JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — U.S. filmmaker Jeff Barbee was working on a story in South Africa’s Karoo desert when a map crossed his desk. What he saw shocked him - oil and gas concessions across the arid, sparsely populated nation of Botswana. He travelled to the country and found evidence that the government had allowed fracking in sensitive areas - and not told anyone about it. This week, he unveiled his movie in Johannesburg - and details of the fracking, which involves major multinational corporations.
The new film, The High Cost of Cheap Gas, paints a bleak portrait of a technology that has been hailed as a bridge to a future of clean energy.
For American filmmaker Jeff Barbee, that picture is personal. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has in the last few decades spread like wildfire across his home state of Colorado. In the hour-long documentary, Barbee shuttles between the U.S. and his adopted home in southern Africa to draw parallels and to show Africans in resource-rich nations what their future may look like.
It is not a pretty picture. In the film, ranchers in Colorado say they had to leave the business because fracking ruined their water supply. Residents report illness that they believe is created by fracking. Medical experts cite serious dangers from the chemical by-products released.
This, Barbee says, could be Africa’s future too.
The documentary exposes a little-known fact: that the government of Botswana has for years been quietly granting oil and gas concessions in remote areas.
Barbee spoke to officials from Sasol, a South Africa-based energy giant, who talk about their projects in the region. The film uses hidden cameras to show what appear to be fracking activities in national parks in Botswana.
Botswana’s government initially denied allowing fracking. But last week, in response to the documentary, it issued a statement acknowledging that some sub-surface fracturing had been allowed.
Despite a heavily negative portrayal, Barbee says the film is not anti-fracking, but rather an attempt to educate residents on the pros and cons.
“One of the things we hope to achieve with this film is that it would really create an international dialogue about this unsustainable industry and whether or not it is a suitable transition fuel that will take us into a greener energy future, or one that is just the last dying throes of an industry desperate to stay alive,” says Barbee.
Fracking is a technique that uses high-pressure water and chemicals to break underground rocks to release oil or gas. Critics of fracking say it is noisy, that it creates air pollution and can contaminate water. Supporters say it is safe and creates jobs while also addressing energy needs.
Fracking’s broader implications
Mozambique-based conservationist Allan Schwarz attended Tuesday’s special screening in Johannesburg. Schwarz says the film has implications beyond just one country.
“This movie is about opening that dialogue, getting people who care, and also people who have the scientific understanding and skill, doing the research independently to talk to each other and to make sure that we understand the consequences of basically breaking up the substructure of our landscape to extract hydrocarbons,” says Schwarz.
The consequences in his adopted home country of Mozambique, Schwartz says, are not positive.
“The fracking at this stage is exploratory, and it’s happening on the borders of South Africa and Zimbabwe, And the consequences there at this stage [are] that it’s providing money to a kleptocratic government. It does not provide any work at all for anybody on the ground who is local, but it is a massive amount of money that is coming in,” says Schwarz.
A diplomat from Botswana’s embassy also attended Tuesday’s screening and was clearly critical of the film’s claims but he declined to be interviewed.
Barbee acknowledged that there may be a balance between cost and benefit - but that that conversation needs to start with solid facts. He noted that many pro-fracking studies have been financed by the oil and gas industry, and that his film only used independent research.
“This is a baseline where we can all have a communal conversation focused on the facts. Yes, there will be jobs, but those jobs may be more temporary than the industry and government may be willing to admit. Yes, there are environmental impacts, but maybe they’re not as bad as some environmentalists say. Yes, in fact this industry can go forward safely in some areas here, but maybe not in the protected national parks which have been set aside for decades for the future of humanity,” said Barbee.
The film will debut publicly next week in Johannesburg.