Melanie Sturm: Think Again

The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

Last week, political, media and celebrity worlds converged to produce headlines worthy of “News of the Weird.” Sean Penn eulogized anti-American strongman Hugo Chavez as “a friend (America) never knew it had,” while Dennis Rodman declared North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “an awesome guy.” Upon returning from the starving gulag-state, Rodman scored a Sunday interview with George Stephanopoulos, and CNN declared him a “diplomatic triumph.”

But perhaps the most captivating cause celebre – likely to transform advocates into media and campus darlings – is the crusade to halt the drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). However, if you expect those aspiring to star in the next “China Syndrome” to possess more scruples than Rodman or Penn, Think Again. Though fracking has opened up vast reserves of clean, cheap and reliable natural gas in shale deep underground, making America the world’s largest natural-gas producer, it’s a bete noire to enviro-stars such as Matt Damon.

In his new movie “Promised Land,” Damon doubled down on alarming claims made in Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Gasland,” even copying the signature scene of a man lighting tap water on fire. Wanting another environmental blockbuster like “The China Syndrome” – whose release days before Three Mile Island’s near-meltdown devastated the nuclear-power industry – Damon aimed to stoke natural-gas fears. However, not only has mass hysteria not materialized, his film is a box-office and financial bust for investors, including oil-rich United Arab Emirates.

Damon’s conceit derives from the frenzy generated by “Gasland’s” Fox, who claims that fracking causes “toxic streams, ruined aquifers, dying livestock, shocking illnesses and tap water that bursts into flames.” Media jumped on the anti-natural-gas bandwagon, including The New York Times, prompting its ombudsman to twice rebuke Times editors and staff for biased reporting and questionable ethics.

Meanwhile, aware that “natural” gas occurs naturally in water where there’s methane-rich soil (as in Burning Springs, N.Y.) and of stories about George Washington lighting water on fire, former Financial Times reporter Phelim McAleer started an 18-month investigation to uncover the truth about fracking and “Gasland’s” startling allegations.

His just-released documentary, “Fracknation,” was financed with donations averaging $64 and has won plaudits for exposing enviro-hucksters while championing their victims. Variety called it “a well-reasoned film … (that) makes a good case against Fox’s movie,” and The New York Times said it’s “no tossed-off, pro-business pamphlet” but “methodically researched and assembled.”

Its pivotal scene is of McAleer questioning Fox at a 2011 screening of “Gasland” about his famous flaming faucets.

“Isn’t it true,” McAleer asks, “there’s reports, decades before fracking started, that there was methane in the water there?”

Aware of these scientific studies, and galled by the question’s ethical implications, Fox declares contradictory evidence “not relevant,” as if documentarians enjoy the same dramatic license as makers of fictional films.

But if facts and scientific proof aren’t relevant, what is? Are Fox and Damon intent on reverse-engineering arguments from pre-ordained conclusions or informing the public? Fracking involves legitimate risks; why not focus on assuring regulatory best practices?

The truth is that technological innovations such as fracking have spawned an energy boom, enabling both economic and environmental improvements, including the substitution of low-carbon gas for coal; cheaper energy (a rebate for the poor); cleaner air; new energy jobs; increased governmental revenues; greater energy independence; a drop in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to a 20-year low, outpacing Europe, whose expensive renewable-energy strategies have underperformed; and improved energy efficiency – it takes 50 percent less energy to produce one dollar of economic output than it did in 1980.

Anti-frackers should learn this Keynesian lesson: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions.” What’s irrefutably relevant is that fracking has succeeded where renewable-energy subsidies, government stimulus and climate treaties have failed, potentially enabling cheap American energy to eventually offset China’s cheap labor advantage.

These upside surprises come when entrepreneurial thinkers like Robert Kennedy “dream things that never were and say ‘why not?'” One dreamer, biologist Allan Savory, spoke at the TED2013 conference of his odyssey to reverse global desertification, which degrades the land’s ability to absorb water and carbon, causing famine, war and climate change. Savory described how he challenged his assumptions – ones that led him to mistakenly recommend killing 40,000 African elephants – and centuries of conventional wisdom, deriving a counterintuitive low-tech strategy to use grazing livestock to reclaim the land. At first he met bruising academic scorn and then astonishing and indisputable success.

Savory predicts his soil-restoration strategy, if employed on half the available land, will enable enough carbon absorption to return to preindustrial carbon dioxide levels. Drawing a standing ovation, he said, “I can think of almost nothing that offers more hope for our planet, for our children, for their children and for all of humanity.”

Think Again. Aren’t the real celebrities innovators who solve seemingly intractable problems, not eco-stars who peddle fiction?

Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. Her column runs every other Thursday. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. Melanie welcomes comments at