Frackman on the frontline

In a way, the world-view of the party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane.

They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird.

George Orwell, 1984

In the tradition of Gasland, a new film turns the heat up on local CSG

The work of former Tara resident Dayne Pratzky to monitor the effects of the CSG industry through guerilla tactics makes for compelling viewing.

People living on the frontline of Australia’s resources rush have had their lives transformed for better and for worse. Many of these communities have benefited from jobs growth, but they’ve also had to live with a 24/7 barrage of fumes, dust, noise and other ill-effects from the industrialisation of rural areas.

Queensland’s coal-seam gas, for example, created thousands of jobs in the wake of the financial crisis but it poses risks to the health of people living near these operations, and to land and water resources. Residents living near gas wells and plants have reported nose bleeds, headaches and cramps.

The sheer scale, complexity and speed of the CSG rollout has made it very difficult for communities and the media to make government and industry accountable.

So the work of former Tara resident Dayne Pratzky to monitor and document the effects of this burgeoning industry through guerilla tactics makes for compelling viewing.

Pratzky is the subject of a documentary film, Frackman, which has had more than 100 screenings around Australia. It follows in the tradition of the US film Gasland, but the sheer passion, capacity and creativity that Pratzky brings to the task of probing the industry’s operations is quite formidable.

Pratzky is a former construction worker and one-time pig shooter who bought a small scrubby block near Tara, 300km west of Brisbane, where he hoped to build a house and live a quiet life. He is no greenie. Co-producer Simon Nasht says the film’s strength is that it is character-driven rather than issues-based.

Director Richard Todd initially filmed a raft of anti-CSG activists, including radio host Alan Jones, but in the final cut it was Pratzky who emerged as the standout character.

Nasht, who is in partnership with entrepreneur Dick Smith via a company called Smith & Nasht, said he approached the ABC to back the film but it was reluctant after being “monstered” by the industry. Nor was a standard theatrical release viable, so the company has relied largely on crowdsourcing through the website, which allows people to ask theatres to screen films.

At the centre of this film is the production of methane gas from coal-seams deep below the earth’s surface. The technique has been used in Queensland for many years, on a small scale for the local market.

CSG is also known as “tight” or “unconventional” gas for two key reasons. First, the gas does not flow freely and therefore requires many more wells than natural gas, and it often requires the use of “fracking” to release the gas. This involves pumping a combination of sand, chemicals and water at very high pressure to “frack” the coal-seams and release more gas. There’s a risk that the chemicals left behind, and methane gas, will leak into groundwater, which has occurred in the US.

Hence the large-scale production of CSG for export involves drilling thousands of wells — possibly tens of thousands — that are linked to industrial infrastructure including gas processing plants, huge pipelines, waste water ponds, liquefied natural gas plants and export terminals at Gladstone Harbour.

For most people, the idea of having a gas well in your backyard would be unthinkable, but this is effectively what the Bligh Labor government sanctioned when it approved three massive projects five years ago.

This new industry poses several risks that Pratzky exposes with varying success. One key risk is damage done by fracking. A second is that some of the thousands of wells may leak methane into the atmosphere. Pratzky claims that eventually all of these wells will leak.

This industry disputes this. The industry-funded Energy Resource Information Centre quotes a CSIRO study of 43 sites that concluded “all were found to have some level of emissions, although in all cases these were very low compared to overall production”.

While Frackman focuses on the people who are most aggrieved by CSG projects, the industry has signed around 5000 land access agreements. It’s impossible to say what these landholders think of their decision because all of them have signed strict confidentiality agreements.

In this sense, the film’s spotlight on how government regulators and the industry operate when dealing with landholders is one of its strengths.

Two scenes stand out. The first is Pratzky’s secret filming of a visit by government inspectors who test a water bore and tell a local resident that the water does not have dangerous levels of methane gas. After the inspectors have left, Pratzky and the resident are able to produce a flame from the water.

A second scene, filmed by Pratzky by putting a GoPro camera in an egg carton, shows a meeting with representatives from gas company QGC in the home of grazier Wayne Dennis. The meeting is meant to be a consultation but it soon becomes clear that these front men aren’t really told very much by head office about what is going to happen on the ground. While Frackman involves some degree of trespass, including breaking into the Halliburton facility in order to plant a tracking device on a vehicle, Nasht says the company’s legal advice indicates it has acted within the law.

The industry has complained bitterly about the involvement of state and federal government agencies in funding the film. Overall, the film could benefit from around $1 million in government funding, or about half the budget.

Screen Australia provided $200,000 in funding. A spokeswoman says that “some of the most significant bodies of work explore controversial topics without fear or favour”, and the producers advised that the film has complied with all applicable laws.

An ABC spokesman says the broadcaster had not refused to screen the film, adding that it is currently under consideration for acquisition.

Smith & Nasht’s next production is a documentary about Sir Robert Menzies, presented by John Howard.

For screening details:

  • The Australian
  • 6 April 2015


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