Fracking: The Deeper the Dig, the Darker the Secret

playing truth or dare with mother nature

Fire of flare: The search for answers took Jolynn to the US-of-A only to find that the land of the free wasn't that free after all.

In Brief

“Two nightmare scenarios – a global scarcity of vital resources and the onset of extreme climate change – are already beginning to converge and in the coming decades are likely to produce a tidal wave of unrest, rebellion, competition, and conflict. Just what this tsunami of disaster will look like may, as yet, be hard to discern, but experts warn of ‘water wars’ over contested river systems, global food riots sparked by soaring prices for life’s basics, mass migrations of climate refugees (with resulting anti-migrant violence), and the breakdown of social order or the collapse of states. At first, such mayhem is likely to arise largely in Africa, Central Asia, and other areas of the underdeveloped South, but in time all regions of the planet will be affected.” Prof. Michael T. Klare



Running Time: 90 min

Director: Jolynn Minnaar

Stage 5 Films Production 2014

Benzene, Toluene, Ethyl benzene, and Xylene… to most Karoo residents and indeed to the majority of us, those names may mean little or nothing, especially when spoken by energy executives determined to earn some hefty bonuses for clinching exploration contracts. Strategically, such executives punctuate these baffling chemical names with reminders of the levels of poverty that would be “a thing of the past once the ‘jobs’ are created with the introduction of hydraulic fracturing or fracking…” In fact fracking is as foreign to nearly all of us as winter is to those living in the tropics.

Jolynn Minnaar has lived the quintessential Karoo life; she is a born Karooan who grew up watching helplessly as life seemed to wither around her.

Her people’s land was losing the strength to hold onto livestock. Water was slowly becoming a frighteningly-scarce resource. The few farms that still had something to offer were struggling to pay the people who lived and worked on them as large-scale importation by some multinationals was rendering the local produce near worthless.

So the prospects of enhanced living as a result of the fracking that was being considered for the Karoo, at first seemed to bring hope back to the helplessness for Jolynn. Their drying and dying soil would at least have something to offer her people.

Jolynn, aged 20-something, started out as a pro-fracking campaigner, but before very long, she began to wonder. The grand-sounding statements didn’t add up for her. The deals being offered to her people by the proponents of fracking appeared just too convenient for her comfort. For every answer offered, many more questions remained unanswered or plainly avoided. If fracking was ‘sooooo coooool’, as teenagers would put it, why were there so many voices opposing it?

In the end, Jolynn decided she wouldn’t simply believe at face value anything that had been placed on the table for her people, from either side. She set out on a quest to get the answers to the avoided questions. And the film unearthed was born.

The film is unique in many ways. Since the hydraulic fracturing plan for the Karoo was first announced, there have been two distinct sides, ‘for’ and ‘against’, yet Jolynn opted not to approach either to sponsor her project. Employing her filmmaking skills and knowledge and with absolutely no budget, she relied on crowd-funding and self-determination to get the real answers.

Her journey took her to the home country of fracking, the United States of America, birthplace of the Standard Oil Company (now Amoco Corporation) that invented the technology. Her contention at the time was, if fracking could change lives, then the Americans’ lives must have been changed. And changed, she found, they had indeed been.

When I spoke to Jolynn in Cape Town after the screening of her documentary during the Encounters Documentary Festivals in June, she confessed that as she left for the United States, deep inside, she had hoped to find some positive stories that would have made it possible to push for fracking in the Karoo. Instead, she found hell… families suffering from mysterious ailments; alleged victims being bound to secret payouts and confidential settlements barring them from talking about their sufferings; previously-clear tap water containing strange colourful fluids; family members being accused of poisoning their departed relatives… Was that the life the already-disenfranchised people of her Karoo were being promised?

The statement that ‘There is no documentary evidence that fracking is harmful to health…’ has turned out to be a lie. What the petroleum executives aren’t telling us is the exact amount of money and the level of intimidation they have unleashed to bury the vital ‘evidentiary proofs’ that would otherwise highlight their greed and culpabilities. Buried evidence doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t any.

When medical doctors are barred from disclosing to their patients, or to whoever is asking, precisely what is ailing their patients, there is even more urgent need to ask for further answers. When the same doctors are themselves deliberately kept in the dark about what elements - some very toxic –they should be checking for in their examinations of dying patients, we have every reason to run for the hills. [According to a 2011 report by congressional Democrats, up to 750 different chemicals and compounds are used in hydraulic fracturing.]

Jolynn experienced first-hand the power of Global Greed in the land of the Free. Victims were being paid off to ensure their silence, while politicians and policy-makers were lining their campaign kitties with the loot ‘donated’ by the energy giants. amount of money that can ease the pain and silence the voices of those who have lost loved ones... 

Nothing more to lose…

But as Jolynn found out during her quest, there is no amount of money that can ease the pain and silence the voices of those who have lost loved ones - the loved ones they believe they should never have lost at all. Victims and surviving family members were more than glad to provide her with accommodation as they told their stories.

unearthed is no Hollywood creation with enhanced sound effects and stunt masters on standby. This film gives voices, real voices of real victims, expressing agonised memories of their lives as they were before fracking stole everything from them. These visuals have not been created in a computer lab like some of the chemicals with coded names that they use to extract whatever the energy companies believe they need to make their balance sheets look good.

The film should trigger sober discourse. Our need for extra energy is real. But setting emotions aside, we should be asking what cost could be worth the undisclosed risks? And to what end? When the liquid emanating from a water tap is as black as waste engine oil… when rivers and lakes are filled with flammable gases… then we should stop and reassess the best means of topping up the void that has been created by our reckless greedy demands for energy.

unearthed: Opening the eyes, the Karoo Roadshow

You would have to be completely heartless to lack any sense of responsibility after watching the simply-told stories squeezed into this gripping 90-minute film.

The opposition to fracking should not be just about water: as we all know, corporations like Nestlé discovered ages ago how profitable water mining rights are. So, in rational mode, let us consider all other consequences before signing off the future of the future generation to those corporations keen to impress their shareholders, otherwise there would be no survivors to consume the extracted energy.

‘Jobs are going to be created’

That is surely true, but must we not ask what kind of jobs? Directing traffic? Repairing potholes on our roads? How durable are these jobs? Six weeks at a time? As unearthed reminds us, they are all just short-term gigs and thereafter we can return to our shacks and admire the gas pipeline snaking across our lands while we wait to be contaminated. So who stands to benefit from the promised jobs? And when all is said and done, there will be nothing left for the locals to return to.

The technology involved is so unfamiliar that even some of our top local geologists are unable to explain authoritatively to the common man and woman exactly what to expect. The details on issues pertaining to fracking are so secretively-guarded that we still don’t have an academic faculty at any of our local universities able to teach a comprehensive hydraulic fracturing course. And those individuals, who do have some basic knowhow on the subject, have been grabbed and signed up to be the voices of reassurance for the drum of the energy companies.

The Jinni in the Cocktail

We know about some of the wastes that get vomited from the wells - Benzene, Toluene, Ethyl benzene and Xylene are just a few that have been independently identified. The unleashed jinni are so well-guarded that even medics desperately in need of facts to provide appropriate health care to their affected patients are denied details of what the fracking companies have found beneath our earth. What we also don’t know much about are the lethal concoctions that get pumped into these wells to release the gas, petroleum and brine. These, it appears, are the intellectual property of some multinationals.

The public is also not fully informed of what damages, if any, the interference with the rock formations would have. Could it cause increased seismic activities? The energy executives would say ‘none whatsoever’. But should we believe them?

unearthed: Sheffield Green Award winners

If the corporations involved in the extraction of shale gas aren’t disclosing all details to doctors who need to save lives, how sure should Karoo people be that they have disclosed everything that matters to the government licencing department? These are some of the questions that unearthed has brought to the fore.

For those who haven’t watched this film that won two awards within two months of release (The Sheffield Green Award 2014, Best South African Film Audience Award), seek it out. It is our earth and we need all the information we can get to help us make sound decisions about it rather than fighting against it. 

***And congratulations to Jolynn Minnaar for being winning the 2014 Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year.