houston ship channel

Where and How Did Our Oil and Gasland Begin–Do We Really Want It to End?

If you’ve ever had any doubt that movies influence, look no further than to consider the effects of this month’s movie, Gasland (Fox, 2010). It is difficult to imagine how a propaganda film that presents such a complex technical topic to a public audience could garner much interest, let alone stir so many in our nation toward irrational fears. However, as we have noted in our past commentaries, fearmongering is a great way to attract attention and to create public unrest.

Height of the Empire State Building, demonstrating the depth of hydrocarbon producing zones
Height of the Empire State Building, demonstrating the depth of hydrocarbon-producing zones in relation to surface aquifers

The central focus of the movie is hydraulic fracturing, an oil and gas well-stimulation technique. Say, what? Not to worry, you are in good company with millions of Americans who are largely ignorant on the complex advancements in petroleum technology.

I believe this is because of negative propaganda about “Big Oil” that politicians have promoted over many years. In contrast, most Americans have been widely exposed to, and have celebrated, the advancements in the technologies of our space program that extends beyond the Earth’s atmosphere—advancements completely dependent on oil and gas for its development and progress, and arguably less risky than our ventures far below the Earth’s surface.

Recent political statements about oil production, however, have been quite confusing—this from a US Senate publication (2014, pp.ii-iii),

Despite his Administration’s actions against hydraulic fracturing, President Obama’s rhetoric was correct in espousing the enormously positive impacts of America’s oil and natural gas renaissance . . . These remarkable benefits, which even the President proclaims as unequivocal, largely stem from and are impossible without one thing: the increased use of hydraulic fracturing coupled with horizontal drilling. However, . . . the Administration is seeking to end further development and use of hydraulic fracturing, ultimately negating all of the economic and geopolitical progress this . . . has brought to the U.S.

The problem with ending further development and use of our shale oil assets is that a more environmentally friendly energy source is not available at present to replace what we now use. However, according to Gasland, hydraulic fracturing, colloquially called “fracking,” is creating toxic drinking water, along with the other well-known and more typical, nasty environmental disturbances that go along with oil and gas production. For some, fracking has  become such a concern that it seems the great benefits it achieves for our nation and our way of life have simply been tossed under the bus. Yet, can we place the blame for all of our collective fears about this on the Gasland documentary?

Thinking about How We Think

Lest we get carried away in wonderment, let’s think once again for just a minute about how we think. Later I’ll shed some light on some surprising things such as: how long we’ve fractured the Earth to release hydrocarbons (oil and gas) and for what purposes, where we’ve found hydrocarbons before we began to drill for them deep in the Earth, and then I’ll pose some questions related to whether or not Gasland’s writer/director, Josh Fox, succeeds in making his case against fracking issues in the movie.

When we talk about propaganda (our theme for this year’s movies) and its positive or negative intent, we must realize that such communication exploits well-known understanding about how we humans process what we see and hear. Research on judgment and decision-making demonstrates that we’re biased in our thinking, often resulting in false beliefs and poor decisions (e.g., Kahneman, 2011). Some years ago, this understanding gave rise to techniques for teaching critical thinking skills to America’s children.

You may remember a time when a class in school was all about memorizing—memorize dates in history, formulas in math, vocabulary in language arts. Then educators began to concern themselves with “critical thinking,” realizing that students need more than facts and formulas; they also need to know how to deal with information out in the world. The quest to enable better information processing, to reduce bias in thinking and to foster better decision-making has extended to world-wide audiences, e.g., Lau and Chan (2018) state, “Critical thinking includes identification of prejudice, bias, propaganda, self-deception, distortion, misinformation, etc.” among their web-based resources on critical thinking at The University of Hong Kong.

A number of definitions of critical thinking are presented on their site, Critical Thinking Web; and, among them, the following definition from Wade and Tavris (2005) seems especially useful for our purposes:

Critical thinking is the ability and willingness to assess claims and make objective judgments on the basis of well-supported reasons. It is the ability to look for flaws in arguments and resist claims that have no supporting evidence. Critical thinking, however, is not merely negative thinking. It also fosters the ability to be creative and constructive to generate possible explanations for findings, think of implications, and apply new knowledge to a broad range of social and personal problems.

Even though the habit of critical thinking is difficult to acquire, we can attempt to improve our critical thinking skills—essential tools of inquiry—when we discuss propaganda in our group. We have first sought to understand that propaganda is a communication technique and why people are motivated to use it. We have learned that propaganda can take many forms (e.g., posters, speeches, ads, TV commercials, editorials, videos), yet all are created to persuade. Since we have so recently (in 2017) looked at movies under the theme of persuasion, it is an easy transition to then turn to movies we can use to illustrate and examine  propaganda.

Our movie for this month has been used as a tool to help teach critical thinking skills in educational settings (e.g., see O’neill, 2012). The film may not be a wise choice for this purpose, however, since the background required to evaluate the movie is extensive, and presenting it to students without this disclaimer may unwittingly introduce a biased perspective from a teacher. Further, if a teacher is personally challenged to present a non-biased view,  we can imagine that  “. . . teachers are able to foster critical thinking only to the extent that they themselves think critically” (Elder & Paul, 2010. p.38).

Activists protest fracking outside Gov. Cuomo's office
Activists protest fracking outside Gov. Cuomo’s office, New York City

We can all agree that this documentary is propaganda from its one-sided perspective (detractors have called it a mockumentary), but we must then decide whether its message is positive or negative based on the truth of its claims. Indeed, without background and experience, or without doing some research on the history and processes of drilling, completing, producing, and transporting oil and gas, along with research on various associated petroleum well-stimulation techniques, it may be difficult to come to any reasonable conclusions about the nature of the movie’s communication. Yet, even in researching, in the case of this particular topic, one must sift through material that presents limited facts, misinformation, and what seems to be unlimited opinions. It also appears that many people have become highly emotional about their particular viewpoints. All of this is to say that we face a challenge in watching this movie, while trying to diminish our own, as well as others’, emotional and cognitive biases.

The Petroleum Industry and Hydraulic Fracturing

Oil, as a substance and as an industry, is credited with improving the quality of life on every continent.
—McElwee, Beates & Weber

First, let’s learn more about the subject of this month’s movie: the oil industry and hydraulic fracturing. It is particularly important to clarify the innovation in this well-stimulation technique that has released the US from dependence on foreign oil, a situation that has been a plague since OPEC’s embargo in 1973-74 (Usborne, 2014; Jacobs, 2016).

 tested at Honeywell Aerospace in Phoenix
Aircraft engine being tested at Honeywell Aerospace in Phoenix, AZ

The industry we are discussing when we talk about “Big Oil” is an infrastructure industry essential to our modern world. Most of us are well aware of the gasoline and jet fuel that powers our daily transportation. Many, however, are unaware of the plastics and other pervasive elements of manufacture that rely on petroleum. It is said that over half of every barrel of oil is used to make seemingly limitless products that we use every day. To give you an idea, this is a small list:

Products made from petroleum
Floor wax Ballpoint pens Football cleats Tires
Upholstery Boats Fertilizers Antiseptics
Vitamin capsules Antihistamines Cortisone Rubbing alcohol
Solvents Motor oil Bearing grease Nail polish
Petroleum jelly Scotch tape Caulking Refrigerant
Contact lenses Aspirin Eyeglasses Artificial limbs
Asphalt and
roofing materials
Insect repellent Hair coloring Glycerin
Bandages Dentures Life jackets Heart valves

I read recently about a 2007 nationwide poll that revealed, “72 percent of the American public does not know that conventional plastic is made from petroleum products, primarily oil” (“National survey reveals”, 2007).

The US Senate report, quoted above, also states (pp.97, 102)—related to our movies,

Movie and camera film, cameras, tape recorders, video cassettes, compact discs, and much more are composed of petroleum. In other words, the entire movie industry is made possible because of fossil resources.
One should ponder how Hollywood would make money . . . if actors and crew could not fly to filming locations all around the world in planes and helicopters that are made from and run on fossil fuels. Anti-fracking activists may have social media, fame, and wealth on their side, but they do not have the facts.

Until recently, I had never thought about how far back our human history goes in using petroleum resources. Being from Texas, I thought the industry began with the gusher at Spindletop. Thanks to the research efforts of many who have documented this history over the years, we can easily find that use extends to the ancient world. Below is a table of highlights.

the development of the Oil & Gas industry
Ancient time The petroleum industry is first met in the archaeological record near Hit in what is now Iraq. Hit is on the banks of the Euphrates river and is the site of an oil seep known locally as the Fountains of Pitch. There asphalt was quarried for use as mortar between building stones as early as 6000 years ago. Asphalt was also used as a waterproofing agent for baths, pottery and boats.
Egyptians used it for embalming, and the walls of Babylon and the famed pyramids were held together with it. The Bible refers to a thick form of oil called “Pitch” which was used to waterproof Noah’s ark and the baby Moses’ basket. Natural deposits of asphalt occur in pits or lakes as residue from crude petroleum that has seeped up through fissures in the earth. (“How ancient people”, n.d.)
Ancient Greek texts describe how they poured oil on the sea to set fire to their enemies’ fleets. The American Indians also used pitch to waterproof canoes and to make war paint and medicines.
1600s Early American settlers notice “burning springs” throughout Appalachia.
1748 Peter Kalm of Sweden published a map showing oil springs of Oil Creek, PA
1767 Sir William Johnson of New York recorded Native American practice of skimming oil
1778 Moravian missionaries reported “oil wells, with the products of which the Seneca Indians carry on trade with Niagara” in Western New York
1785 General William Irvine reported “Oil Creek, PA, has taken its name from an oil or bituminous matter floating on its surface”
1790 Nathaniel Carey skimmed oil from springs near Titusville, PA, and delivered it to customers by horseback
1791 Pennsylvania map showed stream named “OYL CREEK”
1795-1800 Crude oil quoted at $16.00 per gallon
1806 David & Joseph Ruffner drilled the first salt well using spring pole, drive pipe, casing & tubing near Kanawha River in western Virginia. The well produced oil instead of salt water.
1807 F. Cuming described collecting oil by blanket dipping in “Sketches of a Tour of the Western Country”
Oil from a spring in Oil Creek on the Hamilton McClintock farm sold for $1 – 2/gal
1846 Abraham Gesner produced illuminating oil from Nova Scotia coal, distilling a product he named “Kerosene”.
Swedish engineer Alfred Nobel used nitroglycerine, invented by Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero.
1849 Samuel Kier marketed rock oil from his father’s salt well as medicine.
1850-1851 Kier devised a process to distill crude oil, producing “carbon oil,” and marketed it for use in lamps.
1854 George Bissell & Jonathan Eveleth paid Brewer, Watson & Co. $5000. for 105 acres of land (Hibbard Farm) in Venango County, PA, to collect surface oil.
Bissell & Eveleth organized Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company incorporated in NY – the first US oil company – and leased Hibbard Farm.
1856 Abraham Gesner’s North American Kerosene Gas Light Co. sold kerosene in the New York lamp oil market.
1857 Samuel Downer & Joshua Merrill mastered multiple distillations, chemical treatments, and cracking of crude coal oil (applied to crude oil 3 years later).
Pennsylvania Rock Oil Co. of CT leased the Hibbard Farm to Edwin Bowditch & Edwin Drake of New Haven.
1859 Colonel Edwin L. Drake’s well, drilled 69½ feet, struck oil near Titusville PA (first well deliberately drilled for oil) and launched the modern petroleum industry.
1901 Famous Spindletop Well drilled in Texas, leads to great Southwest discoveries of oil and gas.
1920s The first horizontal-well-drilling technology was developed in the 1920s, but the technology was in limited use until the mid-1980s.
1948 Culminating several years of extensive laboratory and field study, Stanolind Oil and Gas Co. (later Pan American Petroleum) announced its hydraulic process to help increase well productivity.

First commercial hydraulic fracturing job took place in 1949 about 12 miles east of Duncan, OK.
The first commercial hydraulic fracturing job (above) took place in 1949 about 12 miles east of Duncan, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy Halliburton.
1964 From a review article on hydraulic fracturing,  “More than 400,000 treatments have been applied to wells located in practically every part of the Free World where oil and gas are found, including untold numbers of wells behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ ” (Hassebroek & Waters, 1964).

I should confess here that my thinking is likely considerably biased, having earned a Master’s degree in Petroleum Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin and having worked as an engineer for Exxon and Shell for over ten years. I choose to believe that I can think rationally about these topics, because I know some of what is involved. However, from an insider’s perspective I understand how difficult it is to bring even a drop of oil to the surface and how risky it is for those who work in operations in this industry, so I am more than sympathetic to those who have sacrificed life and limb to serve us with our myriad modern conveniences.

I also need to confess that I am biased because of the engineering work that Jerry’s dad performed as a pioneer in developing the technology of hydraulic fracturing. After earning his degree in Chemical Engineering at Oklahoma State University, W. E. Hassebroek worked for the Halliburton Company for 30 years, becoming Technical Manager of Hydraulic Fracturing at the research center in Duncan, OK. It is interesting to note a statement that he made in an article for the Oil and Gas Journal in 1964 (Hassebroek & Waters, p. 764):

There is no particular reason why present fracturing knowledge cannot be applied to others, such as oil shales and heavy oil sands, and it probably will be.

Hassebroek’s prediction has come to pass, as the current boom in shale oil and gas recovery can attest. This 6 minute video produced by Marathon Oil Company shows the unconventional three-step process of drilling, completing, and stimulating a well to enable production in heretofore unproductive formations. The first step is drilling down through layers of rock (vertically then horizontally), the second is perforating the encased wellbore to create holes where the fluids and/or gas can flow from the rock into the production tubing, and the last step is fracturing the rock using hydraulic systems to produce cracks for fluid flow pathways.

Challenges in Ruling Out Potential Causes of Water Pollution

As is demonstrated from documented history, oil has been found on or near the Earth’s surface for thousands of years—in salt deposits and in creeks and streams, and especially in the Northeast areas of the US during the time of early American history. This is exactly where the movie shows flaming water taps.

Even though contaminated water is of extreme concern, one may argue that tainted water has always been part of the natural landscape in that region. Or, maybe, the cause is, indeed, fracking fluid—exactly as Fox describes. If fracking fluid, is it possible that in any of the instances, one or more of the many Halliburton trucks on the property could have spilled its contents on the ground? Have any of the people who have health problems, allegedly because of bad fracking jobs, sued the driller? If so, are public records available which may prove valid accusations?

Or, is it possible that in the last decade, when Fox filmed these experiences, other local causes were responsible for the toxic water? Before rushing out to curtail production on vital resources, we must make sure we understand the situation. To be as effective as possible in curing a disease, it is always wise for a doctor to diagnose the problem correctly before applying remedies.

In my opinion, Gasland provides inadequate evidence and certainly not enough samples to prove that fracking causes contaminated water sources. Using the medical metaphor, the FDA would not wish to approve the drug without adequate trial to prove its safety and effectiveness for the disease. In this case, it would be especially imprudent to simply stop the fracturing process and go back to buying oil for American use on the international market.

Fox should first eliminate other potential causes, e.g., rule out the possibility that it is simply groundwater unrelated to hydraulic fracturing or any other artificial condition. Maybe something closer to the sources of drinking water is creating contamination. Therefore, it seems that investigating this phenomenon scientifically is essential to pinning down sources of this flammable liquid.

Harvard study finds toxic chemicals in the drinking water of 33 states
Harvard study finds toxic chemicals in the drinking water of 33 states. Steve Johnson/Flikr.com

One recent EPA investigation of toxic water sources nationwide was performed from 2013 to 2015, looking for PFASs. Findings revealed that the drinking water of more than 16 million Americans is contaminated with these toxic chemicals, which can be traced to military and industrial sites. Reported in the Harvard Gazette (Feldscher, 2016), they collected more than 36,000 water samples from around the country, from

industrial sites that manufacture or use PFASs; at military fire-training sites and civilian airports where firefighting foam containing PFASs is used; and at wastewater-treatment plants. Discharges from these plants—which are unable to remove PFASs from wastewater by standard treatment methods—could contaminate groundwater. So could the sludge the plants generate, which is frequently used as fertilizer.

From this EPA investigation, we learn about real sources of toxic water. It seems to me that more research is needed that can find not only PFASs present in our water, but other chemicals and their sources that may be damaging to our health. In some obvious places, we monitor the environmental impact carefully. For example, when I look at the image at the top of this page—the ship channel at the Port of Houston—I think one might be drawn to imagine an environment that is not a healthy place for humans to work. However, the industry, the EPA and other agencies work to make sure that companies that run all the activities around the port are not injuring their employees. Since the beginning of our industrial age, people have lived and worked around such installations to provide essential products to serve the needs of others. Yet, none of us is immune to environmental health issues, no matter what the workplace, and many have nothing to do with the oil and gas industry.

I think of those who work at Halliburton handling the chemicals and breathing the air around oil and gas derricks, and wonder why they aren’t suffering from awful health conditions like the people in the movie. Certainly, Jerry’s dad didn’t suffer as a result, but maybe the chemicals used now are different. I would not now go out and picket in the streets against fracking because I don’t know enough to make such a decision. Do you?

Further, I can’t eliminate the possibility that, in all of its negativity, Gasland is a positive movie. If it brings more attention to water quality, how could that be a bad thing? As a side note on the film, part of Fox’s story is that he easily drove across the country to pursue his mission—and he includes a number of clips that show him driving his car. Ironic that the workers in our oil and gas companies are responsible for his transportation.


Fearmongering is the spreading of frightening and exaggerated rumors of an impending danger or the tactic of purposely and needlessly arousing public fear about an issue.

Critical thinking
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

A mockumentary (a portmanteau of mock and documentary) or docucomedy is a type of movie or television show depicting fictional events but presented as a documentary.

Propaganda is information, of a biased and sometimes misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

Hydraulics is a technology and applied science using engineering, chemistry, and other sciences involving the mechanical properties and use of liquids.


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One thought on “Where and How Did Our Oil and Gasland Begin–Do We Really Want It to End?”

  1. A thorough and well presented summary of the history of hydrocarbons found deep in the earth and the seepages on the surfaces which have occurred long before the concept of hydraulic fracturing was even dreamed about. Further, congrats on the thoroughness of research about hydraulic fracturing technology based on practical experience in the industry and research training from multiple academic accomplishments including a PhD. It’s great to listen to someone who has skills and knowledge to research and present such thorough evidence and findings. Real news from an accomplished researcher or “fake news” from a movie mogul seeking financial gain? I vote on the researcher.

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