Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Are Films the Answer to Understanding Energy's Complexities?

The issues and choices surrounding our use of energy have rarely been more complex than today, yet our main channels for information about them are discouragingly shallow.  The web is often more effective at spreading misperceptions than fact-based analysis.  When our visual media focus on energy, it's usually to flash bad news before flitting on to the next story, leaving behind images of burning oil platforms or blacked-out cities.  One bright spot is the recent wave of documentary films on energy topics.  Films engage us on a deeper level, and the energy challenges we face deserve such longer-form treatment. August seems like a perfect time to suggest a few of them to you.  If you're reading this blog, then I'm betting you might at least consider watching a movie about energy instead of the latest summer blockbuster.   

Although it was hardly the first serious film about energy, the recent trend seemed to start with "Gasland". For all its inaccuracies, which have been documented by groups outside industry, that film helped start a national conversation about the right way to develop the enormous unconventional oil and gas resources that new combinations of technology have unlocked. In the spirit of making that dialog more constructive and even-handed, you should also know about two other documentaries covering the same topic and region from a different angle.  To many of the farmers and other landowners in depressed counties of New York and Pennsylvania, fracking is not a curse but an actual or potential lifeline. Seeing "Truthland" and "Empire State Divide" might not convert fracking skeptics into gas industry supporters, but it should at least fill in some of the gaps left by the "Gasland's" starkly one-sided portrayal of shale gas.

Another energy film I recently ran across, "spOILed", offers a timely reminder that despite oil's many problems it remains an essential ingredient of our global civilization, providing affordable mobility and a host of products that have made our lives much easier than those of our ancestors--or of people in countries that still lack reliable access to energy.  "spOILed" is also very much a movie about the dangers of Peak Oil, which envisions a world in which declining oil production, rising demand in developing countries, and geopolitical risks create persistent and growing shortages of oil.  This is particularly sobering when combined with a sense of just how challenging it will be to obtain the services that oil now provides from other energy sources.   Unfortunately, the film's message was undermined by occasionally jarring choices of visuals, some hyperbolic claims--no indoor plumbing without oil?--and by political overtones that might limit its effectiveness with the wider audience it appears to target. 

The energy film project that I'm most excited about is one aimed consciously at finding and cultivating "The Rational Middle" in the energy debate.  According to its director, Gregory Kallenberg, it started with a TED talk following his previous film, "Haynesville", which examined the impact of shale gas in Northern Louisiana.  As I understand it, the current project consists of 10 short videos on energy, four of which have been released on the group's website so far.  From the episodes I've seen, Mr. Kallenberg's team assembled an impressive group of experts, including Amy Myers Jaffe of the Baker Institute at Rice University, Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, former Energy Information Agency Administrator Richard Newell, and Dr. Michael Webber of the University of Texas. The series is being launched with a road show featuring panels of some of the same experts interviewed in the films, starting with a session at this year's Aspen Ideas Festival.  The films are focused on information and process, rather than on selling one point of view. Aside from a few assertions in a couple of interviews, the factual presentation in the initial videos was very sound.  I expect to have more to say about The Rational Middle as additional episodes become available. 

If the we are to develop effective energy policies for the 21st century, the public's desire for clean, secure, reliable and affordable energy must be grounded in facts and figures that help us to differentiate realistic expectations from wish fulfilment.   I'm encouraged that a growing number of filmmakers seems willing to explore energy issues in the depth they deserve, with production values that will connect with today's audiences, rather than turning them off. Enjoy!