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Fracked Up  

So, Horizon, BBC 2, 9pm, Tuesday.

Professor Iain Stewart presented a 1 hour documentary about fracking. Yes, it was one hour long, it was balanced, it gave both sides of the story, sort of, and told us…… nothing.

The problem for the Horizon team behind this show was the truly brilliant and far more informative documentary ‘Gasland’ which is biased, opinionated, unbalanced and incredibly informative.

You can watch Gasland knowing nothing about fracking and at the end of it you know a lot and you can decide that the man who made it, Josh Fox, is an idiot greenie fascist do-gooder, or a young man with a fresh take on an absurdly short sighted and dangerous industry.

Josh Fox made the Gasland film, the decisions on what to include and the style of the show himself. The result is his fault.

Not the case with Professor Iain Stewart who, I’d like to point out, is a scientist and not a TV producer. The producer of the program, Jeff Wilkinson, will have had a far greater input into what we saw.

So this isn’t a criticism of Professor Iain Stewart or his opinions, I’ve got no idea what they are, we are none the wiser on that point after an hour of television, this is a criticism of the style of the program, the ethics behind it and the evidence that this show came out of the protective bubble of the BBC and their deep terror of being seen as ‘biased.’

For a start, we had to watch Iain driving and rubbing his chin for such extended periods of time it was hard to believe. This was a style choice, this didn’t just happen, this was padding to a degree we are not used to in modern fast cut TV.

We had to endure endless shots from a car driving through rural Pennsylvania, the car driving down long country roads, or even a car driving through English towns at night. At times it appeared to be some kind of advert for Chevrolet or Nissan.

Again, not the fault of the man on the screen, but the baffling choices made by the production team. It was padded out to such an extent the very act of padding was saying something to us.

Was it saying ‘this show is an hour long and we can’t say much, it’s too contentious so let’s pad with moody shots and relevant music clips?’

 I don’t know but I’m guessing they shot a great deal more and due to the very nature of fracking it was possibly more alarming than the top brass at the beeb thought wise to release.

We are being cajoled through various outlets to feel good about fracking because ladies and gentlemen, we are about to be fracked. For the outraged UKIP members who are horrified by wind turbines, just wait until there are 40 drilling derricks on the horizon, surrounded by ten million gallon ponds of highly toxic water.

All the way through the program I got the intense feeling that Prof. Stewart was ready to burst, he was holding back so much. It was the uncomfortable way he spoke to camera, I could almost sense the person behind the camera giving him a stern look. Be balanced, be careful, this is dangerous stuff. Hang on, let’s cut to you saying nothing and driving, that’s safer.

I’m not sure which way he might have gone if he’d blown his top and started ranting at the camera.

‘Look, you pathetic head in the sand anti progress hippies, fracking is amazing! It’s a huge new super cheap energy source that can transform our economy overnight with no side effects! Look what’s happened in America, it’s employed thousands, it’s made gas cheap, it’s transformed their economy!’


‘For pities sake, wake up, this isn’t the solution, this is shortsighted madness! We drill and pump and waste billions of gallons of fresh water extracting this stuff, we burn it, we increase carbon in the atmosphere and then it runs out. Remember ‘North Sea Gas?’ Yes it’s easy and a stopgap and a final, last ditch frenzied attempt at keeping the crumbling edifice of the fossil fuel corporations going, but it’s insane.’

So the whole exercise was a massive waste of time and money, we don’t know what Prof Stewart thinks but it’s fairly clear the producers behind the show are from the shrug and head shake ‘what else can we do? brigade.’

 ‘We’re reliant on this stuff.’ Said the Professor standing by the big ships bringing gas from the middle east and Russia.

Simple statement of fact. Not ‘should we be reliant on this stuff? Should we maybe find another way of keeping warm, lighting our homes that doesn’t require us to burn gas, or coal, or nuclear fuel.’

No, that’s unbalanced and opinionated. But explaining, very badly I might suggest, that drilling two miles underground and then pumping vast quantities of water and chemicals of such skin peeling toxicity that no one is allowed to know what they are and then not asking ‘this is a bit desperate isn’t it’ is balanced.

I came away from watching this thinking one thing. Balance is bullshit. I’d rather watch James Dellingpole tell us fracking is awesome, or some dreadlocked activist shouting ‘fracking is the human race pulling the trigger for the 6th time in fossil fuel Russian Roulette.’


After a tip from someone on Twitter, I had a quick look at Professor Iain Stewart's Wiki page,  and then at the page of  The Centre for Research into Earth Energy Systems for which he is a member of the board of directors. They do research into Petroleum Exploration and Production, Carbon Capture and Storage and that old favourite 'Clean Coal.' Oh yes, and Geothermal, good job.

There is no need to infer from this information that the Professor is paid by oil companies, bribed to paint a positive picture of fracking or any other scandalous conspiracy theory. However it does imply that he resides in a world where extracting 'energy' out of the ground is seen as 'sensible' 'economically viable' and 'the only way we can do things.'

So, massively biased in favour of fracking.



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Reader Comments (15)

It's a couple of years old now, but the 60 Minutes (Australian) segment on what was/is happening in Queensland is terrifying about the effects fracking is having in many areas. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PELxZ3K2o0c

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKayla

Having eagerly awaited this documentary I was, like you, very disappointed. The lack of in depth statistics replaced with throw away lines gave the impression of a lack of research and rather an 'off the top of the head' script. Due to the seriousness of this topic for the UK this subject very badly needs a far more hard edged treatment. Both Prof Ian Stewart and the Horizon brand are capable of much better work or has this meed produced with an eye for it to be sold to the American market, I wonder.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkompani

Hi Robert,

If you look at the replies to his tweet announcing the programme (that you retweeted and is how I even knew about it), Professor Stewart was asked (without spoiling the programme) what his views on fracking are, the exact quote being (complete with link to his profile etc):-

@TomCBHill Fracking is safe, if we choose to do it safely. And in that detail lies the devil.— Iain stewart (@Profiainstewart) June 13, 2013

And that, "doing it safely", is just enabling talk. You and most of your viewers realise we have the renewable technology right now and that this is just the Oil & Gas companies not wanting to die off gracefully...

Anyway, did you get to see Josh Fox on Real Time with Bill Maher last week? If not, here's a link to the main segment (and look out for the modern day version of The Three Monkeys on the other side of the table): http://rackjite.com/bill-maher-fracking-with-gasland-ii-josh-fox/ - sorry about the low quality of the encoding as it was the only one I could find (short of illegally uploading the clip myself), although you can also listen to Real Time on iTunes also (for free). But given you're a fellow liberal, you probably already knew. :)

In any event, we know what the BBC really wanted to accomplish: keep the debate alive! Same with GMO foods, climate change and any other "controversial" so-called debate with people who only listen to their friends, read newspapers and maybe even argue on the internet. And they will, in the future, link to the Horizon fracking episode as proof in the exact same way they would link to Top Gear's electric car segments as proof.



June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel B.

Prof Iain Stewart has become a major voice in BBC Science, a knowledgeable, likeable, enthusiastic but balanced scientist, a man who thinks and expresses himself clearly and without hysteria. Rare enough. But he has danced with the devil and it shows in his eyes. You can almost see him wanting to grab the camera and scream. Only the knowledge that it would be wiped before his scientific credibility is trashed and he can't get a job shining Brian Cox' bumper stops him.

I once attended a week of OU residential school where Iain Stewart was one of the very talented folk teaching us, already then an expert in his field, young and gifted. He sat with us lowly students for breakfast, chatted and laughed with us without a hint of pomposity, was respected and liked. He was an inspiration, so enthusiastic, so clever, but a real person with humour and above all, integrity. He stands in grave danger of losing that integrity with programmes like this. The thinking person might see through the charade that was the Programme of Fracking Bull, and plenty of scientists last night will have been throwing their real ale bottles at the wall and hurling obscenities as the poor guy stumbled through a script that choked him, but the majority will either swallow the noxious crap whole or blame Iain himself for whoring his scientific soul for the BBC/Government two-headed monster.

Fracking is fricking dangerous. No one yet knows the long term hazards of the process, and if the US Fracking companies are handing out compensation tied up with a gagging order then we can be damn sure they know all too well how bad it really is. Millions of gallons of water (we're constantly told we don't have quite enough for complacency) mixed with goodness-knows-what chemicals and forced down into the rocks way below us. The possibilities are endless, but few of them are good unless you're the one pocketing all the profits.

Watching it, we were just waiting for the moment when Iain would turn to camera and say, "...but enough of the happy clappy bull, fracking is bad news and here's why..." We waited for the punch and it never came, but only because Iain had his scientific fists tied behind his back by the folk snipping out anything contentious before it got near our screens. I'd love to have seen the initial screening with his feelings on show - I should imagine the beeb bosses turned white and then purple, before demanding a more palatable Hollywood remake of the entire thing: thoughtful stubble and shiny American cars, marshmallow fluff laced with poison. Don't forget for a moment that everyone knows their tweets are followed by their bosses. Iain could no more tweet that fracking was irresponsible, dangerous and toxic to the country than he could walk on Mars. We still don't know what he really thinks. When the BBC and/or the government that now controls it have you by the sphericals, they hold on tight.

The programme was just a spin-packed heads-up for us: Fracking is on its way boys and girls, buckle up for the ride, it's going to make you scream and then probably throw up.

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

Hi Robert,

Shale Gas Europe works on behalf of industry to build knowledge of the shale gas industry and its operations. Your post is interesting to read, especially on the stylistic points of the documentary - it's also good to see a full debate on shale gas in the UK.

I want to address two points of concern that are raised in your blog.

Open storage ponds are banned in the UK and flowback water would be stored in closed metal tanks before being treated. This is the same process as the many other industries using chemicals present in the UK today. There will therefore not be million gallon ponds of toxic water across the UK.

Also, on the point that "chemicals of such skin peeling toxicity that no one is allowed to know what they are". Yesterday OGP launched www.ngsfacts.org which discloses to the public the chemicals used in specific shale gas wells in Europe. This is alongside disclosure to national regulators. The industry is being open and transparent about the chemicals used.

To be opinionated: on shale gas, the UK should not have an either shale gas or renewables debate.
A well-regulated shale gas industry in the UK could help to decarbonise the UK's power generation sector by reducing coal consumption. In addition, power generation from natural gas is far more complementary to wind energy than other power generation forms due to its flexibility and this is recognised by the European Union's long-term energy plans. Shale gas production in the UK may therefore be more of an opportunity to decarbonise and boost renewables rather than a threat.
The Grantham Institute on Climate Change and Environment's research paper may be interesting reading: http://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/publications/Policy/docs/PB-uk-dash-for-smart-gas.pdf
Also IRENA see a complementary role between renewables and gas: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-01-10/shale-gas-boom-can-complement-renewables-to-cut-coal-irena-says.html

We're happy to answer any more questions you might have about shale gas development and to hear you thoughts.

All the best,


June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShale Gas Europe


Very interesting. Apparently New York have temporarily stopped fracking to allow time for them to investigate health and enviornmental concerns. Queensland farmers and environmentalists have called for a moratorium too....

June 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

Disagree. A the end, Professor Stewart DOES ask, to paraphrase - 'just because we can, should we?' Rightly, he says this is a political question. I learned a lot that I did not know before. As the LlewBlog should know, all broadcasting is governed by anti-bias rules and doesn't apply only to the BBC. While it can be frustrating at times, it is a small price to pay for stopping populist and dangerous ranting a la the FOX network.

June 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJaundicedView

Horizon used to be one of my favourite programmes - 15 years ago. But now so much style over substance that the actual content of nearly all the current programmes could be delivered in 15 minutes each, instead of the 50 minutes we usually have filled with scientists driving across the U.S.

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterwoodbeez

Right! Fracking is about as safe and environmentally friendly as coal mining.... No wait...It`s worse. And thats saying something considering I know so many people who have black lung,cancer from chemicles leached into ground water or direct contact with polutants left behind by companies who didn`t want to clean up their mess. Not to mention the sink holes,the children with respitory problems caused by the mine operation nearby with two coal silos a few yards from their school, or the small community a few miles away that was wiped out when the mountain side at an old mine site that was filled with contaminated water blew out. Why shouldn`t we trust the frackers of the fracking industry?
Side note: Robert,you always seem to be on top of this sort of thing and have probably seen it already but if not, check this out. http://www.gizmag.com/biolite-low-emission-eco-camping-stove/14952/ I just found it recently. What a cool idea!

July 7, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjusn

Nuclear Fusion is what the world really deperately needs. It's far to compex a subject to discuss here but its completely different to the Nuclear Fission that production reactors use and much much safer as a result. Its a sort of fuel injected Nuclear reactor with no prospect of the sort of meltdown that we have seen with Fission reactors. I am 100% sure they will make it work given enough time and more importantly enough money! We pour money into theoretical physics with very little prosepect of anything earth shatteringly worthwhile coming out of it, the search for the Higgs Bosun being a very good example. Its existance or otherwise won't make a jot of difference to ordinary lives but Nuclear Fusion would change the world for all of us!

As for Fracking, well I am still on the fence. Anything new has teething problems and I think we need to see what happens over a longer period of time before we can make an educated choice one way or the other.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercbc

Dear me Robert, that was a bit of an eco rant. While I can agree with the idea of increasing renewables this ill thought out diatribe is not adding to the debate. You comment about "skin peeling chemicals". Really, fresh water, salt and an acrylamide used in water purification plants? I suppose you could peel someones skin if you immersed them in boiling brine but frankly this is alarmist rubbish. it would be helpful if more light than heat was focused on the fracking debate and I would have expected better from you.
Richard Rose

August 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Rose

Robert, you should watch Fracknation, even if you disagree with fracking. It points out many inconsistencies in Josh Fox's documentary 'Gaslands'. Fracknation was made by an independent film company which raised money to make the documentary through Kickstarter. No money was ever taken from oil companies.


August 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBegone Too Grim

Why are people still referring to the totally discredited, bogus Hollywood biopic 'Gasland' The same demonstration could have been done decades ago before any shale gas drilling took place. It has been proved in many scientific journals that Methane leaks out of the ground in many areas where there is a legacy of coal mining, or there are large landfill sites. I could take the respondents to any number of sites in the UK and the USA contaminated by coal mining where one can light methane in tap water. The shame is that many people in Pennsylvania have live for historical, cultural and economic reasons on land blighted in the 1930's to 1970's


August 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNadine Washington

Nadine, here in the UK the first fracking was undertaken by a very experienced company from the USA who, we are told, had many years of experience extracting shale gas. After only a short time, much to our governments embarrassment, the operation had to be stopped as earth tremors where felt in the vicinity of the fracking. On checking of the seismic data the drilling was found to be the cause.
Whilst this may be a local, one off, problem it has highlighted the gap between what is promised by the fracking company and what could actually happen. The UK is a very densely populated, small island where we cannot tolerate any pollution of our valuable water supply either surface or underground, as much is used for human drinking water,
By using the finite fossil fuel derived from fracking it only delays the inevitable transfer from the use of highly polluting fossil fuels to cleaner, sustainable, renewable energy and the development of the required technology.

June 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkompani101

To me, this seemed like a pro-fracking doc dressed up as unbiased. Two-thirds of it was dedicated to the technical and beneficial wonders of fracking. Then it switched to the anti-fracking side of the story which was mostly cast against the backdrop of a lack of supportive scientific evidence. His interview with the medical doctor about the non-disclosure clause as to the content of fracking fluids seemed to indicate fracking companies were hiding something. However, what rendered the whole thing completely spurious was his closing statement that, due to no scientific evidence of any pollution from the actual fracking chemicals, then we should maybe all lean on the side of going with the economic benefits. Really...if the content of chemicals are not generally disclosed...and if disclosed, only done so under gag orders...then how can there be any scientific evidence? As a self proclaimed scientist, how can he make this claim, when it is so obviously illogical?

September 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrian from Australia

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