Documentary “Blowout” Follows Climate Cost of Oil Boom from Fracking to Exports

September 20, 2019

The new film follows the U.S. oil supply chain, covering health, climate and environmental justice impacts. And it points to the president who was central to creating the current reality: Barack Obama.

The new film follows the U.S. oil supply chain, covering health, climate and environmental justice impacts. And it points to the president who was central to creating the current reality: Barack Obama.


Documentary “Blowout” Follows Climate Cost of Oil Boom from Fracking to Exports

Story Transcript

DIMITRI LASCARIS: The United States fracking boom has entered a new phase as massive amounts of oil are now being exported to the global market. This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting on this subject for The Real News from Montreal, Canada.

Dozens of coal-fired power plants too have been converted into natural gas power plants and about 200 more are now under proposal across the country, according to a recent story by USA Today. A decade ago, a new technique called fracking inspired films such as Gasland and Promised Land due to the impacts it was having on rural community water resources in the United States, but today the horizontal drilling process has unleashed impacts which are truly global in nature. For most Americans, those impacts remain out of sight, rarely looked at from either a macro or micro point of view. A new movie aims to change that, however. That film, Blowout: Inside America’s Energy Gamble, is a cross-newsroom collaboration between the outlets, The Associated Press, Newsy, Center For Public Integrity and The Texas Tribune. Here’s part of the trailer for that film.

BLOWOUT FILM TRAILER: Right now we’ve got energy policies that are really being dictated by a handful of fossil fuel producers. Energy companies are looking to develop kind of this blank canvas, if you will. We started seeing the pads pop up. I started having vomiting episodes. Those impurities are going into my air. We are the sacrifice. No drills, not in our neighborhoods. It will never be safe. We’re sacrificing people’s health so that the oil and gas industry can ship overseas and make a profit.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: An ongoing seven-part print companion series is now also up online. The film is now streaming on platforms such as Amazon Prime, Fire TV, Roku, VIZIO, and Apple TV. Joining us here to talk about the film is Zach Toombs, the film’s director. He is also the Executive Producer of Newsy Documentaries. And thank you for coming onto The Real News, Zach.

ZACH TOOMBS: Thanks for having me.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So Zach, let’s start out with this simple question. How did you come up with the idea behind Blowout, and why did your team choose a supply-chain based approach to tell the story?

ZACH TOOMBS: Right, so the Center For Public Integrity were really the driving force behind the core story idea, putting together this cross-newsroom partnership, and doing some really great journalism around the global exports boom that has come from this production boom in the US. And so the Center For Public Integrity, The Associated Press and The Texas Tribune all looked at different aspects of this global oil and gas trade fueled by the US. From Newsy’s perspective, we knew that we have this story that spanned the globe and a feature-length documentary seemed like a great way to tell that story because we could basically follow the physical path from drilling in West Texas and Colorado to shipping through the Panama Canal, to where the oil and gas is being bought in India, where it’s being burned off, and what the global climate impact looks like.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, for the film, you managed to examine how many people live within 2,000 feet of a drilling pad in the United States. That number is remarkable. You’ve concluded that, as I understand it, 1.2 million Americans live within that health-risk zone based on US Census data.

ZACH TOOMBS: 1.4

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And as I understand, nearly half a million of them live in that zone in Texas. What are the health risks for those living in that zone?

ZACH TOOMBS: Yeah. It’s 1.4 million people across the US who live within 500 feet of active oil and gas production in the US. And the impact within that zone is well documented by scientists, by researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, by researchers at the University of Colorado. And those health impacts can look like anything from nosebleeds and respiratory issues to an increased risk of cancer. The risk of cancer is actually eight times higher within 500 feet of active oil and gas production than the EPA’s accepted threshold for cancer risk. And so that’s about eight in 10,000. It seems like a small number, but given the scale of US oil and gas production right now, that puts a lot of people in a dangerous position.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: In 2015, in the midst of a presidential election season, the world changed when President Barack Obama signed legislation reversing the crude oil export ban, which had been in place since the 1970s, and here’s a clip from the film dealing with that issue.

BLOWOUT FILM CLIP: And for decades, it kind of went and challenged until around 2008 when fracking really took off. And that’s the only time when you start to hear the oil and gas groups, like the American Petroleum Institute, start to suggest that this old ban that was put in place back in the 1970s, “maybe you should throw it out.” And around 2013, you see maybe under a dozen companies lobbying on the crude oil export ban. And then a year to two years later, that number grows to 300 lobbyists on this, converging on Capitol Hill.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: For Blowout, Zach, you took trips to the port of Corpus Christi and the Panama Canal to explore exports. Talk about what you learned in these places and how it relates back to the 2015 legislation.

ZACH TOOMBS: Well, one major thing that we took away from the whole process of filming this story across the world are the global impacts that decisions made in Washington can have, and the global impacts of an increase in drilling that has had a positive economic impact on some pockets of the US, but has severe public health and climate impacts across the world. And so, for example, in Corpus Christi—I mean, take the Gulf coast, for example. The port of Corpus Christi has seen tremendous growth, hundreds of new jobs, a lot of opportunity economically. But if you go further north up the Gulf coast, you get into places like Port Arthur, Texas, which is this town surrounded by refineries, which has essentially been dealing with poisonous air for the better part of the last few decades.

And now, the activity at these refineries that surround this town and a lot of refinery towns along the Gulf Coast, is only ramping up as us oil and gas production ramps up. At the Panama Canal, they’ve actually installed whole new sets of infrastructure within the canal to handle the increase in US traffic headed to Asia. So, that’s just one of the examples that we saw of a global impact that the US oil and gas boom is having right now.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And you just mentioned Asia, you did not confine yourself in the making of this film to the Western hemisphere. You also went across the Pacific to South Asia, reporting in both India and Bangladesh. How is the US oil boom and exports impacting those regions?

ZACH TOOMBS: [inaudible] where they have this ambitious renewable energy plan based on solar energy, and then there’s the natural gas option, which is provided by the US— cheap, abundant fuel, and fuel that is certainly cleaner than coal. But the question is, the bridge that natural gas forms, and that’s what it’s often talked about as is, “Okay, natural gas will be this bridge between really dirty fossil fuels like coal, and renewable energy.” The question right now is how long will that bridge be for countries like India, countries that are pretty significant when you’re looking at a global scale, just because of their population. If they invest in infrastructure for natural gas, terminals to handle imports, pipelines, those are investments meant to last 30, 40, 50 years into the future. So, the countries that are now becoming customers for the US, buyers of the US natural gas, how long will natural gas delay a transition to renewable energy?

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And lastly, Zach, climate change. When you were out in the field in West Texas, you could see methane, as I understand it, a very potent greenhouse gas, methane plumes emitted into the sky via an infrared camera. What exactly is the current state of play for ethane/methane emissions and climate impacts for oil drilling in the United States?

ZACH TOOMBS: I mean, a lot of the legislative action and the executive action from the White House lately has been around methane. It’s something that is not talked about as much as it should be. When we talk about climate impact, we’re always talking about carbon emissions. Everybody knows about CO2, but what’s less discussed, but also very important, are methane emissions. Natural gas puts out less CO2, but it puts out a lot more in methane. And so, that’s something to consider when you’re thinking about greenhouse gases overall because methane has incredible potency in warming the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s something that Gabrielle Patron and researchers at NOAA break down for us in the film. And so, as natural gas is being sold as this relatively clean energy source, we have to look at the methane. The Obama administration, when they rolled back this export ban, they also tried to counter that because they knew more drilling would come and more natural gas would be produced.

They tried to counter that with some new restrictions and limitations on methane, which there’s a serious problem in the industry right now with methane leaks. The Trump administration has basically said, “Go for it.” They’ve rolled back those restrictions that were put in place, or delayed some that were planned. They don’t seem to be terribly worried about it. They want to take what they see as the shackles off of the natural gas industry and drilling. But that’s going to have a major methane impact, which is a major greenhouse gas impact, which is a climate impact.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, I’ve been speaking to Zach Toombs, Director of the new film about the global fracking industry in America’s fracking boom. It’s called Blowout: Inside America’s Energy Gamble. Recommend you see it. And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network from Montreal. Zach, thank you for joining us today.

ZACH TOOMBS: Thank you.

DHARNA NOOR: Hey, y’all. My name is Dharna Noor, and I’m a climate crisis reporter here at The Real News Network. This is a crucial moment for humanity and for the planet. So, if you like what we do, please, please support us by subscribing at the link below. Thank you.