Hollywood Goes Hydraulic

Promised Land Opens to Mixed Reviews

Matt Damon’s latest film Promised Land was released at the end of 2012 to lukewarm critical reviews. Damon stars as a ‘landsman’ for a hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) company intent on buying access to shale gas beneath the properties of struggling Pennsylvania farmers. Ultimately, Damon gets conflicted by his job and the ethics of his employer and blows the whistle.

Despite slow takings at the box office, the movie does seem to have shaken the US shale gas industry just a little. Nothing seismic of course, but according to the UK Guardian newspaper “industry groups have considered emailing pro-fracking studies to critics, handing out leaflets to movie-goers or setting up “truth squads” on Twitter.” No doubt the movie’s producers will relish the controversy, although they may struggle to improve ticket sales in Texas – the home of fracking – amid allegations that the movie was financed by Middle Eastern interests committed to destroying US energy security.

The Shale Gas Debate in Britain

Given the International Energy Agency’s admission in 2010 that conventional oil production peaked in 2006, and taking into account mounting legal barriers to coal production, many would argue it is understandable that governments facing shortfalls in energy supply might be increasingly keen on new sources of natural gas. It has lower carbon intensity per unit of energy produced compared with coal and oil, and may even claim a climate change advantage. Fracking might be seen as an answer to the prayers of many Western governments – especially in those countries with gas related dependencies on the Middle East and Russia like the UK.

Hence it was no great surprise when late last year the British government embraced the potential of shale gas. This included both the removal of the moratorium on fracking and a commitment to providing future tax breaks for shale gas exploration. Companies like Cuadrilla, IGas and Centrica together with oil giants bp, Exxon and Shell all began to get excited. Cuadrilla’s Chairman and part owner is of course former bp ‘beyond petroleum’ CEO Sir John Browne.

One of the most seductive arguments of fracking advocates is the impact it has had on US gas prices in recent years. Indeed it is US style price reductions as much as long term energy security considerations that seem to have clinched the case for fracking – at least in the minds of some politicians. In an article in the Daily Telegraph last December London’s populist Mayor Boris Johnson chided sceptical Greens and eco-warriors who “In their mad denunciations of fracking……betray the mindset of people who cannot bear a piece of unadulterated good news.”

However the IEA, the Confederation of British Industry and even the UK government recognise that it is far from inevitable the US price scenario will be replicated in the UK. A study by energy consultants Pöyry indicated that in a best case scenario UK gas prices would be only 2-4% lower even if UK shale production were to reach 20% of Britain’s energy supply by 2030. Meanwhile, the UK Committee on Climate Change recently concluded that “the average annual household bill in a gas-based system could be as much as £600 higher in 2050 than in a low-carbon system if gas and carbon prices turn out to be high”.

When it comes to scaling up fracking, it is entirely unclear that it would fare any better than  wind energy development which has been severely restricted in the UK by parochial ‘not in my back yard’ objections. When one adds fears of water pollution and earth tremors to the planning nightmare of sprinkling several thousand fracking rigs across densely populated Middle England, shale gas exploitation starts to lose some of its allure. Indeed, commenting on a range of economic, environmental, planning and supply chain constraints, Sam Laidlaw, CEO of UK gas giant Centrica told an audience at Davos this year that fracking would not be “the game changer we’ve seen in North America” (quoted in The Telegraph)

Implications for North America

One long term potential risk associated with over-playing the fracking card – and something it has in common with the nuclear ‘fix’ favoured by some energy strategists – is that investment in more sustainable and climate friendly energy sources might begin to appear less urgent or even unnecessary. In the US, many have commented on a silencing of calls for clean energy investment since fracking took off. In an article criticising green energy initiatives in the US and the UK, the Wall Street Journal commented that “Historians will one day marvel that so much political and financial capital was invested in a green-energy revolution at the very moment a fossil fuel revolution was aborning [sic]”.

In Canada, the fracking debate is just beginning to heat up with pragmatists lining up against idealists, and regulators, developers and first nations deeply involved.  Meanwhile widely respected commentators like David Suzuki are developing and trenchant critiques of the technology.

As with all questions of energy supply in the 21st Century, the issues are complex. It seems that shale gas will indeed be exploited in the UK, if not in France and many other jurisdictions, but certainly not on the scale of the US. However it is unlikely to prove the perfect solution to cheap energy security for the UK or anywhere else in the West that some advocates have claimed.  It remains to be seen what the future holds for hydraulic fracturing in Canada.

David Wheeler

President and Vice Chancellor, Cape Breton University

A version of this article will appear in Croner’s Environment Magazine

The UK version was originally posted as Fracking goes to Hollywood  19 February 2013

Cape Breton University’s Verschuren Centre for Sustainability in Energy and the Environment was established to explore the technological, environmental, economic and social dimensions of energy supply, distribution and use, including the kinds of issues described in this blog.  Contact andrew_swanson@cbu.ca.