We're Gonna Be Building Something
Haynesville: A Nation’s Hunt for Energy
Mike Smith, Kassi Fitzgerald, Pastor Reegis Richard
(Three Penny Productions)
Stranger Than Fiction: 1 Jun 2010
UK theatrical: 5 Nov 2009 (Sheffield Film Festival)
“This was the energy development in America that no one foresaw,” says Robert Bryce, author of Gusher of Lies. He’s talking about the 2008 discovery of the Haynesville Shale, the largest natural gas field in the United States. Located in northwest Louisiana, the field inspired a scramble to exploit it, oil companies looking to lease or possess the rights to drill some 12,000 feet below the earth’s surface, “injecting” billions of dollars into the state’s economy, even, according to some estimates, sparing it from “the worst effects of the national slowdown.”
But even as the shale play brought benefits, it raised questions. Chief among these, according to Bryce, is a persistent, widespread dependence on fossil fuels. Even if natural gas has been called a “bridge” between dirty fuels (coal and oil) and renewable but intermittent resources (wind and solar), it still involves drilling at tremendous depths and so, the potential for errors, namely, toxic effects on surrounding land and water. Indeed, as Bryce speaks, it’s hard not to hear warnings that now pertain to the BP oil spill.
This and other questions are explored in Haynesville: A Nation’s Hunt for Energy, premiering at Stranger Than Fiction on the first of June. Gregory Kallenberg’s remarkable documentary follows three individuals affected by the Haynesworth Shale find. Tracing a complex set of circumstances, as well as legal, ethical, emotional, and environmental issues—the film begins with the story of Mike Smith, whose family wants to sell their homestead, some 300 acres. Smith is reluctant, telling his interviewers that he’s inclined to follow his grandmother’s advice never to sell land: “You can always make a living off land,” she told him.
Still, Smith’s choice seems foregone at the film’s start, when he learns that he’s receive a one-time check for $1.27 million, plus 25% of proceeds from wells drilled on his property, even as he extols the beauty of his own bit of “God’s country.” Because Smith owns his land outright, he faces none of the quandaries facing Kassi Fitzgerald, introduced in eth film as a “community activist and self-taught environmentalist.” As she describes her decision-making process regarding her tiny parcel (some 3.5 acres), the camera cuts to her lawn, where a set of fake chickens seem to scratch at the dirt. The shot is typical of the film’s attention to illustrative and evocative detail: when Smith describes the “great mood” his land puts him in, the camera shows blue skies and vast open spaces; Fitzgerald’s options vis-a-vis Chesapeake, the company looking to buy her land, are here visibly limited.
Repeatedly, she appears in tight domestic spaces (chopping vegetables with fury, building a table), as she sorts through Chesapeake’s offers, via a “landsman” who chooses to remain anonymously blurred during “negotiations. After she hears that a neighbor (“who is Hispanic,” she says) has made a very bad deal with the company, she does research and organizes other small landowners in the area, so that she is son representing a group owning some 800 acres, all their positions strengthened by their alliance.
That’s not to say that Fitzgerald and her neighbors have quite the control they assume they have over their land. While economics professor David Hoaas suggests the Haynesville Shale produces “a Jed Clampett story, if you will,” in fact the legal and financial maneuverings of today’s Mr. Drysdales are more intricate and more plainly weighted in their favor than back in the day.
But as hard as Fitzgerald works to secure both the coalition’s financial and environmental well being, her focus and results are very different from those of Pastor Reegis Richard. He and his flock see their good fortune as an act of divine intervention. “The one thing that God requires for us to do is to put a plan together,” Richard explains. “He supplies the revenue.” The logic is difficult to refute, given how well Richard’s church is doing, moved recently from a shabby storefront to a rather impressive new facility for his Temple of Knowledge Church.
While Richard insists he’s doing good work with the windfall—directed by God, speaking to him in man voices—the film includes a series of cautionary interviews with energy experts. If the individual landowners seek ways to profit from the shale play, and then to put that profit to various uses, the broader context—namely, the dire costs of “a nation’s hunt for energy”—is never lost.
If “people are talking about” fossil fuels and alternatives because of gas prices or “climate change,” as energy expert Andy Bowman puts it, they are rarely thinking through the complexities of any given approach. So, when Tad Patzek, chairman of the Department of Petroleum & Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, recalls the December 2008 Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill—“the largest industrial disaster in our country perhaps in a century”—he’s speaking specifically to the dangers of coal mining, but the caution extends to any new efforts to exploit natural resources, as these are shaped by lack of oversight, corruption, and cheap shortcuts. The lessons are never quite as learned as they might seem.