Oscar-Nominated 'Gasland' Director Calls Latest Attack on His Film 'Outlandish' and Tells Why the Industry Is Getting Desperate

Josh Fox talks about why the gas industry is losing control of the message and how it has underestimated the power of citizens affected by gas drilling.

Editor's Note:Read the letterJosh Fox wrote in response to the gas industry's attacks on his film.

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When the gas industry sent an open letter this month to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences demanding it revoke its best documentary nomination for the gas-drilling exposé Gasland, many seemed surprised by this brazen missive.

Gasland director Josh Fox wasn't one of those people.

"What this points to is the culture of that industry, which is bullying, which is aggressive, which is outlandish in their tactics, which will stop at nothing," Fox told AlterNet during a nearly hour-long interview.

The Oscar nomination, of course, ensures wider attention to the dangers of the natural gas drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on our nation's water supply, air quality and overall impact on citizens' health.

Gasland already won the prize for best documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and debuted on HBO last summer. The film's Facebook page boasts 40,000 followers -- which Fox said is "like a news ticker of gas drilling contamination stories" -- with people linking to the latest reports of poisoned aquifers, sickened citizens and calls for drilling moratoriums, as well as first-person accounts of those living in the gaslands.

Fox and actor/activist Mark Ruffalo stormed Capitol Hill a few days ago, garnering heightened national attention to the issue as they called for an immediate federal moratorium on natural gas drilling.

The momentum, for now, appears to be in favor of Fox and anti-drilling advocates.

Industry "Very Upset" Over Losing Control of the Message

The letter to the Academy, Fox said, is also an act of desperation because the gas industry is "very, very upset about having lost control over the message." Something, he adds, "They have kept very tightly."

Fracking is a technique that blasts toxic chemicals and millions of gallons water deep underground to access natural gas deposits trapped in rock formations. Natural gas drilling has been billed by the oil and gas industry as the "clean" alternative to coal and the best method to wean America off foreign oil. But it has gone unregulated since 2005, when a clause in an energy bill spearheaded by then Vice-President Dick Cheney opened a loophole exempting the practice from federal clean water laws.

To this day, gas drilling companies do not have to report what chemicals, from an array of over 500 proprietary substances, they're pumping into the ground.

Energy in Depth, the group that sent the letter to the Academy, is a shadowy front group for the oil and gas industry that unleashed its smear campaign, including its report "Debunking Gasland," in June, when the documentary first began receiving wider attention. On the film's Web site, Fox, in turn, released a 39-page point-by-point rebuttal, or what he called a "de-de-bunking document in response to specious and misleading gas industry claims." 

In the letter to the Academy, Energy in Depth's executive director, Lee O. Fuller, argues that the documentary should be ineligible because it presents "stylized fiction" filled with "many errors, inconsistencies and outright falsehoods." Yet the letter is short on details and simply attaches the same "Debunking Gasland" document that Fox and contributing experts have already "de-de-bunked."

Oddly, Lee O. Fuller does not appear on Energy in Depth's Web site. He is listed, however, as the vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a major lobbying group for oil and natural gas interests.

IPAA also happens to be the same group, among dozens of other energy entities, that Fox listed at the end of Gasland as having declined him an interview.

Letter Reminds Fox of His Original Quest for Truth

Fox said the gas industry's letter to the Academy makes him feel like he's come full circle in a unexpected journey that began when he received a letter in the mail from a natural gas company offering him $100,000 to drill on his property in Milanville, Pennsylvania, a small town near the Delaware River.

First, he was excited over the sum. But after the initial thrill, he said he thought about the old saying, "When something sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

He set out to discover why he was being offered this ostensibly generous amount and what natural gas drilling was all about.

Fox said he "went into this with a very measured approach," seeking all perspectives on the issue. He soon found out that his home, which has been in his family since he was a little kid, was sitting in the middle of the Marcellus Shale, a sprawling natural gas deposit worth billions of dollars that stretches over 500 miles from New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, known as the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas."

Fox also began to realize that the members of the gas industry and the politicians who support them were not interested in speaking with him.

Nevertheless, he said, "We were comprehensive in our approach to try and get anybody from the gas companies to talk to us."

But he noted, "In a way the gas companies do get interviewed in the film, not by me, although I was in the room, but by Congress and you see the results."

In a pivotal scene in Gasland, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), vice chairwoman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, grills gas industry executives until they openly admit they have no viable reason for objecting to disclose chemicals used in the fracking process.

Fox began to meet with people in his own state and those across the country whose experiences with natural gas drilling on or near their land has led to devastating health effects and economic disaster as their water and air became toxic and their homes devalued.

Attack Further Exposes Industry's Modus Operandi

"What you're also seeing to the Academy in this letter," Fox explained, "is the same exact type of outlandish thing that they've been using for many, many years. They just come right into your door and say, 'Everything is going to be fine.' But this is such a massive lie and you realize that they're twelve steps ahead of you before you even got in the room."

He continued, "You can't live in areas where they're doing hydro-fracking because your water is going to go to hell, the area around you is dangerous to you. You're living in a massive industrial zone with no quality of life, no peace, no property value anymore. Every ounce of value of living in that place has been drained away."

Fox added, "Oh, and by the way, those areas also are the breadbasket of the nation and the water supply for major cities and they don't care."

In a way, he thinks the letter puts the Academy in the position that people all over the country have been put when gas companies are faced with facts.

"It's a very strange thing to see," said Fox, "that they have the same tactic toward the Academy as they would toward a tiny landowner in western Pennsylvania who has no clout, who is in the dark, who's cornered, who doesn't have media attention, who would again have to go ahead and do all this scientific research to try to prove what's staring them in the face, which is that the gas well across the street from them is making their kids sick, has contaminated their water and has upended their lives."

While the letter didn't surprise him, he views it as an ill-advised PR move, one that only further supports his film's indictment of the gas industry's modus operandi.

"I feel it's an outing of their very business model," Fox noted, “which is to stonewall, deny, attack and even in the most outlandish ways."

He added, "Because they're used to tying people down and tying them up in court, forcing them into non-disclosure agreements," as opposed to accounting for their actions.

One case in point is the story of Aimee Ellsworth.

Ellsworth and her family, whose water and land in Colorado turned toxic from natural gas drilling, were the second family featured in Gasland who could light their water on fire.

Fox said the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission issued a report confirming the cause was gas drilling. Yet after she told her story in the film, she was still stuck in a home that had so much gas in the water she would shower in the dark because she was afraid a spark from her light bulb would blow up her house.

When Fox called her one day to see how she was doing, she told him, "I can't talk to you about gas anymore."

He explained, "Her land was devalued, she had no way of getting out, her health was failing."

So she took a settlement with the company, but she had to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

"She traded her First Amendment rights for the ability to get out of gasland," said Fox. "And in that we lost a very powerful, compassionate and sympathetic spokesperson. But she was able to resume her life by moving."

He continued, "That's the way the industry would rather handle this."

Fox said there are stories like this all over the country, where these histories have just been disappeared.

"We are lucky that we got to Aimee Ellsworth a few months before she got cornered into that agreement and that her story got out."

Industry Is "Underestimating" the People

Fox has been on the road screening his film since its premiere at Sundance last year, visiting 100 cities on a grassroots tour that also takes him to gas drilling areas across the country.

The overwhelming response, he said, has created an atmosphere that will make it increasingly difficult for gas industry propaganda to thrive.

"It's just been a reaffirmation of everything that's in the movie," Fox said. "People are flocking to these screenings."

He described 1,600 people showing up one night in Williamsport, Penn., on a rainy Tuesday. In Texas, 400 people attended a screening at the Forth Worth art museum, with water samples and jars in their hands, which he said has been commonplace all along the tour.

"I mean literally," Fox said, they come up to him "and say, 'Here' s a jar, this is a test, this is my documentation, I've got the text in my hand.' Because everybody is so concerned with this."

He believes the gas industry is running out of options.

“Look, they can't spin away these thousands of stories," he said. "I mean literally thousands of contamination stories. And what's at stake here is the water supply for millions of people."

Fox continued, " They can't cover their tracks anymore in the way they have. They can't push people into corners anymore in the way they have."

The film, he said, aided by social media platforms like Facebook, opens up all these stories to the world.

Fox said the letter to the Academy notwithstanding, gas industry insiders on the whole have voiced the attitude, "We're going to be here longer than Gasland is around."

He added, "But what they're underestimating is that we live here, there are hundreds of thousands of us and we're not going anywhere."

Brad Jacobson is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and contributing investigative reporter for Raw Story.