Gasland Director Josh Fox: Obama's Support for Natural Gas Drilling 'A Painful Moment' for Communities Exposed to Fracking
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Last week, President Obama called the United States "the Saudi Arabia of natural gas" in a speech about boosting domestic energy production. That concerns Wyoming farmer John Fenton, who already has more than two dozen gas wells on his property. The Environmental Protection Agency ruled in December that water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming, was a result natural gas extraction and the controversial technique known as fracking. "Things changed pretty rapidly," Fenton says, after fracking took place on his land near Pavillion, and he now has to ship in water for drinking. "It didn’t take long to notice significant impacts to the water, the change to smell like diesel fuel. Methane was bubbling in the water. We had neighbors that actually had livestock die from drinking the water. And we also saw really huge impacts to our way of life. The farm fields are full of wellheads now that we have to work around. We have people coming and going off our property 24 hours a day. And we’ve seen over a 50 percent devaluation in the value of our land." We also speak with filmmaker Josh Fox, who was arrested for attempting to record a congressional hearing over the EPA report on Pavillion. Fox is producing a sequel to his award-winning film, "Gasland," about the impact of fracking across the United States.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Wednesday’s hearing focused on a recent Environmental Protection Agency draft report that linked contaminated water supplies in Wyoming to chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. While a lobbyist from the Western Energy Alliance testified at Wednesday’s hearing, no local residents impacted by the water contamination were invited to speak.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now from Washington, D.C., is filmmaker Josh Fox. With us also via Democracy Now! video stream is John Fenton, who is a Wyoming farmer and chair of the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens.
Josh, it’s good to have you out of jail. Explain exactly why you were in that hearing yesterday and what happened, as we listen to the debate between the Democrats and the Republicans as you were being handcuffed by police and taken out of the room.
JOSH FOX: Good morning, Amy and Juan. And certainly, hi to John Fenton. Nice to see you.
Well, basically, I was there to report on a story that I’ve been following very closely for three-and-a-half years. John and his fellow people from Pavillion, I’ve been documenting their cases of water contamination for three years, and it’s featured in the first film, Gasland. We continue to feature that in Gasland 2. So, this was a crucial hearing for us to tape, because what was going on there was a clear and brazen attack on the EPA and on the meticulous three-and-a-half-year investigation that took place in the small town of Pavillion, Wyoming, to expose a link between fracking and groundwater contamination. And this is the first case in which EPA has come out and said, at least in this last 10 years, that the likely cause of groundwater contamination was fracking.
And what was apparent to us was that this was going to be an attack on science from within the science and technology committee, that they had a panel that was stuffed with gas industry lobbyists, that this was actually a way of trying to dismantle this EPA report. We wanted to be there to show that that was what the agenda was. We wanted to report on what happened. I was not interested in disrupting that hearing. It was not a protest action. I was simply trying to do my job as a journalist and go in there and show to the American people what was transpiring in that hearing, so that down the line, as we know there will be a lot of challenges mounted to that EPA report—and frankly, to the people in Pavillion, who have been sticking up for themselves and demanding an investigation into the groundwater contamination—and to make sure that people could view that in a larger forum than usually happens.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Josh, the attacks have come not only through this congressional investigation on the EPA report, but also from local press in Wyoming, as well? Obviously, there are huge implications nationwide for what the results of this study show.
JOSH FOX: Well, virtually every Republican candidate right now is out for elimination of the EPA, which shows the deep, deep influence of oil and gas on Congress and on the Republican Party. So, what you’re seeing here happening is a war between the federal agency, which is well funded and impartial, in a certain sense, or more impartial, and the state regulatory agencies, which, as we’ve investigated, and we will show quite thoroughly, I think, in Gasland 2, have an enormous amount of influence and pressure on them from oil and gas, to the point to which many, many people think that they’re corrupt. So getting the EPA out of the way is one of these ways that you completely dismantle the regulatory system, and that’s why the EPA is the target here.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to President Obama’s recent comments about natural gas drilling. This is what he said just last week in his State of the Union address.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years. And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. And I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use, because America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk. The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy. And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of 30 years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock, reminding us that government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama in the State of the Union address. Josh Fox, director of Gasland?
JOSH FOX: That was actually quite, I think, a very painful moment for a lot of people who have been focusing on gas fracking for the last several years. I think the President’s statements right there are wrong. I mean, it’s very clear that we do not have a hundred years’ worth of natural gas, and certainly not if we want to start using it in cars and trucks. And it has been—it’s very, very unclear, in the science, whether or not this fracking technique can be done safely. And in my research, it shows itself to be inherently contaminating. And there is no proof to think that we could be doing this gas extraction safely.
On the other hand, what the President did say was that he was in support of the disclosure of the chemicals, which is to say, the reversal of the exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act that the gas industry was granted in 2005. They were made exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which stated that—in the 2005 energy bill, allowing them to inject toxic chemicals and toxic material into the ground without having to report that. So what he’s saying is, you can’t get away with not reporting and not disclosing the chemicals that you’re pumping into the ground. However, when we look at the industry’s own reports, and it shows that 40 percent of their wells have integrity issues—that is to say, the well casing that protects the groundwater cracks in 40 percent of the cases over a short period of time, and in a larger percentage over a longer period of time—this is basically surrendering those areas to groundwater contamination, either in the short term or in the long term.
So, I think that this is obviously an issue of an enormous amount of importance. And there’s no way you can actually just start galloping down this road of natural gas. What this means is a further delay in our transition to a renewable energy economy. And when you look at what Obama’s EPA is doing, they’re extremely aggressive. They have actually been very responsive. I mean, John could probably talk about that. EPA just delivered water to people in the town of Dimock, which suffered a similar kind of water contamination as happened in Pavillion. And they have been stepping up to the plate. So this is why you’re seeing the Republicans attacking EPA, which is the part of Obama’s policy which I agree with wholeheartedly.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we’re also joined by John Fenton, a farmer who lives near Pavillion, Wyoming. He’s chair of the group Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens.
John Fenton, could you talk to us about the changing views of the residents around in your area about fracking? You have about a dozen gas wells on your property?
JOHN FENTON: Within just 350 feet of our home, we have eight to 10 of them. On the whole farm, we have 24 gas wells. When industry first moved in here in the middle ’90s and started really filling this field in, we were assured over and over that these processes were safe, that we had nothing to worry about. And, you know, a lot of people around here, quite frankly, have a pro-industry view and wanted the gas to be extracted.
But things changed pretty rapidly. It didn’t take long to notice significant impacts to the water, the change to smell like diesel fuel. Methane was bubbling in the water. We had neighbors that actually had livestock die from drinking the water. And we also saw really huge impacts to our way of life. The farm fields are full of wellheads now that we have to work around. We have people coming and going off our property 24 hours a day. And we’ve seen over a 50 percent devaluation in the value of our land. So iwe’ve been hit on every front with this. And the idea that this can be done safely and without impact, I think that we could disprove that real quickly, if you’d come and see us here in Pavillion, Wyoming.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you raised issues to the companies and to authorities about the impact on the water supply, what was the response?
JOHN FENTON: Well, when we first started to see this, we initially went to industry, which Encana is the company in our case, and we went to the state of Wyoming. Now, the state of Wyoming has insisted all along that there’s nothing wrong going on here in Pavillion, Wyoming. And a lot of times what they would do is they would show up with—you know, we’d have a Department of Environmental Quality staff person show up with an Encana employee, and the state employees would point to Encana’s water tests and say, "Look, there’s nothing wrong with your water." They would also say things like, "Well, the water has always been bad out here." Or, it even got to the point where we were accused of contaminating our own water. It became really frustrating.
You know, the people here, all of us work in ag-related business, and we work really close, and we’re in touch with the land all the time, and we can tell when things change. And we knew that what was happening was not normal. And we knew that we hadn’t done this. So, we really felt left out, and we felt ignored by the people who were supposed to be looking out for us. And so, we started to take the issues into our own hands. And first of all, what we did was we—our Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens is an affiliate group of the Powder River Basin Resource Council. They work on grassroots problems. They work for the people, the people that are directly impacted. And through them, and through our work with our neighbors, we contacted the Environmental Protection Agency. And only then did we start to deal with people who realized that we had genuine concerns and that came to Pavillion and began to investigate those concerns.
AMY GOODMAN: Josh Fox, we want to play a clip of your movie. This is the part that has gotten so much attention in your first film, Gasland. In this clip, Josh Fox, you visit the home of Mike Markham of Colorado. Markham demonstrates how his tap water is so toxic he can set it on fire.
JOSH FOX: I saw it go up for a second.
MIKE MARKHAM: Yeah, we’ll just give it a second here.
JOSH FOX: Whoa! Jesus Christ!
MIKE MARKHAM: That’s the best I’ve done!
AMY GOODMAN: Whoa! And there we see Josh Fox filming Mike Markham setting his tap water on fire. Josh, talk more about that and how this fits into Wyoming and the EPA hearing you were arrested at yesterday on Capitol Hill.
JOSH FOX: Well, I mean, this is a scene that’s been played over and over again. It’s actually one of seven different people in the film who can light their water on fire. And when I got to Pavillion, Wyoming, Louis Meeks, which is one of John’s neighbors, lights—puts a blowtorch to his water and then burns off a kind of weird chemical plastic film on the surface. And I think people—you’re going to see a lot more of this water on fire phenomenon in the next film.
I want to remind everybody that this gas drilling, this fracking, is not only happening in small places like Pavillion, Wyoming, or Dimock, Pennsylvania. We’re talking about half of New York state, three-quarters of Pennsylvania, half of Ohio, all of West Virginia—indeed, in 34 states. And there’s a map that people can look up at gaslandthemovie.com and also see that clip, for those of you listening on the radio.
But what we’re seeing here is a rampant situation of water contamination, both with methane getting into aquifers, as you see the methane coming into the private water well, the natural gas, and actually being ignitable out of the tap—but what’s scarier, in a way, is the benzene and the carcinogenic chemicals, some of these things that have shown up in John Fenton’s well, that are associated with drilling fluids and drilling muds. In Pavillion, they showed that there was 50 times the safe level of benzene in their groundwater. Now there’s no real safe level of benzene at all in groundwater. Benzene is a carcinogen. But when you’re talking about 50 times the safe level, when you’re looking—they also had 2-Butoxyethanol in their water. A lot of these same contaminants were showing up in water wells in Pennsylvania. We’ve seen the flammable water phenomenon happening in Australia. We’ve seen it in PA. We’ve seen it in Canada. So this is not something that’s happening on a small scale, and it’s not something that’s happening in only a few exceptional cases. But what’s happening with John and Pavillion is exceptional in the sense that they actually got EPA to come out there and do this three-and-a-half-year investigation.
And when you witness the events of yesterday, not only kicking out journalism from the House of Representatives and kicking the First Amendment out, and out with that goes John Boehner’s pledge of transparency in Congress, but also kicking out science and saying, "Actually, we don’t care about science." And what’s true here is that we’re living in an age which is not kind to objective information. And frankly, this kind of obstructionism of investigating the truth, reporting the truth, this is what we’ve seen over and over and over again. And I’m outraged at this approach, because when you see people like John Fenton, who have been dealing with this and who don’t have a political position coming into it, and they’re being attacked simply for reporting what’s happening to them, you witness that this is a phenomenon and a tactic and a strategy that happened when climate change was first reported. It goes all the way back to when they started to link tobacco with lung cancer. They mounted a PR campaign to try to dismantle that information. And this is not a democratic approach. When we are given objective information, objective science, you have Americans coming forward, asking for investigations, or a person like me going into Congress to try to report on those investigations, you cannot be faced with bullying tactics, intimidation tactics, and literally either being handcuffed and thrown in jail and taken out of there, or in the situation where you’re being made to be a prisoner in your own home because no one is listening to you, like John and Louis Meeks and a lot of these thousands of cases of groundwater contamination in America.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Josh, I’d like to ask John Fenton specifically about this whole issue of how he makes do now with the situation of the contaminated water. Are you having water trucked in for the community? And what about bathing, cooking, the other aspects of life that you depend on water for?
JOHN FENTON: Drinking and cooking water comes in five-gallon office cooler-type water jugs now. So that’s what we do all of our drinking and cooking issues with. We’re still bathing in the contaminated water. We have not been able to prepare an alternative source yet. We’ve seen all sorts of impacts from that. We have people with really unexplainable health conditions, a lot of neurological problems, a neuropathy, seizures, people losing their sense of smell, sense of taste, you know, people with their arms and legs going numb. It’s very significant.
People here who [inaudible] their whole lives, this is their retirement. This is something they wanted to hand down to their family. Small agriculture, family farming, is under attack everywhere. And here we have just one more example of that deterioration of the family unit. It’s even to the point where the water that comes out of our wells is no longer usable for growing a garden. It stunts all the plants. So, it’s had a huge impact. And we’re working towards trying to get whole house replacements so we’re bathing in clean water, but that’s something that we haven’t been able to do yet.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will certainly continue to follow this issue. We got this statement from one of the members of the House committee, Maurice Hinchey, who is retiring at the end of his term, from upstate New York. He said, "It is beyond unacceptable that acclaimed documentary director Josh Fox was arrested for trying to film a public hearing on groundwater contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing in Pavillion, Wyoming." Congressman Hinchey goes on to say, "This was a public hearing, there was plenty of room for cameras, and a credentialed camera crew was told they would be denied access because they were working for a documentary filmmaker. This is blatant censorship and a shameful stain on [this] Congress. I stand by Josh’s right to record this hearing. His arrest was a huge mistake." Again, the statement of retiring Congress Member Maurice Hinchey, who was in the room, on the committee. Josh Fox, will you attempt to film another EPAhearing on Capitol Hill, as we wrap up?
JOSH FOX: We film hundreds of—hundreds of public hearings across America, of course. And I would say, I’d like to try to see them arrest me in Congress to tape a public hearing again. I think, when you have a First Amendment threat, the thing that you have to do is exercise the First Amendment. So, I very much doubt that they will be arresting me at a public hearing in Congress again. I doubt it.
AMY GOODMAN: And this last news that we just reported in the last few days, Environmental Protection Agency agreeing to begin delivering fresh water to four homes in northeastern Pennsylvania, where water wells have been contaminated by fracking?
JOSH FOX: Yes. Well, that’s in Dimock, Pennsylvania. And there’s another case where residents stuck to their guns, and in spite of an enormous amount of intimidation, both by industry and by DEP, in a similar situation where John—what John Fenton described, where you had DEP from Pennsylvania, the state agency, walking in, arm in arm, with Cabot Oil & Gas, a lot of this revolving door between state regulators and industry, finally got the attention of the EPA, the federal agency. And they came in, did their own survey of the water wells, looked at the testing results, and decided these people need water delivery.
And this is not a cheap or inexpensive thing to do. The original proposal was for a water line. That was going to cost $12 million to serve 18 families. So when you take a look at the cost to taxpayers and the cost to the quality of life in America from hydraulic fracturing and you realize that the profit from that gas is going all towards these huge oil and gas companies, you realize that this is a raw deal when you actually add up the economics of it. We pay the cost, as citizens, for the damage that will go on forever. And when I’ve talked to John Fenton, I asked him, "Is there any remedy for the groundwater in Pavillion?" And he said to me, "Well, actually, this is going to outlast me." There is no talk of ever fixing this problem in the ground. And that is a similar situation to what’s happening in Dimock. So when you’re taking a look at the long-term impact on groundwater versus this short-term windfall profit for oil and gas, it’s very, very clear what’s going on here.