A New Generation of Natural Gas Drilling Is Endangering Communities From the Rockies to New York
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.
Nora Eisenberg: The film is done, the festivals have slowed down, but you're still running around. What are you doing?
Josh Fox: I'm touring with the film as much as I can, going from one affected area to another. It's been very amazing and also overwhelming at the same time. There are so many people who are so concerned about the way natural gas has completely taken over their lives, their towns. The outcry is remarkable.
NE: So you've had sold-out screenings in small towns and big cities, and now a national audience on HBO. Did you anticipate this response when you first set out to make the film?
JF: So many people were quick to respond to our requests to be interviewed about fracking that I could tell instantly that this was a national problem—and nobody had really talked enough about it.
NE: The film does not just feature talking heads but a real story, even a mystery, that draws viewers in. Why did you decide to tell your story this way? A detective story one minute, a tragedy the next, and then suddenly it's a comedy.
JF: I made the film the way it happened to me. The parts of the film that were scary and suspenseful were scary to me. The funny and inspiring parts were funny and inspiring to me.
In Dimock, Pennsylvania, people were so confused. People who had become critical of the drilling were being threatened, water wells were exploding, and no one knew whom to trust. So the Dimock segment is like a detective mystery. Other sections of the film are completely baffling, like when you watch the gas industry basically misleading Congress and making statements that are very clearly fabrications. And then parts of people are hilarious. You're in people's kitchens where they're lighting their water on fire. And they're making jokes about it because there's nothing else to do.
It was very important to me that the film not come out all doom and gloom, that it leaves you inspired and does things for your intellect. Because you're laughing, on another level your brain is processing the information.
NE: In your sleuthing, what was the most surprising discovery you made?
JF: Most baffling to me was how much the gas industry was able to get away with—like [insisting] that drilling is safe. Most people when they sign the lease don't realize that what they're in for is a complete industrialization of their property and an enormous problem with their air and water. The gas industry is somehow able to move into an area and say that everything is going to be just fine, you're just going to make a lot of money.
The second really surprising thing was the non-disclosure agreements. When an injured party is suing the gas industry because their water has been contaminated, the gas industry will give them some money or some water in exchange for their silence. Non-disclosure agreements were everywhere. I was very surprised and also very disheartened—because I couldn't talk to those people. There was a great amount of information that was under this cloak of silence.
And then there's a third thing—just how much government collusion there was in creating this dearth of information. In Pennsylvania, where thousands of wells have already been fracked, there are very few inspectors and the same goes in New York. Congress exempted the gas industry from the Clean Air and Water acts. So there are no real functioning mechanisms for monitoring and gathering essential information about fracking.
And I was happily surprised by how indomitable the people are in the areas that are being drilled. They're not surrendering. They're never angry. They're always just trying to fix things and figure out what they can do to get their lives back on track and to try to minimize the impact of this industry.
NE: In some areas, like the Upper Delaware and Catskills, we've seen tension between people who sign leases and people who don't. Now that so much more information about the hazards of fracking is coming out, do you think it's possible for the two groups to find common ground?
JF: I tell people who have leased that you're going to believe what I'm saying now or you're going to believe it later. There's considerable regret on the part of the people who have leased and who didn't get paid or the amount of money they were promised.
The people who made the most money were the largest landowners. But most people don't own 400 or 500 acres; most people don't stand to get that huge million-dollar check. I think the vast amount of people at least in the Delaware River Basin and the New York City Watershed don't want this to happen. And they are getting more and more vocal in opposition to it.
NE: What kind of environmental problems most impressed you?
JF: The water contamination issue is primary. When your water has chemicals in it from drilling mud and is unusable, you really have a big problem on your hands. You have to haul water or demand that the company brings you water. And then you most likely have to sign a non-disclosure agreement that you're not going to tell anybody what happened.
The air contamination issue is really significant too. You have drilling spewing chemicals into the air, a lot of which are known toxins, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And those are wafting into homes. You have some people who have been exposed to a toxic cloud for ten minutes, and they they're in the hospital and they don't recover fully for years or maybe not ever.
NE: How can fracking affect people's health, now and down the road?
JF: There hasn't been a proper epidemiological study yet. I can tell you what I've seen: neurological disorders, peripheral neuropathy, brain damage, all sorts of weird chemical sensitivities, respiratory problems, eye irritation, kidney and liver problems, cancers, leukemia.
NE: Leaders like President Obama and John Kerry, one of the sponsors of the 2010 American Power Act, which is supposedly tackling climate change, have nothing but praise for shale gas production. How do you think we can educate our lawmakers about the real nature of fracking and the environmental costs of natural gas consumption?
JF: I think those people don't have enough facts yet. They don't see that natural gas is actually on a par with coal in terms of gas emissions and the climate change. The energy industry has done a really good job of presenting natural gas as the cleanest alternative to burning coal, when in fact once you factor in the fracking process and the emission from methane, which we now know to be the most potent greenhouse gas, it is the dirtier, more polluting and far more toxic competitor to renewable energy. We have the technology to make the transition to renewable energy right now. The film points out that the 7,700 natural gas wells in the Dallas-Fort Worth area contribute more air pollution and more greenhouse gas than all the pollution from cars and trucks in the area. Natural gas is a dirty fossil fuel like the rest of them.
In addition to the climate change issue, there's a human rights crisis. The drilling is disenfranchising people, taking them away from their homes. In the more than thirty states where there's fracking or where fracking is planned, like New York, a large percentage of the land is currently being leased for gas drilling. This land is no longer owned by the American people. Practically speaking, it's owned by the gas industry because they can do what they want with it.
NE: Who's going to stop fracking? The grassroots alone? Did you find any hotshot celebrities out at Sundance to champion the cause?
JF: Everyone sees the movie becomes a supporter. This is going to be a county-to-county, state-to-state, and at some point, maybe, a country-to-country campaign, since the gas companies have interest in fracking globally. It's up to normal people to get involved with this, and not rely on stars. They'll be there when we need it. But mainly what we need is a groundswell of people who are saying, "This is enough."
NE: Gas companies have used the Gulf oil spill as an opportunity to intensify their public relations campaigns for natural gas—as if it's the solution to our dependence on oil. What do you think are the lessons from the Gulf?
JF: What happened to our ocean with oil is what's happening in our fresh water as a result of the natural gas industry. We know that the gas companies managed to get exempt from federal laws and regulations. The Safe Drinking Water Act, the safety provisions of the Clean Water Acts, the Clean Air Act, the Superfund Law—the gas industry is exempt from all these basic environmental and worker protections. They don't have to disclose the chemicals they use. They don't have to play by the same rules as anybody else.
NE: So the 2005 Energy Law did an end run around the EPA? Is there any movement in the agency to claim authority? All in all, do you see any cause for optimism?
JF: The EPA has initiated a two-year study, but only the first year is funded so far. That study does not include health effects. It also does not model itself on the most heavily impacted areas. So it is inadequate as a study. We're calling on the EPA to initiate a four- or five-year study on the health effects, conducted by major university, a third party. We're also calling for them not to have conflict of interest in their peer review. But right now the EPA is not doing nearly enough. What we're saying is that there's enough evidence nationwide that we want a five-year moratorium until that study is completed.
Calvin Tillman, Mayor of DISH, Texas [the outspoken mayor of this small town outside of Fort Worth, where major fracking activity has resulted in widespread air and water pollution] said something I love, "Once you know, you can't not know." So now I know.
I'm one of the people at risk here. I've got these gas wells a couple of hundred feet from my house. If I don't figure out how to stop this thing, I'm going to lose everything I have. And that puts me in the same position of thousands upon thousands of people in America who are concerned, who have gone from being soccer moms to activists. I approach this with my day job in mind, which is that of an artist, but it incurs a kind of activism and you're seeing this all over America: ordinary people becoming activists.