Gasland: Frac Drilling Comes Under Fire

HBO is running a new documentary on fracking (shorthand for hydraulic fracturing), a key technology in the current US natural gas boom. Readers can find more information on fracking here but in brief, it is the process of injecting fluids into wells to break up earth and allow better well flow. Since Chesapeake Energy (CHK) is one of my largest positions, I watched Gasland with great interest.

With my past in left-leaning politics, I am probably far more sympathetic to documentaries such as this or the recent World According To Monsanto than the typical CHK or MON shareholder. And while this document raises serious ¬†concerns about fracking, the film’s style, execution and naivety undermine the effectiveness and to some extent, validity of the message.

The documentary’s biggest shortcoming is weak investigative rigor. While footage of flammable tapwater may inspire gasps from Sundance audiences en route to the next wine-tasting afterparty, Gasland never asks the right questions. If fracking is a problem, wouldn’t it make sense to go to the heart of the matter and investigate the biggest shales and drillers in the country? Yet Chesapeake, Devon, Plains Exploration, XTO and other prominent shale drillers were hardly ever mentioned. If these new drilling methods are such a menace, why does the film spend only a few minutes on Fort Worth, TX, where massive amounts of shale drilling is taking place? Surely, we could find out much about the fall-out from this drilling in such a major urban center. Strangely, the largest complaint was the pollution emitted by hundreds of drilling rigs, which might be expected with so many diesel-burning rigs operating in the area.

Instead, the film focuses on sparsely populated rural areas for the spectacular footage at the expense of real insight. In the process, two companies are mentioned as real offenders, Cabot Oil & Gas (COG) and Encana (ECA). But the film’s lack of curiosity allows the skeptical viewer to make a case that fracking is only dangerous if performed in a negligent manner, like any procedure done improperly. After all, no mention was made of any problems with Chesapeake-drilled or Devon-drilled wells so if two of the largest shale drillers don’t seem to have any problems fracking, maybe drillers, not fracking, is the problem?

Finally, the filmmaker’s egocentric approach will probably make the film unwatchable for many. His relentless mugging for the camera (Watch me make funny faces as water lights on fire! ¬†Watch me play my banjo in this gas field! Watch my childhood home movies!) makes Michael Moore look like Ken Burns. His cooing, sultry narration is more appropriate for seduction than a serious documentary. The filmmaker’s flippant comments about building solar panels to replace our carbon economy reveal a horrible ignorance about the economic and physical realities his film is supposedly commenting on.

Ultimately, it took multiple sittings to finish a two-hour documentary that should only have filled one hour and I doubt most viewers will have the financial motivation of a significant natural gas investment to push through to the end of this film.

Still, these are serious questions asked of fracking and excepting free-market blowhards, most reasonable folk would probably accept further investigation and possible regulation of this technology. With Dick Cheney no longer pulling the strings in the White House, this is a real possibility. Stay tuned.

One Response to “Gasland: Frac Drilling Comes Under Fire”

  1. Zehua Zhou Says:

    Dear David,
    I am a friend of Jae Jun. Recently I found that many natural gas companies are pretty cheap given the depressed natural gas price. Therefore I am very interested in learning this cyclical industry. Jae said you are an expert in this area, and recommended your website to me. Would you please share a few tips on where to get started with this industry? For example, what are the most important factors to look at for a gas company, or a driller? How long is the usual cycle? What are the major factors that could affect gas prices?
    I really appreciate your help!

    Yours sincerely,
    Zehua

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