As the hydrofracking moratorium in New York state comes to an end, Josh Fox‘s 2010 documentary Gasland is only growing more relevant. Barring overwhelming negative public response during the coming 60-day public comment period, hydrofracking will come to New York in a big way. Desperate to solve the state’s budget crisis, an influx of energy industry dollars is proving too tantalizing to pass up for most legislators. Unfortunately, it seems the process is inherently catastrophic to the environment, those living in the area, and most unnervingly the supply of potable water. A large portion of the Marcellus Shale system, the planned site of extensive drilling operations, underlies the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and the Delaware River Basin. Fox explores the areas where fracking is already widespread, explains the process–though there’s no definitive list of the chemicals involved–and interviews those affected. The result is a horror film, a sickening display of what’s been going on thus far and a dire warning of what could happen in the very near future. It is not an easy film to watch, but it is the most important film you will see this year, especially if you are a resident of a state trying to implement these practices.
Gasland opens with an offer sent to Josh Fox to lease the mineral rites of his property in Pennsylvania for a fracking operation. He makes several attempts to contact the gas company that wants to buy him out for more information on what exactly they want to do with his land, but to no avail–and thus begins his exploration. Hydraulic fracturing, is a drilling process which seeks to access deeply buried deposits of natural gas by pumping a chemical slurry into the ground in order to fracture rock formations and release the gas. These mixtures contain hundreds of non-biodegradable chemicals, which have been kept mostly secret. Somehow the chemical slurries being pumped en masse deep underground near essential watersheds are considered proprietary and have been kept hidden from the public. Not knowing what chemicals are even being used in the process has made regulatory oversight that was already difficult a practical impossibility. Fox tells us that these companies are also exempt from EPA regulation and legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. This is thanks to the Cheney/Bush energy task force, formed only two weeks into their term, which set out to “develop a national energy policy designed to help the private sector.” These exemptions are such an egregious betrayal of the public trust it’s unbelievable.
In every area Fox visits, hydrofracking has had immense effects on the nearby residents, and it’s a far more widely employed process than you’d anticipate. Huge swaths of the country, much of it land that hand been off-limits acreage owned and protected by the public trust, are now covered in fracking stations. Upwards of 70% of the millions of gallons of fluid pumped into the ground in fracking remain there, and what is pumped back out is often disposed of improperly. It has been reportedly foisted onto local water treatment plants which are far from capable of adequately filtering such highly polluted water in such large quantities. Compressing stations are shown to have fumes invisible to the naked eye pouring out, in one case drifting off towards a public school. We meet residents that at one point had signed non-disclosure agreements with various companies in exchange for a small settlement and usually water systems that were actually usuable–even if the company had to personally come by and refill the huges tanks weekly. Those that get anything at all only do so after signing a non-disclosure agreement, and many of these people are reneging as the impact of the drilling operations becomes more clear and remains uninvestigated. In more than one instance, Fox meets people whose tap water is so compromised that it can be lit on fire. The flagrant disregard for the environment and public health displayed by these operations throughout the film is so damning that the industry immediately launched its own spin campaign.
An alliance of natural gas exploration and production companies has purchased the first search result that comes up for “Gasland” on google. It’s a website for “America’s Natural Gas Alliance,” and the link to it reads “The Truth About Gasland,” wherein they assert that much of the film is factually inaccurate. The natural gas industry has also paid to have a “Truth About Gasland” video promoted on Youtube, another bit of hokey factless propaganda. The film is under attack by PR Firm/Lobbying Group “Energy-In-Depth,” which is funded by the American Petroleum Institute and has released its own report trying to debunk the film. Neither of these groups represent any independent research into the topic, and it’s impossible to miss the grotesque conflict of interest involved. Josh Fox has since assembled a large team of accredited experts to combat this blatant attempt at using disinformation to discredit his powerfully damaging film and released his own 39 page response to their critique. This response expressly credits each individual involved in its writing, as well as providing sources for all of its facts–something which each of the gas company rebuttals are lacking. The very fact that this film has got the industry so riled up is testament to its importance.
Beyond the important information imparted by Gasland, it’s a very well-made film. Josh Fox provides exceptional narration throughout, and crafts a number of powerful images that stick with you long after the film closes. During his investigation of the public land reserves where fracking is occurring, he rarely encounters anyone. He is able to wander right up to the rigs–there are no fences, no one telling him he shouldn’t be there. This creates one of the film’s most haunting moments as Fox takes the opportunity to, in full gas mask, break out his banjo and play a fine rendition of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ with a field of fracking rigs dotting the landscape behind him. Another image I’ve found quite impossible to shake is a simple map which displays the interconnectedness of America’s rivers and streams overlaid with the natural gas reservoirs currently slated for fracking operations. As if the corruption and ruination of one region’s water supply weren’t enough, the map plainly ingrains the notion that contamination on this scale would be almost impossible to contain. As a guide Fox is subtle and reflective, he avoids the absurd theatricality and self-aggrandizing spectacle of documentarists like Michael Moore. The film is always about giving voice to the people he meets, he lets them tell their own stories, and he admirably never gives up trying to get the gas companies’ side either. The few meetings with spokespeople he can manage to obtain are abruptly aborted, he gets the runaround from every contact he phones, and the problems he brings to John Hanger–Pennsylvania Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection–are dismissed straightaway as non-existent exaggerations. The department has since gone on to compare Gasland to a work of Nazi Propaganda, of which “Joseph Goebbels would be proud.” In the end the best he can do to represent their side is to film the gas industry reps during a government hearing where they have been compelled to testify. They offer nothing substantive to refute or discredit Fox’s claims, they merely dismiss them as untrue and berate the very notion that anyone would even ask such questions.
Sooner or later we have to ask ourselves just how much are we willing to sacrifice for our energy addiction. Gas companies would have you believe that their practices are perfectly safe, that Gasland is completely unfounded propaganda, but don’t the film’s claims at least warrant further exploration? Fox raises this question at one point in the documentary, why is it that the claims of people who find themselves injured by the practices of these corrupt corporate monoliths are regarded as hearsay and slander? Shouldn’t the responsibility fall on the companies to prove that their practices are safe before we even let them do it, rather than leaving it to those without bottomless coffers and huge teams of lawyers to demonstrate the destruction that’s been caused? In any case, Gasland is a perfect starting point for those who don’t know what fracking is, or just want to learn a little more about it. Bernard Goldstein, an expert on public health, will also be giving a lecture on the health effects of fracking at the University of Rochester Medical Center this Wednesday 7/20 for those in the area. This issue isn’t going away and we’re in a rare window of opportunity for public opinion to be heard. It is of utmost importance that residents of New York learn about this issue now while the government is still waiting to hear from its citizens–rather than a few years down the line when it’s trying to clean up the mess.
Posted at Examiner.com