28 November 2013, Johannesburg – U.S. filmmaker Jeff Barbee was working on a story in South Africa’s Karoo desert when a map crossed his desk. What he saw shocked him – oil and gas concessions across the arid, sparsely populated nation of Botswana. He travelled to the country and found evidence that the government had allowed fracking in sensitive areas – and not told anyone about it. This week, he unveiled his movie in Johannesburg – and details of the fracking, which involves major multinational corporations.
The new film, The High Cost of Cheap Gas, paints a bleak portrait of a technology that has been hailed as a bridge to a future of clean energy.
For American filmmaker Jeff Barbee, that picture is personal. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has in the last few decades spread like wildfire across his home state of Colorado. In the hour-long documentary, Barbee shuttles between the U.S. and his adopted home in southern Africa to draw parallels and to show Africans in resource-rich nations what their future may look like.
It is not a pretty picture. In the film, ranchers in Colorado say they had to leave the business because fracking ruined their water supply. Residents report illness that they believe is created by fracking. Medical experts cite serious dangers from the chemical by-products released.
This, Barbee says, could be Africa’s future too.
The documentary exposes a little-known fact: that the government of Botswana has for years been quietly granting oil and gas concessions in remote areas.
Barbee spoke to officials from Sasol, a South Africa-based energy giant, who talk about their projects in the region. The film uses hidden cameras to show what appear to be fracking activities in national parks in Botswana.
Botswana’s government initially denied allowing fracking. But last week, in response to the documentary, it issued a statement acknowledging that some sub-surface fracturing had been allowed.
Despite a heavily negative portrayal, Barbee says the film is not anti-fracking, but rather an attempt to educate residents on the pros and cons.
“One of the things we hope to achieve with this film is that it would really create an international dialogue about this unsustainable industry and whether or not it is a suitable transition fuel that will take us into a greener energy future, or one that is just the last dying throes of an industry desperate to stay alive,” says Barbee.