Fracking Industry's Propaganda Hypes Shale Gas Production and Profitability Numbers
This month, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection released its bi-annual report on how much natural gas has been produced in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation which stretches underneath much of Appalachia. Investors were shocked because the production numbers seemed far lower than expected. Watched closely by market and energy analysts, the report sparked a heated debate about the oil and gas industry's excited rhetoric about fracked shale gas as the cure-all to many of America's energy and jobs needs.
But the story quickly got complicated. The report was released despite lacking data from the state’s second largest driller, Chesapeake Energy, and state regulators never flagged the omission. The amount of gas flowing out of Pennsylvania had actually climbed dramatically.
It was a major flaw, and suddenly the searing spotlight of the media honed in on questions about whether regulators were keeping accurate track of how much gas the wells in their state really produce. How could they overlook such a massive error? Can the public be sure that the updated tally gives an accurate picture of how these wells are performing?
If regulators make mistakes in tracking energy production in their state, how reliable is the companion to that report, which tracks the toxic waste produced by these same companies?
Those are all valid questions that need honest answers. But the most important questions raised in the controversy were largely overlooked.
The amount of natural gas produced from all the fracking going on in Pennsylvania matters not just for the state's residents, but also its land-use regulations, waste disposal capacity and water use limits. Unconventional gas production data from the Marcellus Shale matters for the nation as a whole because national energy policy is being crafted based on certain long-term assumptions about shale drilling and the price of natural gas.
The oil and gas industry has propagated a vision that fracking unleashes vast amounts of gas which then flows relatively steadily for decades. But a growing mountain of evidence suggests that nothing could be further from the truth. Shale gas wells dry up, sometimes long before they have produced enough gas to cover the costs of drilling and fracking them.
In the oldest shale formation, Texas’s Barnett shale, many aging wells have had to be re-fracked multiple times to keep them from running dry. Re-fracking costs millions of dollars and requires millions of gallons of water.
A review last year by the New York Times found that less than ten percent of 9,000 Texas shale wells had recouped their estimated production costs within their first seven years.
This is the dirty little secret that the oil and gas industry rarely will acknowledge. Oil and gas companies don't want to discuss it because high volume slickwater horizontal fracking is so new that there is paltry data to show how wells generally perform over the long run (read: twenty to fifty years).
Over the past year, the total amount of Marcellus gas produced has indeed risen dramatically. But this gas only matters if drillers can pull it out of the ground at a profit. It also only matters if drillers can discern how much money they will have to throw at a well to keep that gas flowing via fracking.
This is why the production data from places like Pennsylvania is so fundamentally important. Not to judge whether more gas is coming out of the Marcellus now—the current drilling boom means that new wells are constantly drilled across the state, adding an enormous burst of gas each time a well is brought online. But because data about individual wells, tracked over time, can show how quickly each well runs low.
The answer to that question is about far more than whether oil and gas companies can make a profit on the gas or whether investors will lose out. It's ultimately a far higher-stakes issue: whether renewables will not only be far cleaner, but also cheaper than shale gas over the long run. Can today’s low natural gas prices last, or are we on the verge of a gas price spike?
If the accuracy of the production data is questionable, then policymakers in Washington, investors on Wall Street and the public at large will have a tough time getting an accurate picture of how these wells perform over the long run.
Relying on industry rhetoric for answers to these questions is perilous. Consider, for example, Chesapeake Energy, the company behind this summer's confusion over production data.
In 2009, Chesapeake was telling investors that its average Marcellus well would produce 4.2 billion cubic feet of gas equivalent (bcfe) of natural gas over its lifetime. By 2010, it had hiked its estimate to 5.2 bcfe per well.
But according to a new U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report, the industry-wide average for wells drilled in the interior Marcellus region (the best performing area) in 2011 will actually be 1.2 billion cubic feet—roughly one fifth of the amount that Chesapeake has told investors and the public its wells in the region can produce.
Do these federal estimates mean that Chesapeake was lying to investors? No. Every company’s acreage is different—there are sweet spots in the shale, and every driller leases the land it thinks will be most profitable and productive.
Chesapeake also includes natural gas liquids in its estimates (the "e" in bcfe indicates that they're including liquids like propane and ethane along with methane gas), but USGS does not, which could account for a small portion of the difference. And both the company and its federal regulators at USGS are making projections into the future with limited history to guide them—after all, the fracking boom is just over a decade old.
But it does show a wide gulf between the numbers that drillers brag about, and the conclusions reached by independent analysts.
Federal regulators have struggled for some time to get the numbers right when it comes to fracking. When the Energy Information Administration first released estimates for the total amount of gas trapped in the Marcellus, their numbers were stunning. But within less than a year, the agency was forced to drop their projections by roughly 80 percent, as more data showed that early guesses were unreliable.
The new USGS report also shows clearly that individual shale gas wells can be fickle. Some wells are monster wells, able to produce jaw-dropping amounts of gas and making the people who leased their land millionaires overnight. But many other wells in the same region produce very little gas.
For example, the USGS report projects that in the Haynesville shale along the Gulf Coast, the best wells can be expected to produce 20 bcf of gas over their lifetimes. But the worst wells drilled in 2011 can only be expected to generate 0.02 bcf—a thousand-fold difference. The average well in the region will produce 2.6 bcf, the USGS says.
Given that some investment analysts expected far more, and some investors have calculated that Haynesville wells need to produce 5.5 bcf to cover the costs of drilling and fracking, this could spell big trouble for drillers—and potentially a big price spike for consumers.
Companies' hyping of shale gas production and profitability has already had consequences. In the past year or so many of the biggest companies have had to drastically writedown their reserves, partly because the cost of extracting the gas is higher than the price drillers can sell it for. Even though it promised investors untold riches from these shale plays, Chesapeake Energy has gone on a selling spree to try to deal with staggering debt.
All this deeply undercuts the industry's rhetoric and the refrain that will most assuredly get mobilized once again during the upcoming presidential debates about there being a 100-year supply of gas (this myth is unpacked and debunked here).
So, what does any of this have to do with the flap between Pennsylvania and Chesapeake Energy about the well performance data?
It goes to show, yet again, that the uncertainty surrounding our current shale gas bet is as broad and deep as the shale itself.
In Pennsylvania, these problems are especially pronounced. Unlike other energy producing states, Pennsylvania does not have a severance tax on the gas produced in the state, meaning it has less incentive to accurately tally the history of each well. It is also unique in that it only reports its data every six months—all other states release figures monthly.
This all makes it especially difficult for independent analysts who might not have access to the statistics used by the USGS to make their own predictions, to see whether the industry’s claims can be corroborated—or not.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
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By Philip James
As the days shorten and temperatures drop in the northern hemisphere, leaves begin to turn. We can enjoy glorious autumnal colors while the leaves are still on the trees and, later, kicking through a red, brown and gold carpet when out walking.
Reaching the Limit<p>The researchers, led by Deborah Zani at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, studied the degree to which the timing of color changes in autumn tree leaves was determined by the growth of the plant in the preceding spring and summer.</p><p>Temperature and day length were traditionally accepted as the main determinants of when leaves changed color and fell, leading <a href="http://max2.ese.u-psud.fr/publications/Delpierre_2009_AFM.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">some scientists</a> to assume that warming temperatures would delay this process until later in the season. Studying deciduous European tree species, including horse chestnut, silver birch and English oak, the authors of the new study recorded how much carbon each tree absorbed per season and how that ultimately affected when the leaves fell.</p><p>Using data from the <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Barbara_Templ/publication/323254030_Pan_European_Phenological_database_PEP725_a_single_point_of_access_for_European_data/links/5a8bf0dba6fdcc6b1a442ef2/Pan-European-Phenological-database-PEP725-a-single-point-of-access-for-European-data.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Pan European Phenology Project</a>, which has tracked some trees for as long as 65 years, the researchers found in their long-term observational study that as the rate of photosynthesis increased, leaves changed color and fell earlier in the year. For every 10% increase in photosynthetic activity over the spring and summer growing season, trees shed their leaves, on average, eight days earlier.</p><p>Climate-controlled experiments on five-year-old European beech and Japanese meadowsweet trees suggest what could be behind this unexpected result. In these trials, the trees were exposed to full sun, half shade or full shade. The results show that there is a limit to the amount of photosynthesis that a tree can carry out over a growing season. Think of it like filling a bucket with water. It can be done slowly or quickly, but once the bucket is full, there is nowhere for any more water to go.</p>
Earlier Autumn Colors<p>In a world with increasing levels of <a href="https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/carbon-dioxide-levels-continue-record-levels-despite-covid-19-lockdown#:%7E:text=The%20annual%20globally%20averaged%20level,per%20million%20benchmark%20in%202015." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon in the atmosphere</a>, these new findings imply that warmer weather and longer growing seasons will not allow temperate deciduous trees to take up more carbon dioxide. The study's predictive model suggests that by 2100, when tree growing seasons are expected to be between 22 and 34 days longer, leaves will fall from trees between three and six days earlier than they do now.</p><p>This has significant implications for climate change modeling. If we accept that the amount of carbon taken up by deciduous trees in temperature countries like the UK will remain the same each year regardless of the growing season, carbon dioxide levels will rise more quickly than was previously expected. The only way to change this will be to increase the capacity of trees to absorb carbon.</p><p>Plants that aren't limited by the amount of nitrogen available may be able to grow for longer in the warming climate. These are the trees which can take nitrogen from the air, such as <a href="https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/a-z-of-british-trees/alder/" target="_blank">alder</a>. But these species will still lose their leaves at roughly the same time as always, thanks to less daylight and colder temperatures.</p><p>But on the upside, with the prospect of some trees losing their leaves earlier and others losing them at the time they do now, there might be the prospect of prolonged autumnal colors – and more time for us to kick through the leaves.</p>
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By Kang-Chun Cheng
Modoc County lies in the far northeast corner of California, and most of its 10,000 residents rely on cattle herding, logging, or government jobs for employment. Rodeos and 4-H programs fill most families' calendars; massive belt buckles, blue jeans, and cowboy hats are common attire. Modoc's niche brand of American individualism stems from a free-spirited cowboy culture that imbues the local ranching conflict with wild horses.
The History of Horse Management<p>Before the 1950s, feral horses were largely unregulated in the U.S. They were released, grazed, captured, killed, sold, and otherwise <a href="http://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/WHB-Report-2020-NewCover-051920-508.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">managed by local inhabitants</a> as they saw fit. Around that time, Velma Bronn Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie," started raising public awareness of the "perceived inhumane capture and treatment of free-ranging herds."</p><p>Thanks in part to Johnston's efforts, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1971. It declared that the animals "shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this, they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."</p><p><a href="http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6148/847.full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">This act</a> has been amended four times since its conception to accommodate the fluctuating opinions and conditions around maintaining a "thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands"—an admirable although highly subjective goal. Achieving it involves juggling competing interests: those of local residents, permanent grazers, hunters and fishers, advocacy groups, conservationists, and Indigenous tribes.</p><p>The Bureau of Land Management must manage these many conflicting interests. Modoc County's <a href="https://www.fs.fed.us/wild-horse-burro/territories/DevilsGardenPlateau.shtml" target="_blank">Devil's Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory</a> epitomizes the challenges of this task. Officially deemed wild horse territory, the garden consists of 258,000 acres and is wholly within permitted livestock allotments. It is also home to wildlife such as cougar, antelope, migratory birds, and aquatic species dependent on delicate high-desert riparian areas.</p><p>The presence of wild horses has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631530094X" target="_blank">decrease native wildlife species diversity</a> for both birds and mammals. Pronghorn antelope are an icon in Western grasslands, known for their annual 350-mile migration along historic routes estimated to be 5,800 years old. This awe-inspiring trek is one of the longest large-mammal migration corridors remaining in North America, but 75% of <a href="http://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00548.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pronghorn migration routes</a> have already been lost because of disturbances from the accelerated leasing of public lands and energy development. Horses also affect the pronghorn's yearly migrations by <a href="http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631630218X" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">monopolizing watering holes</a>, thus preventing native species from drinking.</p>
Indigenous Support for Ecological Balance<p>Ken Sandusky, a public information officer who has worked for the Forest Service in Modoc County for 13 years, lives by his station's mission statement: "Caring for the Land and Serving People." In his work, Sandusky aims to include the broad range of stakeholders and often acts as a tribal liaison. Sandusky himself is a member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma, but as a Modoc native, is more culturally in touch with the local Klamath tribe.</p><p>When it comes to rangeland health, he says, there's a tangible split in what that actually means. "It depends on what you are measuring the outcome against," Sandusky explains. Range managers may perceive progress from a year-to-year basis, but to many Indigenous tribes, the baseline for "progress" goes back generations, to pre-contact times. "They have long memories," he says. "Tribes see damage that is a hundred-plus years in the making."</p>
A Willingness to Try New Things<p>"Americans don't know what's happening on these lands," says Suzanne Roy, the executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, an advocacy organization. The Bureau of Land Management, she says, "is run by and for the livestock industry. They come from a ranching background. The term 'rangeland' management itself illustrates how livestock management is the dominant perspective."</p><p>Roy is particularly concerned about how resources are being allocated: "Policies of land management agencies don't reflect the desires and interests of the public." To illustrate, most Americans associate public lands with national parks and environmental conservation; only 29% of respondents to a recent poll considered livestock grazing an acceptable use of those lands.</p><p>Grazing on public lands certainly aligns with the financial interests of cattle ranchers and helps explain why they insist on increased wild horse management. Cattle can <a href="http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS21232.pdf" target="_blank">graze on public lands</a> for $1.35 per animal per month, while grazing on comparable private land costs ranchers $23 per animal per month (American taxpayer dollars make up the difference). To be fair, though, small-scale ranching would not be viable without public lands.</p><p>The campaign hopes to work toward more equitable resource allocation and improvements to overall habitats for horses and wildlife generally. "There are workable solutions to this issue," Roy says. "Common pushback from rangers is that new conservation strategies will 'destroy our way of life,' but change doesn't have to be bad."</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0362331994900264" target="_blank">social conservatism</a> intrinsic to human cultures makes change seem daunting and people reluctant to try new tactics even in the face of suboptimal systems. Roy uses a case in adjacent Marin County to illustrate: Until 2001, the county ran a USDA program focused on killing apex predators (e.g. coyotes, mountain lions, and cougars) in defense of livestock. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to take into account the science of predators. Killing one mountain lion, for example, creates a vacuum and will eventually lead to increased competition for this newly available territory. In 2001, Marin introduced a country-run program that promoted nonlethal methods such as fox lights, guard dogs, and fladry to deal with predator incidents while compensating ranchers for sheep and lambs lost to predation.</p><p>Ranchers were initially livid, concerned that bans on shooting and trapping hindered their rights, making them defenseless against livestock predation. But 15 years later, a majority agreed that this form of humane <a href="http://www.projectcoyote.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Camilla-Fox-Thesis-FINAL-January-2008.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">adaptive management </a>has successfully reduced both livestock losses and the total number of predators. Ensuring its continued success, the program requires active participation on behalf of all stakeholders and long-term commitment from the local government for support.</p><p>As one fifth-generation sheepherder, Gowan Batiste, explained in an interview to the <a href="https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/mendocino-county-rancher-and-others-calling-for-non-lethal-wildlife-management/ar-BB16CJ8g" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ukiah Daily Journal,</a> "Livestock is a food of desperation for predators; the more you harass them and make life difficult for them, the more likely they are going to come into conflict with humans."</p>
Keeping Wild Horses in Check<p>When it comes to wild horses, many solutions are already in the works. Through annual autumn wild horse roundups, known as gathers, the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals has become one of the U.S.'s most successful adoption sites. The California Cattlemen's Association, a nonprofit trade association and organization popular among ranchers in Modoc, urges its members to support the wild horse gathers in Devils Garden, saying they are humane, good for the horses themselves (since competition for scarce water and forage resources may instigate aggression and <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1439-0310.1981.tb01930.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">herd violence</a>), and necessary to support local ranchers and Modoc's agriculture-reliant economy.</p><p>Another popular solution for controlling wild horse populations is a fertility-control vaccine called PZP, given to female horses on the range <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ur7w3UPTCsk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">using dart guns</a>. Mares are tracked on foot or with game cameras while drones are used to locate more elusive herds. The PZP vaccine has been endorsed by the American Wild Horse Campaign as the "<a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/fertility-control" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">most promising strategy</a>" for managing wild horses in their habitats and is also recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. Importantly, a dose of the vaccine only costs $30.</p><p>Lastly, land acquisition and <a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/equitable-share-resources" target="_blank">grazing lease buyouts</a> can promote equitable sharing of public lands and available forage. Acquiring key pieces of land adjacent to or within federally designated wild horse habitat areas can reduce conflicts over resource allocation.</p>
A Global Search for Solutions<p>Pastoralists all over the world face similar land-use conflicts, despite huge variations in climate and culture. The ongoing situation across rural California resonates with that of Fulani cattle herders in Niger and Sami reindeer herders in the Arctic.</p><p>Herders everywhere are accused of having too many animals or are perceived as selfish and irresponsible by their own communities. Overgrazing is certainly an issue, but it's not simply the number of animals that matters: The <a href="https://savory.global/holistic-management/" target="_blank">amount of time</a> animals spend in a certain area is critical to rangeland health. And in the context of such allegations, the ecological value of grazing is frequently omitted. Grazers, both wild and domestic, <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/food-everyone/2019/02/04/restoring-the-range-can-beef-be-earth-friendly/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are key to regulating soil health and allowing for species diversity and coverage, </a>as well as efficient carbon sequestration.</p><p>Part of the problem in these heated grazing debates is that moderate viewpoints are drowned out by extremist agendas—those who prioritize wild horse populations at all costs and those who want all of the horses gone, period. "The majority of people don't really have strong views about the horses," Sandusky says. "But the ones who do can get really into it." These unwavering views make it difficult to find compromises that account for all stakeholders.</p><p>"There is no biological problem, merely a social one," says professor Nicholas Tyler, a pastoralism expert at the University of Tromsø in northern Norway. Tyler maintains that in the case of horses and cattle in the West, as with so many others, the so-called equilibria argument is specious and quasi-biological. "Certainly a lot of horses will influence the species composition," he says. "Remove the horses, things change. Add horses, things change again. There is nothing magical about that."</p><p>But Tyler takes it one step further: "There never was, is, or will be a balance. There are shifting equilibria, which is something quite different," he says. "It is up to the community to decide which state of that equilibrium it prefers."</p>
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7. Virunga (2014)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6922c47a9603f24dd431f6e5282f7cb5"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/wxXf2Vxj_EU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the only places in the world where you can still find wild mountain gorillas. But the park and its inhabitants are under attack from poachers, armed militias and companies wanting to exploit natural resources. This gripping doc follows a group of people trying to preserve the park and protect these magnificent great apes.</p>
8. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9b7e7a93c26b3a3fc4f8a8374d98e2f2"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/nV04zyfLyN4?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This crowdfunded documentary explores the impact of animal agriculture on the environment and investigates why the world's leading environmental organizations are too afraid to talk about it. The film has caused controversy by suggesting that animal agriculture is the primary source of environmental destruction and the main emitter of greenhouse gases, rather than fossil fuels.</p>
9. Years of Living Dangerously (2014)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="585f966df408ae57e3e31747a6c0a66b"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/juXzfwvVHZQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>In this Emmy-winning documentary series, celebrity correspondents travel the world to interview experts and scientists on the climate crisis and its effects. But rather than focusing on its star power, the two-season series also shines a spotlight on ordinary people affected by the climate crisis and shows how we can save our world for future generations.</p>
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