If there is one image that crystallized popular anxiety about the new oil and gas drilling wave known as “fracking,” it is of a Colorado man setting fire to the water coming out of his kitchen faucet. It appeared in a controversial film called “Gasland” made by Josh Fox, a 1995 Columbia University graduate in theater studies.
The film was more Michael Moore than “Frontline,” more wake-up call than network news show. After its release in 2010, Fox spent a year and a half promoting the film in 250 towns and cities, attended a rally with Mark Ruffalo and Debra Winger, and appeared on Jon Stewart’s show.
Now Fox is back with a sequel, “Gasland Part II.” Like the earlier film, this one, which aired last week on HBO, has some powerful images. There is the wealthy Texan who walks out of his mansion and over to his water well and lights up the water pouring out of a garden hose. There is the mayor of DISH, Tex., who leaves town because he says chemical fumes are making his family sick; he calls fracking “the biggest assault on property rights I’ve ever seen.” And there is a homeowner who takes a break from packing boxes to sit down at the piano and play the famous Doors tune “Light My Fire.”
There is an element of peeing in the punch bowl about Fox’s films. Fracking — a combination of horizontal drilling and water-intensive hydraulic fracturing — unlocks vast oil and gas reserves bottled up in layers of shale rock. It is driving down U.S. natural gas costs, luring energy-intensive industries from abroad and driving many polluting coal plants out of business.
Fox, however, portrays fracking as something that mars the scenery, sparks heavy truck traffic, injects toxic chemicals into the Earth and, above all, contaminates water aquifers.
Is Fox’s message nuanced? Hardly. Are there flaws in his argument? In places. For example, the state of Colorado disputed the reasons for the kitchen-faucet fire. But the flaming faucet burned questions about fracking safety into people’s minds, and Fox and other fracking foes have prodded politicians and regulators to take closer looks at the real risks.
In “Gasland Part II,” Fox visits familiar flash points in the national debate over fracking, such as the farms and forests of Dimock, Pa., and the ranches and plains of Pavillion, Wyo., where there has been strong evidence of contamination of water aquifers from gas drilling.
“Gasland Part II” also widens the lens to indict the political system for failing to protect landowners from contaminated water.
The film opens to the sound of President Obama’s voice and later returns to Obama. “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years,” the president says in his 2012 State of the Union speech. “My administration will take every action to safely develop this energy . . . without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.”
Fox believes that the political process has failed.
“I felt like I could see it: A horizontal well bore down into the Earth, snaking underneath the Congress, shooting money up through the chamber with such high pressure that it blew the top off of our democracy,” Fox says in his narration.
Indeed politics, oil and gas do mix.
For example, the past three former governors of Pennsylvania, which lies atop the giant Marcellus shale formation, have gone to work for law, lobbying or private equity firms that have received or invested money in shale gas or drilling-service companies, according to the nonprofit group Public Accountability Initiative. The current governor, Tom Corbett (R), received more than $1 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry.
“Another layer of contamination due to fracking [is] not the water, not the air, but our government,” Fox says in the movie. “All those toxic dollars, all those contaminants, all that influence outsizing citizens’ voice in our democratic republic.”
As Fox tells it, he became interested in fracking in 2008 when an oil and gas company sought to lease land in northeastern Pennsylvania’s scenic Wayne County, where Fox’s parents built a home on 19.5 acres in 1972. Fox says he still spends nearly half his time there when he isn’t traveling; the rest of the time he lives in New York City. The Pennsylvania home was intended to be a refuge for his parents. Fox’s father was born in Kazakhstan when his family was on the run from the Nazis. Fox’s mother came from a broken Italian immigrant family.
Eventually the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance negotiated terms with gas companies. A lease would have paid more than $90,000 to Fox’s family, plus potentially much more in royalties.
Instead of collecting royalties, Fox, who was running a theater company, started collecting stories from people who were convinced that fracking is sending chemicals into their drinking water. Working on a shoestring budget, the first “Gasland” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010 and was aired by HBO in June 2010, in the midst of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The sequel is better funded, yet retains the low-budget look. Fox is a character and the narrator, seen on camera wearing his New York Yankees cap, doing interviews, getting arrested for trying to film a congressional hearing and lugging around a banjo, which he plays ably on three of the music tracks.
Needless to say, the oil and gas industry has vilified Fox. Leading the charge is Steve Everley, director of a Web site called “Energy in Depth” that is financed by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, whose members have been at the forefront of the shale gas drilling boom. A former research aide to Newt Gingrich, Everley works as an executive at FTI Consulting, a public relations firm that frequently helps companies in the unpleasant limelight. The IPAA is a client.
“Gasland Director Caught Using Deception (What Else Is New?),” is a headline featured on the site. Another reads: “From Flaming Faucet to Flaming Hose: The Continuing Fraud of Gasland.”
The Web site says that a court found that the Texas homeowner with the flaming garden hose had hooked it up to a gas vent, not a water well. Fox says that’s not so, and that he saw it himself.
Everley and Fox battled this month on NPR's “The Diane Rehm Show.” Also on the show, Rehm asked Everley about an audio clip in the film that captured industry executives talking about using military “psyops” specialists to overcome opposition among landowners. Everley said the clip was from a meeting about the virtues of hiring veterans and lamented turning “a few seconds” of audio into “this huge indictment of the entire industry.”
Fox frets in the movie that all the industry needs to do is instill doubt about his charges, comparing the gas drillers’ campaign to the one by cigarette makers in the 1950s and 1960s to counter claims of the health dangers of smoking.
Figuring out the truth about shale drilling isn’t easy. Take the kitchen faucet, for example.
After the first “Gasland,” the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission said that the flaming faucet was caused by a water well that had penetrated four layers of methane-rich underground coal beds. But the commission also linked gas drilling to methane problems experienced by other homeowners, noting that one was the result of a “failure to properly cement a natural gas well.”
Cementing gets more attention in the new “Gasland.” Cement is used to seal the space between the steel drilling pipe and the surrounding rocks and earth. If the seal isn’t good, oil, gas and other chemicals can slip up the outside of the pipe and leak into an aquifer.
Fox quotes industry statistics that he says show very high failure rates in cementing jobs. Industry experts say that’s exaggerated.
But the nature of the fracking boom is that even with a very small rate of error, the sheer number of wells needed to maintain output means a significant number of problems could arise. There are nearly 1,700 rigs operating on land in the United States, according to Oil and Gas Journal, and each completes a well in two to three weeks. If only one-half of 1 percent of those rigs fail to properly cement their wells, that could mean a dozen water contamination problems a month.
“Josh is doing yeoman’s work to help bring to the attention of the general public the many challenges of dealing with gas development in the United States,” said Mark Brownstein, associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund’s climate and energy program.
Brownstein says there are “two polar opposites” in the debate over developing shale gas. “There are some who feel it is fundamentally illegitimate, and some in industry who believe risks are all figments of activists’ imagination,” he says. “The truth is somewhere in the middle.”
The environmental group acknowledges shale drilling’s economic benefits and notes that burning gas emits fewer greenhouse gases than burning coal — as long its production involves minimal leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The new “Gasland” quotes some alarming figures about that as well.
“At some point, the conversation needs to pivot from concern to solutions . . . and better outcomes,” Brownstein says. “Regulation is a critical part in getting that change in mind-set. But industry has to own this, because if it doesn’t, Josh Fox will be right.”
As Fox says in the new “Gasland,” “the war over who was going to tell this story was on.”