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A New Generation of Natural Gas Drilling Is Endangering Communities From the Rockies to New York

Filmmaker Josh Fox talks about 'Gasland' and his quest to understand the risks posed by today's natural gas industry.

Theater and film director Josh Fox's documentary Gasland explores the new generation of natural gas drilling, which for a decade has been blasting its way east across the country, tapping shale formations from the Rockies to Pennsylvania, and is now expanding in New York. Fox is only 37, but he is a veteran explorer of complex themes from militarism to war to globalization and torture who skillfully blends artistry and social message. Gasland is more straightforward than Fox's earlier experimental mixes of theater, dance, music and film, but no less striking. Winner of the Special Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance, where it premiered in January, Gasland has been causing a stir wherever it has gone since. 

In 2008, a gas company offered Fox $100,000 to lease his family's nineteen acres in Milanville, Pennsylvania, for the purpose of "hydraulic fracturing" to extract natural gas. He was baffled—what was hydraulic fracturing and what would leasing his land for fracking mean? To find out, he set out on a cross-country journey from his home in the pristine Upper Delaware River Basin to places where hydrofracking had already begun: Dimock, Pennsylvania; Pavillion, Wyoming; Weld County, Colorado; and Fort Worth, Texas.

"Fracking," (sometimes "fracing") as the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling is widely called, bears little resemblance to conventional gas drilling in shallow reserves used to extract natural gas during the twentieth century. As Gasland deftly explains, fracking, which is now the dominant technology in US gas production, is elaborate and risky. Fracking involves extracting billions of gallons of water from lakes and rivers (2-4 million of gallons per well) and pressure-drilling a mix of the water, sand and chemicals more than a mile down into the earth and then miles horizontally. The sand and chemicals break up the dense rock to release methane, the compound comprising natural gas, which is pumped back up along with the fracking liquid, now infused not only with the chemical additives but heavy metals and radioactive material.

The film's stunning footage shows the consequences of fracking on the communities where it takes place: the huge pits and pools of used toxic fracking fluid, left to spill on the ground and evaporate into the atmosphere; darkened and foul-smelling air and water; sick vegetation, animals and people; and dramatic gas explosions and fires, including tap water that bursts into flames.

Gasland tells a gripping tale of intrigue and deception. It all begins with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, developed behind closed doors by Dick Cheney and undisclosed energy industry leaders and lobbyists, which exempted fracking from federal regulation. Halliburton is a prime actor in the fracking drama. Due to what the New York Times has referred to as the "Halliburton loophole," it and other energy companies have used the new and untested technology to extract gas once thought inaccessible. The 2005 law allows energy companies to conceal as trade secrets the chemicals they use to help the drilling liquid to reach and fracture the shale but blowouts, whistle-blowers, and industry documents have revealed dangerous compounds including 2-butoxyethanol, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, glycol ethers, hydrocholoric acid, and sodium hydroxide, benzene, and other known toxins and carcinogens.

Fracking may not yet be a household phrase, but after Gasland airs, viewers will know the basics of what fracking is and what it does. According to Josh Fox, we're facing nothing less than the mutation of America as we know it into a new state called Gasland.

In early June, I got Josh Fox to sit still for an hour, no easy feat, to talk about Gasland, the film, and Gasland, the state.