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Exposing the Natural Gas Industry's Attempt to Silence Its Critics

Natural gas companies, according to the director of the documentary film 'Gasland,' Josh Fox, are 'shameless and have immense resources to pay for spin.'
 
 
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In June, just before Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland was about to premiere on HBO, a document seeking to discredit the film’s account of the hazards of natural gas drilling suddenly appeared. "Debunking Gasland" was posted on a Web site for Energy in Depth, a petroleum industry public relations concoction that had been whipped up the year before to defend the radical new drilling technology called horizontal hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) from growing investigation and criticism.

EID, which claims to be a gas industry “coalition,” disseminated "Debunking Gasland" far and wide, releasing it to media outlets and aggressively advertising its existence through its own Twitter feed and YouTube channel, as well as through pop-up windows on Google and Facebook. Fox, whose film had racked up awards from Sundance to Big Sky, and whose International WOW theater the New York Times has called “fearlessly inventive and virtuosic,” was an amateur film director from the fringe of theater. "Debunking" claimed that Gasland was a montage of misstatements, misrepresentation and outright lies.

Energy in Depth presents itself as the voice of the “small-business industry” that is “American oil and gas.” Executives of the Independent Petroleum Producers of America are listed as “personnel” on the site’s Contact Us page. No address is given, only a telephone number, which is the same as that of the Institute of Energy Research, a petroleum industry think-tank. An earlier version of the page, reposted on Sourcewatch, listed Brian Kennedy as a contact. Co-founder of IER, Kennedy is now managing director of the public relations firm FD Americas Public Affairs, which boasts the energy industry as its “backbone,” touts work for both IER and IPPA, and no doubt, as recently asserted in the Huffington Post, can claim Energy in Depth as its latest strategy to sway perception and policy for the petroleum industry through a multi-million dollar campaign of mis- and dis-information. No amount of mom-and-pop spin can morph the industry from the giant it is, with vast financial reserves not only for toxic petroleum production but for media invention on its behalf.

Now, in a rejoinder called “Affirming Gasland,” released last week, Fox debunks his unnamed industry debunker. His piece contrasts dramatically with EID’s, not only in its information and analyses about what fracking is and does, but in its methods and tone. From the personal prefatory note, to the introduction of his panel of expert collaborators (each of whose contributions are clearly marked), to the updates of the lives of people in the film, to the abundant facts and references (a 3-page bibliography on the technical issues, science, regulation, congressional activity, and more), Fox's “Affirming” is everything that Debunking is not: transparent, humane, respectful, and accountable. Affirming Gasland will grow over time, Fox tells us, as he and others add insights and information to aid in the grassroots compaign to protect water and air from the petroleum industry's fracking onslaught.

I’ve interviewed Josh Fox before, always on the phone, and always when he's on the move to a Gasland screening or a public event on fracking. Last week, we talked as he dashed from Brooklyn to Trenton, New Jersey, on his way to a hearing about the future of fracking in the Delaware River Basin, where he makes his home and where Gasland, the journey and the movie, began.

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Nora Eisenberg: Since “Debunking Gasland” appeared, you've been a very busy man. Gasland premiered on HBO. You've appeared on major TV and radio shows. And you've been screening Gasland in city after city. Why did you take the time from your busy schedule to respond to this industry attack with the very full response of “Affirming Gasland”?

Josh Fox: An immense amount of research went into Gasland, and we knew our assertions were solid. It took a little while to respond because of our touring and media schedule, but we felt compelled to respond. Look, “Debunking Gasland” smeared my integrity and credibility as a director and journalist but I wrote “Affirming Gasland” less to defend myself and more to show to what extremes the gas companies will go to keep doing what they’re doing, the extent of their distortion and obfuscation.

You, know, the document was disturbing but actually not surprising. From the beginning it was clear to the industry that the film had the potential to educate people about the true nature of fracking. They didn’t like that and they took action.

When I was making Gasland, people would tell me how the gas companies would blatantly dismiss and deny real problems that they knew to be true. Now I know what it felt like.

They are shameless and have immense resources to pay for spin. We put out a call to experts to help challenge their spin with facts. There will be more responses in the coming days. More people will add to the document and go on record. We don't have their funds to buy public relations and media spin-masters. But there's a large scientific community that understands the dangers of this drilling.

NE: Let’s go through some of their major points and your responses in “Affirming Gasland,” starting with hydraulic fracturing itself. They say you’ve misrepresented the process, which is tried and true, with a 60-year track record of safety.

JF: Yes, that’s one of their regular lines. But they're talking about an older fracking technology and there's no comparison between the old kind of hydraulic fracturing and the new kind we’re seeing. The old form was used in shallow drilling into anticlimes, to tap gas in the domes of rock not that far under the surface. It was used as a desperation measure, when they were drilling conventionally but stopped getting results.

But today’s fracking is an entirely different story. First of all, because it taps gas that lies deep in the earth in dense shale formations, it uses much higher pressure. Such “unconventional rock,” as the industry calls shale, cannot be tapped without such enormous pressure. You can actually feel a frack if you’re standing above it, almost like an earthquake.

Then there’s the amount of water used—2 to 7 million gallons per well. There's the fact that this new fracking is combined with horizontal drilling. Today’s fracking occurs in multiple stages. They’re fracking for days on end. A single well can be fracked a dozen or more times. And then there's the chemicals they use in today’s hydro-fracking, the various complex mixtures of chemicals they use to crack the shale.

The science has gone though a lot of changes and they use various complex mixtures of chemicals to help fracture the shale. We know from blowouts that these include known carcinogens.

It’s interesting that the industry touts its new technology discovery that’s able to extract gas from shale formations, like the Marcellus, and at the same time maintains that fracking is nothing new—that it’s 50 or 60 years old. Well, that’s just not true. Or else they would have been drilling in the Marcellus and other shale formations 50 or 60 years ago. What they’re saying makes no sense.

NE: The industry document claims that Gasland distorts the situation with federal regulation and that fracking is not exempt from major environmental laws and legislation, like the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts.

JF: It’s completely insane. Go to the Gasland Web site or the NRDC Web site, and you’ll see all the federal regulations that fracking is exempt from—essential provisions of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Superfund law, and more.

It’s very easy to track that history and the lobbying that took place to get that exemption included in the Energy Act of 2005. We review all this in detail in “Affirming Gasland.” The idea to exempt fracturing first appeared in a draft report of the Cheney-chaired Energy Task Force. It was omitted from the final report due to pressure from EPA chief Christie Whitman. Exempting fracking surfaced again in the Bush-Cheney 2003 Energy bill, which didn't pass, and then again in the 2005 Energy Act. We actually actually photographed this clause in Gasland. In “Affirming Gasland” we identify particular clauses of environmental protection laws and regulations that the 2005 Act exempts fracking from.

NE: Then there’s “Debunking”'s claim that methane in drinking water is not dangerous. They quote Abrahm Lustgarten, who has done much of the investigative journalism about the dangers of fracking, to make their point.

JF: Yes but they leave out the next sentence in Lustgarten's article, which says that when methane in water evaporates it can be deadly. It is flammable, of course. And also toxic. If you breathe in methane, you can suffocate. Turning on a gas oven is a good way to kill yourself.

NE: Let's talk about the debunkers' claim that the flammable faucet you film has has nothing to do with gas drilling, that the gas in that Colorado home was “biogenic,” or naturally occurring.

JF: This is another instance of an industry obfuscation. They are making a distinction between biogenic gas, which is found near the surface, and thermogenic natural gas, which comes from deeper strata like shale. Isotopic tests can identify which kind of gas it is, but it does not identify the migratory pathway. This is a crucial omission on their part.

Just because Mike Markham’s gas is biogenic doesn’t mean that its migration into water supplies was not caused by drilling.

I asked Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, Cornell professor and expert on fracture mechanics if hydraulic fracturing can liberate biogenic natural gas into the aquifer. He said absolutely.

It can disturb rock mass and open previously blocked migration paths. There can be a cumulative effect from wells in a small area, each with many horizontal drillings that are fracked and refracked. And the gas companies and regulators responded in strikingly similar ways in different places, where people were claiming their water was contaminated. In Weld County, Colorado, in Dimock, Pennsylvania, the industry and government claimed that water had been flammable before the drilling and that the gas was biogenic. Then the PA DEP tested extensively and found that the gas was actually thermogenic.

NE: So you're saying that the problematic water in drilling areas, whether biogenic or thermogenic, is related to drilling.

JP: In Weld County, Colorado, Mike Markham's water tested as biogenic. Their neighbors are Amee and Jesse Ellsworth, who are featured in the film just after them, lighting their water on fire too, and their water was ruled “thermogenic” by the state regulators, that is to have come directly from the deep layers the drilling targets. Amee and Jesse’s water was tested a year after Mike and Marsha’s, which could indicate that thermogenic gas was pushing biogenic gas up to the surface. In neither case did the state regulator do any real hydro-geologic surveying; they only labeled the gas as “thermogenic” or “biogenic” and then walked away.

Whether the gas is determined biogenic or thermogenic, we believe the citizens when they say the problem happened post-drilling and post-fracking. Testing of the drinking water in Dimock prior to drilling showed no gas in any significant quantities. The industry uses biogenic/thermogenic distinction, dispute citizens' claims of contamination, but it has no basis in science.

People's lives are at stake. Mike and his partner, Marsha, chose hauling water. They buy water in town, once or twice a week from a coin-operated machine. Renee McClure moved out of the area, presumably due to her water and health problems. Amee and Jesse Ellsworth negotiated with the gas company to have water delivered. They had to sign a non-disclosure agreement and can't talk on the record any longer about what happened. They traded their First Amendment right for water.

NE: Let’s talk about the chemicals used in fracking that you touched on before. This is a big area of contention between the gas industry and critics. The industry calls them additives and the water with them “produced water.” You and critics call them toxins and the water they're in “contaminated water.” Your debunker says it's not a problem.

JF: It's a huge problem and it's been a huge struggle to get the information. Gas companies originally told NY DEC that frack fluid was just water and sand. The research of Dr. Theo Colborn of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange has been essential to our understanding. Now we're getting lists of classes of chemicals and their function. But we're rarely getting the CAS—Chemical Abstracts Service--registry numbers that identify chemical elements and compounds and mixtures. The chemical disclosure lists that Energy in Depth cites as examples to demonstrate that the industry is forthcoming do not have CAS numbers, which are necessary to identify the chemical and its toxicity. Chemicals go by many names.

Most states require MSDS—Materials Safety Data Sheets-- to be posted for first responders in the case of spill or fire.

NE: Yes, you photographed some of these in the film, some showing health effects including cancer. So the industry is divulging some information.

JF: Right. Sometimes there is acknowledgment through these data sheets that huge amounts of toxic fluid are being injected underground. And the EID document is right that Pennsylvania and New York have begun to divulge lists of chemicals, and I applaud this. But EID fails to add that the specific chemical formula of each individual well’s fracking is still being held by companies as "proprietary trade secrets.”

NE: Let's talk about the EID claim that you're making a big deal about chemicals that amount to only 0.5 percent of the fracking fluid.

JF: Yes, they like to say it's just a small amount. But first of all, they are considering weight, not volume, and by volume it's more. Even if you accept their quantification method, though, do the math. It's 20 tons of chemicals per million gallons of water. Each fracked well uses many millions of gallons of water.

NE: What happens to that water? EID's document doesn't dwell on that.

JF: Most of this fluid stays under the ground. Only 25 to 50 percent of the fracking fluid is recovered. It's problematic both underground and above the ground. Once groundwater becomes contaminated, it's extremely expensive and sometimes impossible to clean up. And the water that comes up is a huge toxic waste problem for which there's no real disposal system in place. The fluid's toxicity is increased during fracking, because of additional chemicals that seep into the fracking fluid deep in the strata, including radioactive chemicals. EID does not address this. There are very few places that are equipped to deal with that waste. So what we learned from interviews in film, and saw ourselves, is that fracking waste is being dumped into fields and in streams. There are very few inspectors for as many as 100,000 wells per state.

NE: Tell us a little about the people who have collaborated with you on this new document.

JF: We have an amazing team: Barbara Arrindell, co-founder and director of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability; Ron Bishop, PhD, lecturer in chemistry and biochemistry at SUNY Oneonta; Steve Coffman, author, educator and former chair of Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes; Anthony R. Ingraffea, PhD, the D.C. Baum professor of engineering at Cornell University; Weston Wilson, retired EPA environmental engineer; and myself; with additional comments from James Barth, member of the steering committee of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability; Laurie Spaeth, founding blogger ofwww.Un-NaturalGas.org; Maura Stephens, who edited.

We'll be continuing our efforts to affirm Gasland. We urge readers to stay in touch and get involved.

NE: Let's end on a positive note, an affirmative note. Do you think that the activism and investigation that the film documents and contributes to is having an impact?

JF: I think the tide is turning and we have to keep up the pressure. Most important now is that we pass the Frac Act, to begin bringing this under federal regulation. And that we have moratoriums passed in the states.

We are hearing amazing stories. Our Facebook page is receiving countless emails, stories and photos. People are coming forward and saying it’s just the tip of the iceberg: Here’s what’s happening in North Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania. We're seeing lots of water contamination videos from Texas and Pennsylvania. I say to people, if you know a place where there’s fracking and everyone is rich and happy, please take me there. I've had no takers so far. People are bringing their stories, photos, videos to our screenings, bottles of contaminated discolored water. It's very moving.

We’re screening practically a city a day now. We'll be screening Gasland in major cities in the fall. We're not stopping. We can't.

Nora Eisenberg is the director of the City University of New York's fellowship program for emerging scholars. Her short stories, essays and reviews have appeared in such places as The Partisan Review, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times and Tikkun. Her most recent novel, When You Come Home (Curbstone, 2009), explores the the 1991 Gulf War and Gulf War illness.