climate change are examples of this. It’s a stalling tactic, and it works wonders. In economic talk, the process of raking in profits and passing on the negative effects of your business decisions is referred to as an ‘externality’ – internalise the profits, and extenalise the costs (whether it be environmental, health etc) to someone else – usually the taxpayer. The CSG industry seems to operate within the legal realm that the U.S pharmaceutical industry operates within – you have to prove that their products (or in the case of CSG, their actions) are harmful for their product to be pulled off the shelves. Furthermore, the zeal with which these fracking corporations protect their ‘trade secrets’ and patented technology is understandable, but morally wrong in regards to the context. Apple wanting to protect the unique attributes of their iPhone is somewhat reasonable, as is the famously strictly-guarded secrets of consumer products such as the recipe for Coca-Cola, or the Colonels eleven herbs-and-spices. But for the law of the land to apply the mantra of trade-secrecy evenly to the flavouring of a chicken drumstick, a phone, a fizzy beverage and also highly-toxic, cancer-causing chemicals that will be injected into the earths’ surface and atmosphere seems absurd. It is within this vacuum that misinformation, innuendo and slander that both sides struggle for the high-ground.
So by protecting their patent these corporations win on two fronts – films like Frackman can’t land the killer-blow, and their competitors can’t get their technological know-how. For example, a predominant focus of Frackman is frackings’ effect on the next generation – the children growing up around these gas wells. But, put simply, the impacts will be cumulative and incremental, leaving us laymen in the position where we simply won’t appreciate the true dangers of fracking for many years to come. Within this void, companies like Halliburton can throw their weight around and enter the debate – as if it were all simply a matter of perception and semantics. For example, when you search for the film Frackman on Google, you don’t get the official website for the film listed first – instead you get a advertised link to a site titled ‘Frackman: More Fiction than Fact‘, where they make “no secret of the fact” that they’re funded by the gas industry. Furthermore, many of the ‘independent bodies’ overseeing the industry and educating the next generation of petroleum and mining engineers at prestigious universities like the University of Queensland and UNSW (University of New South Wales) are funded by the exact same corporations that are currently involved in CSG projects in Australia. UNSW is heavily invested in fossil-fuel dependent industries and has refused repeated requests by environmentalists and NGO’s to divest. It’s a prime example of the fox guarding the chicken coop. I met an individual recently who is currently studying to be a petroleum geologist at UNSW, and although he admits that the industry made mistakes in the past, he genuinely believes that those issues are behind them and it’s nothing but rosy times ahead. He told me he’s a distinction average student and I personally have no doubt he will possibly be someone that society looks to as an authoritative figure on the CSG debate once he finishes his degree – but is his opinion, and other students like him, already tainted by the corporatisation of their very own university?
So here we are, us everyday people in the middle. We’re too far away from the gas fields to personally understand the effects. We’re bombarded with messages of gas shortages in the not-too-distant future, plus a slew of adverts advocating the virtues of the industry. We’re too limited in our knowledge of a complex science and a complex industry to understand it’s full impacts. We’re too little in power and numbers to demand the truth from our government, the corporations and the conflicted media. And we’re too much in the now to have the benefits of hindsight. In our hectic 24/7 lifestyle we need and we want a film that can make us laugh, cry and call us to action in under 90 minutes – all while we’re eating our popcorn and drinking our slurpees at the local cinema. Sadly, the world is a complex place and the truth around CSG seems even more complex. No fracking way is a documentary on a shoe-string budget going to answer all our questions – but I’m hooked now, and I want to know the truth. Hopefully we can truly get serious about finding it.