Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Haynesville Movie - Catch it if You Can

Last night I had the chance to see what I believe was the world premier of Gregory Kallenberg’s documentary film “Haynesville” and a very interesting panel discussion afterwards. The event was held at the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center and was sponsored by the Tulane Energy Institute.

Somewhere in the list of things I am not is movie critic, but just like a geophysicist who will opine on geopolitics, that won’t stop me. I’ll try to avoid any spoilers because I hope everyone has the opportunity to see the film, as it was very well done. Well shot, well edited and well written. The film professor on the panel after the showing said that it was one of the best documentaries she has seen for the past five years. Since everyone with a video camera is now a documentarian, the level of documentary quality has gone downhill. But “Haynesville” is a professionally made movie that is not to be confused with much of the dreck out there today. Bottom line: it is a very good film.

The story followed three individuals in different circumstances and showed how their lives changed over the course of about six months (watch the trailer for more on the specifics - I won't spoil it). The stories themselves were told objectively and they avoided many traps that would have made them predictable. The film used the development of a gas well from land clearing to initial production to help pace the story. (The well was called Grant #1, but I might have miswritten the name or it might go by another name because I can’t find any wells named Grant in state records.)

The film also included interviews with many experts in the areas of conventional and alternative energy. The production has a negative slant on coal. It doesn’t completely slam coal, but it also doesn’t offer an opposing position favoring coal other than the economic argument that the stuff is simply cheap. On the whole, you can tell the filmmaker has an opinion, as a documentarian probably should, but he doesn’t bludgeon the viewer with it. There is still enough room to have your own thoughts. As Gregory Kallenberg said in the discussion afterward, he wanted to show that “energy is complicated.” He did a good job of that.

I have to say that I was a little worried going in. Having watched the film trailer and processed it through my mental black box, I was expecting more of a melodrama that dwelled on negatives and attacked “The Man.” What I found was balanced and rather objective treatment of the development of the Haynesville Shale and how it fits into the big picture of energy, environment and geopolitics, all told through individual stories.

In terms of clarifying complicated concepts, the film did a great job. There were superb graphics and good explanatory notes. I might quibble with some of the numbers and descriptions used, but the general points were well explained.

One area that I wish the producers had explored more deeply in the film is the technology and expertise behind shale drilling. I realize you can’t put everything in a documentary, but viewers will not walk away understanding just how complex and expensive it is to extract gas from shale. They may be no dry holes in the Haynesville Shale, but the process of getting the gas out of the hole is not to be underestimated. I think this omission led to some misconceptions from the audience that this is Jed Clampett-easy (one of which is discussed in a separate post).

The panel discussion afterwards was also enlightening and brought up some interesting issues. Perhaps the most interesting concept came from political scientist Christopher Fettweis, who talked about the “resource curse.” This is an international phenomenon where countries that are resource rich end up worse off because wealth and power ends up in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. This is a cautionary tale for Louisiana, which has a history of squandering energy wealth at the expense of its population.

Prof. Fettweis mentioned Norway’s experience with North Sea oil wealth. When oil was discovered off the coast of Norway, the country set up a commission to investigate the “problem.” Ultimately, the majority of the wealth created by energy ended up in a trust for the benefit of all Norwegians.

I’m not na├»ve enough to think this will happen in Louisiana (or anywhere else in the U.S. other than Alaska), but it’s an interesting model. My fear is that we are too far gone to be able to constructively take advantage of our newfound energy wealth. First, given the deep recession, decisions are being made today with a short-sighted outlook. There is not much big picture, visionary thinking going on these days when politicians are trying to plug billion dollar budget holes. Second, because the Haynesville land rush happened so fast, the proverbial horse is out of the barn. Most of the good land prospective for the Haynesville Shale and the Middle Bossier Shale (which is just above the southern part of the Haynesville) has been leased and will be drilled so that it will be held by production. There are a few spots with un-leased land and a small percentage of leases will not be drilled before expiring, but the vast majority of productive land has been tied up for generations to come. Many people got raw deals, others got no deals. Unfortunately there are no do-overs.

One thing that deserves mention is the fact that it was an entirely Louisiana production, with nearly every aspect involving home grown talent and resources. I guess it’s more jobs and economic development created by the Haynesville Shale. The next trick is finding a screening of the movie. From New Orleans, it’s off to Europe for film festivals and special events. Hopefully it will get funding and support for a wider release. Sign up at the website (http://www.haynesvillemovie.com/) for updates.

Kudos to everyone involved in this independent film. I would recommend it to everyone, whether or not they have any interest in the Haynesville Shale or the energy industry.

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