Get your fracking facts right
Frack is not a pleasant word. Nor a popular one. It has obvious negative connotations. Even the spelling is contested. The industry that invented and uses the term prefers the spelling ''fracc''. Either way, you wouldn't want to be fracked, or fracced.
This could change. Money always changes things. Hydraulic fracturing - fracking (Herald style), or fraccing (used by the natural gas industry) - represents a potential goldmine for Australia. It is the key to developing energy resources potentially much bigger than the natural gas deposits off Western Australia that have been part of the resources export boom that protected Australia from the global recession and is beginning to change the entire economy.
The natural gas fields off the coast of Western Australia have enough energy to sustain all of Australia's baseload needs for hundreds of years, and slash greenhouse emissions in the process, yet these reserves are exceeded by what lies below much of NSW and Queensland, trapped inside enormous reserves of coal, according to the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association. All up, with natural gas we are sitting on another Saudi Arabia.
But we are also being told that much of this is destructive energy, that the process of hydraulic fracturing, which is how coal seam gas is extracted from coal beds, can only be achieved by an unsustainable level of water depletion, and an unacceptable risk to ground water tables.
That is why the short word used for hydraulic fracturing is essentially becoming synonymous with environmental vandalism. Now exploratory drilling for coal seam gas is about to begin within Sydney itself, in St Peters, because Sydney is sitting on the sort of coal beds that can yield commercial coal seam gas.
You would certainly believe this was bad if you had seen the new film Gasland, a horror movie in documentary form. You would also hate fracking if you believed the Greens. Having killed off the Rudd government's proposed emissions trading scheme, the Greens are now busy clogging the development of the technology which represents transformative change in reducing greenhouse emissions - natural gas, nuclear power, and now coal seam gas, the energy source extracted by fracking.
The chief executive of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, Belinda Robinson, says: ''The Greens have described climate change as 'the greatest threat to our world in human history', yet their political response is to oppose, at every turn, the development of Australia's gas industry.'' In contrast to this view, every possible argument to the development of coal seam gas in Australia can be found in Gasland, an American documentary now showing in some Australian theatres and on Qantas long-haul flights.
I enjoyed Gasland. How can one not be moved by claims that a relatively new technology, hydraulic fracturing, poses an innate threat to ground water supplies wherever it is used? The film features some wild images, such as when Mike Markham turns on the kitchen tap in his home in Colorado, puts a lit lighter to the flowing water, and the water bursts into flame. This, we are told, is what fracking does to your water supply. It makes you sick. It makes your home dangerous.
Gasland also features stark images of entire communities that have become sick after their water supply was contaminated by natural gas. It features despoiled landscapes. It also features a brace of scientists.
The scientists are important because the maker of Gasland, Josh Fox, is not a scientist. He is a good filmmaker, but he is also a polemicist, intent on revealing what he believes is a vast conspiracy of silence.
He also may have trouble with the truth. Large factual holes can be found in Gasland. Yes, Markham's kitchen water caught on fire, but the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had already conducted a study of his property before Gasland was made and concluded that his water was contaminated by natural gas - it's impossible to miss - but the gas was naturally occurring, not the result of nearby coal seam gas mining. The film simply ignores this, as it does with several other similar findings in properties used as other examples.
This is the inconvenient truth that Gasland skirts. If you live above coal seam beds, your wells have a chance of natural contamination. It doesn't require coal seam gas mining for this to happen, but Gasland blames mining every time. It prefers the dramatic to the accurate, such as this claim: ''[The process] blasts a mix of water and chemicals 8000 feet (2438 metres) into the ground. The fracking itself is like a mini-earthquake . . . in order to frack, you need fracking fluid, a mix of over 596 chemicals.''
But nearly all the fluids used are a mixture of water and sand, along with a handful of chemicals - not 596 - most of which can also be found in household items, such as emulsifiers in ice cream. Numerous other bald claims made in Gasland are simply untrue. I downloaded eight pages of scientific material debunking the film.
No energy extraction process is without problems. But the idea that fracking is run by secretive cowboys, largely beyond the bounds of environmental oversight, is wrong on every count. Gasland, in other words, is like the Greens: it spouts far more hot air than strictly necessary.