04 July 2012

What the Frack is going on?

Isn't it always the way, you travel hundreds of miles by rail and sail (technically four General Electric 33,600 shaft horsepower gas turbine engines, actual sails were not in evidence) to see a favourite author launch his book across the sea in an entire other country, and then he shows up on your doorstep a week later to deliver not one, but two talks on a subject close to your heart.

Greg Palast was indeed in Dublin yesterday, being hosted by No Fracking Ireland and speaking both on the general investigations related in his latest book, Vultures Picnic, and on the subject of fracking itself, something which he knows a thing or two about, and although I didn't make it along to his afternoon talk in Connolly Books (where apparently the Communists laid on a lovely spread indeed), I did make it along to his evening talk at The Ireland Institute and somehow managed to sneak in a pint or two with him afterwards ("Pint" in the metaphorical sense, though to my delight the pub we were in actually had Bavaria non-alcoholic, which to someone who hasn't had a drink in over sixteen months actually tastes quite good. Then again I'm sure Laura Bush looks aesthetically pleasing to a eunuch, so by that reasoning I'm probably not the best judge of beer).

Palast's talk was great and a more solid presentation than when I saw him last week. At the London event he was relating a number of stores from his book which, while interesting, if you hadn't already read the book it might not have been immediately been clear how they all related to each other (which kind of defeats the purpose of a book launch). Many of the same incidents were related last night, however he wove them in and out of his thoughts and concerns over fracking in Ireland based on two days of driving around the narrow back lanes of North Leitrim and Roscommon, ground zero of the proposed fracking area, and together they provided a strong and damning narrative of the oil and gas industry, both global and local.

For those of you who think we're talking about Starbuck and Apollo and their 'Will they/Won't they' relationship (in the new Galactica, though possibly also in the old one as well), "Fracking" is a process of Hydraulic Fracturing, where a well is drilled down vertically, and then horizontally to get at previously inaccessible natural gas deposits, then the deposits are loosened by setting off underground explosions and a cocktail of water and secret (but toxic) chemicals is pumped down under extremely high pressure into the deposit to force all the gas out. In the process the ground water gets contaminated, majorly contaminated, leading to serious illness in any who drink it and the bizarre side effect of combustible water coming out of domestic water taps.

Fracking is something that I had never heard of before #OccupyDameStreet, but thanks to the participation of a good few folks from the affected areas who had taken the time to educate themselves about the issue, it soon became something that we all realised needed to be brought to a much wider audience. Although I would have considered myself quite familiar with the subject, last night's talk was like a lightbulb going off in my head, and I have a feeling it was for most of the audience as well.

Anytime that I have thought about the harmful consequences of fracking, I have been considering only the effects of the well itself, and possible contamination to the immediate groundwater. Palast, however, had much larger concerns. In the US fracking normally only occurs in very sparsely populated areas, mainly because the infrastructure involved to both construct the wells and to transport the gas out to market is immense. Purpose-built trucks the size of small buildings are used to bring the wells and drilling material to their location, and after the car Palast was driving in lost its side mirrors to a typical country driver on a typical Irish country road, he realised that there are almost no roads in the proposed fracking zones big enough to accommodate the construction transports. Even if the wells are built, he estimated that a minimum of 3,000 miles of piping would be required to get the gas from the wells to market, 3,000 miles of pipes that need to be buried underground in a straight line, and in the US would need to be at least half a mile away from any structure, a policy that can work in sparsely populated North Dakota but it rural Ireland you would be very hard pressed to find any place that is less than half a mile from a house, pub, school or church, let alone 3,000 miles worth of suitably sparse land.

The combined costs of creating the wells, then extracting the gas and getting it to market, coming at a time when the cost of gas has fallen substantially since the fracking technology first became financially viable all combined to leave Palast with a question - why? Why do it now, and why do it in Ireland? To him it makes no economic sense, and if there is no money to be made from the end product (or less money to be made than by doing it somewhere else), where is the money really being made, and by whom?

To this he has no answer, yet. It has, however, set his journy-sense a-tingling and he said that this was something he would come back to, to do some proper investigative work and to, in the best gumshoe tradition, follow the money. He even wrote a post about it all, which you can find here.

If you are interested in seeing his full talk from last night, Paula Geraghty filmed the whole talk for TradeUnionTV, and you can see it below:

If you haven't got fifty-one minutes or so Donal Higgins sat down with him earlier in the day and interviewed him for DCTV, which you can see below:

In an age where newspapers are regurgitated press releases and government mouthpieces, where television news is little more than shouting matches and the internet is happy to make money on the back of the work of others but sees no merit in paying for original research itself, the future of journalism is not a Sorkin-ised Instagram vision of a newsroom filled with Great Men (and helpless women) fighting the good fight the way only hindsight can. Palast's approach, however, offers one possible alternative, crowd-sourced and free from corporate influence. He is certainly no Great Man, and in Vultures' Picnic is at pains to place his many flaws on show. He's just this guy, with a good bit of knowledge, a brass neck, the willingness to roll up his sleeves and do a lot of tedious work, and he has a good team behind him.

All of this takes money, money which comes through donations from the public and sales of his books and films. If he plays up the Chandleresque-gumshoe shtick and has a flare for the dramatic, and it encourages even one more person to donate an extra $10 that means the difference between breaking a story or everyone going home empty-handed, then buy that man a fedora and send him up the Amazon in a dug-out canoe because it's worth every penny.

The talk was hosted by No Fracking Ireland, and you can find out more about their campaign here, on their slightly outdated website here, and on their much more active Twitter feed here

No Fracking Ireland was started by a group of folks in the affected areas who saw the film Gasland, and decided to take a stand. You can find out more about the film here.

Thee place for all things Palast is at his website here, and you can follow him on Twitter here. Vultures' Picnic can be bought online here, though you will sleep better at night if you go along to his website and give him a more substantial donation to cover the costs of future investigations.

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