The new documentary, Gasland, won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and premieres on HBO tonight. In it, filmmaker Josh Fox takes on a 24 state journey to examine the environmental and health consequences of natural gas drilling. His focus is Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process by which millions of gallons of water and chemicals are shot at high pressure into wells deep beneath the ground to break up rock formations and release trapped natural gas bubbles.
Fox was offered $100,000 by a natural gas mining company to lease his 19.5 acres of Pennsylvania land. Instead of taking the money he made this film. The gas companies tell us their sixty years of experience have proven fracking safe but none would appear on camera for Fox.
The practice has significantly increased and worrisome reports of environmental contamination have resulted in the Environmental Protection Agency conducting a nationwide scientific study. Our proven natural gas reserves are among the highest in the world. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu says natural gas “will be a transition fuel as we go to renewables.”
After hearing Fox speak in a recent Fresh Air interview of Fox, it’s hard not to worry that the nation’s drinking water supply could become an inland version of the Gulf oil disaster. Some highlights…
Reports of water being flammable right after a hydraulic fracturing process were actually, I found out, fairly common across the country, and also in Canada. And I’d seen pictures of it from a woman in Alberta. I’d heard about it in Louisiana and Wyoming, Texas, Colorado. But generally, what happens is, those people’s water wells are disconnected, and then the gas company trades a non-disclosure agreement for a water supply. So it says you can’t tell anybody what happened, but we’re going to give you replacement water for however long as you want.
So we had to kind of scramble to catch a place that was – that that had just happened, and that was in Wells County, Colorado, where there had been a lot of fracturing. There’s a lot of gas wells. It’s just northeast of Denver, and there were five or six different families that we saw lighting their water on fire, right out of the tap…some of these people were showering with the lights off because they were afraid if they turned on the light bulb, if there was a spark from the light bulb, they would blow up their shower. It was really intense.
We’re completely surrounded by people who have leased. The difficult thing about this is that it’s a decision for a whole community that’s left up to certain individuals to decide what they want to do. Because if the neighboring property next to me is leased, and I want to sell my house, I’m in a very difficult situation. It’s very hard for me to get financing from a bank because I’m now adjacent to an industrial zone. There also is, in many states, what’s called compulsory integration, or forced pooling. So if 60 percent of landowners in one 1,200-acre parcel lease, you’re leased, which means they can take the gas from out – from under you. You’re forced, basically, to sign the lease.
“The gas industry is very powerful, and their power in Congress is well shown. They were exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act by the 2005 Energy bill. The Safe Drinking Water Act monitors underground injection of toxin. They were also exempted in previous years from the Clean Air Act, the Superfund Law. … It’s an unregulated industry.”
There must be some town somewhere that is happy to have given over the land:
I’ve been doing a lot of public appearances with the film, and I’ve actually asked the gas companies: Listen, if you’ve got an ideal town where you’ve got 100-plus wells and everything is going swimmingly well, nobody’s upset and you don’t have these problems with air pollution and water contamination and health problems, I want you to take me to that town. I want a guided tour. So far, no responses to that. I don’t think such a town exists. I think what we’re doing is going from place to place and contaminating those water supplies. I haven’t found that town – and you know, we were looking for it.
The oil and gas industry has already been busy condemning the film and disputing Mr. Fox’s assertions. And, again, it’s maddening to see how easy he makes it for the film’s critics to attack him, and how difficult for sympathetic but objective viewers to wholly embrace him.
Like a less manic Michael Moore, Mr. Fox capitalizes on people’s refusals to be interviewed, presenting several montages in which he is seen supposedly making repeated, fruitless phone calls to corporate offices. He cleverly inserts in his closing credits a long list of “interviews we were declined,” which includes many chief executives of energy companies as well as Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. It’s an important element, at least in emotional terms, in Mr. Fox’s case, but what we don’t see with any real specificity is how these people were approached or what they were told about the film, leaving it difficult to make judgments about their refusals to appear on camera.
“We have no evidence that hydraulic fracturing is causing problems,” says Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Without evidence of problems, he says there’s no reason to pile on more regulation.
“I think people need to have more faith in the regulatory agencies that are watching it very closely and their ability to respond to issues if they arise,” says Fuller.
Haven’t we heard lines like that before?
Not an HBO subscriber? Add it to your Netflix queue. That’s what I did.