Today’s energy controversies fit for the big screen

Blog - Sept. 24, 2012 - By Jason Switzer

Editor's Note: If you are in the Calgary area, another opportunity to join the video conversation is at hand on Friday November 16 at 9pm MT. Award-winning Globe & Mail business reporter Nathan VanderKlippe will be a featured speaker during a screening of SPOIL, a Northern Gateway pipeline and oil sands documentary being presented at the Marda Justice Film Fest that evening. In addition to the speaker and topic, what's fascinating about this film is who is behind it: the International League of Conservation Photographers. Focused on "further[ing] environmental and cultural conservation through communication initiatives", this group of leading photographers and journalists have developed a series of tools such as multi-disciplinary "Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions" and "Tripods in the Sky" in order "to bring back a comprehensive portrait of a conservation issue or threat and to hopefully train the lens of the international media on that issue".

There is no shortage of Hollywood films exploring visions of environmental apocalypse — though most of these thankfully fall into the category of sci-fi. But there is another group of filmmakers who are turning a curious and critical eye to today’s energy challenges, documenting the drama, conflict and controversy inherent in how we produce and use energy.

In many cases, the outcome is powerful, award-winning footage that tells the human side of our energy stories.

But the recent surge of interest in energy documentaries puts the onus on audiences to verify the credibility of the source and the accuracy of the film’s contents. So when independent filmmaker Gregory Kallenberg recently approached the Pembina Institute to provide feedback on his latest series of films about the environmental impacts of energy development, we were keen to get involved.

How film is shaping the energy and environment debate

It is not surprising that documentary filmmakers are focusing on the energy sector, given the controversial nature of many of today's energy choices.

Fracture ZoneTake shale gas: on the face of it, using hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to produce natural gas seems to offer a number of significant wins for battered public finances, for economically-challenged rural communities and potentially even for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet at each step of the production process, critics have flagged a variety of environmental concerns: safety of the injected chemicals, water use, land fragmentation, propagation of cracks across formations, induced earthquakes, and so on. Even the net greenhouse gas benefits of bringing natural gas-based power onto the grid are open to debate, depending on whether emissions from initial production are vented or captured, and whether the power sources that are being displaced are derived from conventional coal, or from renewable sources such as wind, hydro or solar.

The emerging shale gas controversy in the U.S. attracted the attention of Kallenberg and other filmmakers — and the stories they told have largely framed the debate over shale gas development south of the border.

Haynesville, Kallenberg’s critically acclaimed 2010 documentary, explores the impacts and implications of discovering the largest shale gas field in the United States, and how it is transforming lives and communities. In 2011, the documentary film Gasland and National Public Radio’s popular program This American Life used narratives of residents in areas with fracking activity to attract broad public and media attention to environmental issues associated with shale gas development.

Canadian energy issues are also seeing a growing share of screen time. Numerous documentary films, such as White Water, Black Gold and Petropolis, have taken a critical view of issues related to the oilsands boom; meanwhile, companies have also turned to video as a way to tell their side of the story. A controversial animation posted recently by Enbridge that details the route of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project, along with the counter-video, This Is Not an Enbridge Animation, showcase how video representations can be used to frame and re-frame discussions over energy development in this country.

Green Energy Futures is a project that purposely attempts to frame discussions around positive actions and solutions. With the support of Suncor and TD and presented by the Pembina Institute, host David Dodge produces a weekly series of videos, blogs and columns showcasing the experiences of Canadians who are leading the transition to a clean energy future.

Given the high stakes of the debate over shale gas, renewables, nuclear and other energy issues, video has become an important tool for shaping public perceptions. The challenge for audiences is to discern, despite the entertainment value of the film and the editorial bias of the filmmaker, whether the stories are presented in an accurate and balanced way. And given the politically and emotionally charged nature of many energy issues today, the challenge for filmmakers who are striving to inform decisions rather than ‘win’ supporters to their side is to ensure they’re getting — and portraying — all sides of the story.   

Occupying the “rational middle”

When I met Kallenberg several months ago, he told me his goal for his latest project, the Rational Middle Energy Series, is to use film to empower individuals to have constructive conversations and make informed decisions about the trade-offs related to energy and the environment. His new series of short films covers topics including  “Shale Gas 101”, “Realities of Drilling” and “The Great Transition to a Clean Energy Future.” The project website attempts to establish an “à la carte” independent video resource and information portal, ideally to set the stage for informed community engagement, policy dialogue and cross-stakeholder communication on energy and environment issues.

At the filmmaker’s request, and with support from Shell, the Pembina Institute convened a group of energy and environment experts to provide critical and independent feedback on the contents of the film series. Assembling representatives from industry, academia, First Nations, and environmental organizations to discuss these films and their use was enlightening, especially because the participants candidly shared their diverse perspectives, experience and knowledge.

Their discussion underscored the complexity of our current energy challenges, the difficulty of portraying these issues meaningfully in a bite-sized format, and the need for collaboration to get the recipe right. While our participants found the Rational Middle films to be engaging, fair and appropriately detailed, they didn’t hold back on critical feedback, singling out cultural biases and inaccuracies, and providing suggestions for improvement — exactly what Kallenberg had asked for to help him get the content and balance right.

Some of the most compelling discussion focused on managing the low-probability but high-consequence risks associated with different energy resources, on decoupling energy use from economic growth, and on recognizing the tradeoffs between our ever-increasing energy use and happiness, cultural integrity and quality of life. This tradeoff was made real by a participant from a community that is host to a major energy development. Her personal experience of cultural change, habitat loss, and water stresses arising from gas extraction contrasted with the high-level concerns of experts and with the sanitized portrayal put forward by development proponents.

To me, this contrast makes a powerful case for using film to build bridges of understanding between those who make use of energy services and those who bear the consequences of its production in their communities, by making the impacts and tradeoffs of energy development more apparent. The meeting also demonstrated that independent review processes like the one we convened for the Rational Middle project should be more widely-applied by those who sincerely seek to use video to stimulate dialogue about solutions, rather than to further polarize debates.

See for yourselves!

Those of us living in Calgary have a unique opportunity at the Calgary International Film Festival this week to see first-hand how film can bring people of various perspectives together on an issue related to energy and the environment. The Pembina Institute is co-sponsoring a special screening of the award-winning new film Chasing Ice at the 2012 Green Carpet Gala, where attendees will have the opportunity to mingle and discuss the film after viewing it. The film documents the unprecedented efforts of National Geographic photographer James Balog to capture images of climate change in action across the Arctic. The resulting film is visually stunning and provocative, and its conclusions are bound to inspire some unusual and important conversations about the climate challenge we face and the solutions at hand. If you live in the Calgary area, we hope you’ll join us tonight!

Jason Switzer
Jason Switzer

Jason Switzer was the managing director of the Pembina Institute's industrial decarbonization work until 2018.


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