Josh Fox's 'Gasland' Sequel Opens, a Tour Through a Land of Abandoned Homes and Broken Promises
This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
Gasland Part II, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, takes us deep into the heartland of America, a land overtaken by gas extraction via fracking. The iconic and recurring depictions of water-on-fire seen in the first Gasland, in the new film serve as postcards from a travelogue through a land of broken promises, abandoned homes, and extinguished rights.
The first Gasland, (which was released in 2010 and nominated for a 2011 Academy Award) became this country’s wake-up call about fracking, the first prod for millions to look beyond the industry-engineered PR facade. Banjo music played throughout the soundtrack revealed director Josh Fox’s chosen musical instrument. But Fox became a kind of Pied Piper for a growing grass roots movement that questioned the need for fracking. Challenging the inroads claimed by the multinational gas and oil industry, fractivism is a popular and youth-driven pushback that these powerful industries are neither accustomed nor equipped to deal with.
Gasland and Gasland Part II (and films like them) unmask the human debt incurred by an array of corporate Goliaths. It turns the lens on those joining the ranks of the Davids—ordinary citizens that awaken from the American dream to discover their way of life has been redefined by impersonal corporate entities, intent on constructing new superhighways towards profitsâ€‘—right over the lives of tens of thousands of people.
Gasland Part II continues Fox’s exploration by offering textured, in-depth profiles of half a dozen or so families in geographically diverse locations, from Australia, to Wyoming to Pennsylvania. Fox’s camera takes us into the homes of straight-talking folks who worked hard to secure their corner of the heartland.
Over the course of the film, we watch them move from disbelief to indignation to disillusionment, as they learn that no one’s willing to make industries accountable, even when a town loses its water. Texas homeowner Steve Lipsky built a million dollar plus dream home for his wife and family. With ample square footage, the Lipsky home was surrounded by sky-high picture windows, stunning views, and cascading pools. The customized bathroom came complete with an oversized whirlpool tub that now stands empty. Test results showed water so contaminated by nearby fracking activities that EPA officials privately advised the family never to drink it. But in a theme of civilian betrayal that recurs throughout the film, Lipsky claims that mid-level government regulators retracted their findings, rejected key opportunities to rein in the offending companies, and kept revelatory test results locked away from public access.
Gasland Part II documents what happens when people discover that the standard American protections are as prone to fail as the cement casings on gas extraction pipelines. (Industry documents shown in the film reveal that all casings fail over the next thirty years, and many much sooner, thus setting the stage for aquifer contamination by fracking chemicals, and methane.)
For me, it was a poignant Earth Day reminder that (as the film notes) the destruction of communities by the fossil fuel extraction industry is as old as the industry itself. For decades, this took place among indigenous populations, though few noticed. As Gasland Part II poignantly reveals, what’s different now is that it’s happening to white Americans. In some cases the film’s subjects are former Republicans, even a few who once clambered for drilling, without understanding that the hope of a fair partnership between Goliath and David is as doomed as a Kardashian marriage. Especially, when, as Gasland Part II uncovers, industry documents recommend the use of psy-ops (psychological operations, a military tactic deployed in combat zones) to manage community divisions in fracking regions. This may not be the change people were wanting to believe in.
No longer are the old forests clear-cut for drill rigs located in outlying areas inhabited by ethnic “others.” Now it’s Pennsylvania’s public lands and forests, which were industrialized by Governor Tom Corbett, elected, as the film shows, with substantial gas and oil industry contributions. Now it’s America falling far beneath its first world allies (according to a wide range of measures compiled in international studies) and transitioning into a new status. As the film documents, a government once so proud of its democracy, it sought to export it, now over-rules the rights of its citizens. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, the film tracks the history of the town’s aquifer contamination, which affected the drinking water in many homes. The PA government first promised to construct a pipeline of potable water at industry expense, but following Corbett’s election, retracted that plan and left many townsfolk permanently without water.
As a result, many were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for buy-outs so that they could move for the sake of their health. In one poignant scene, Fox films an outspoken and charismatic community leader named Victoria Switzer, as prior to signing, she “practices” being silent. Many of those profiled in Gasland II have undergone a similar fate and abandoned their zero value homes or accepted buyouts in exchange for silence. Louis Meeks, a Wyoming farmer, explains that he received such an offer. His reply, “Move and leave my neighbors here? What kind of an axxxxxe do you think I am?”
And for what, this loss of rights, of homes, of voices? In order to exploit resources now destined for export to other countries. In the film, economic analyst Deborah Rogers explains her view that once gas is liquefied for export to China (where gas prices are high), the currently low U.S. gas prices will mount, creating a consumer squeeze. Americans will have invested their tax dollars in gas infrastructures based on the promise of cheap energy. But that energy won’t be there.
Gasland Part II contends that an industry should not be allowed to break what it cannot fix. The aftermaths of contamination often endure. The film opens with the use of Corexit, (a product banned in Britain) that dispersed and hid the massive amounts of oil released into the Gulf of Mexico by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill. But Corexit didn’t remove the oil or redress the damage. Instead, it “killed the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico,” according to biologist Wilma Subra, interviewed in the film.
There is no current technology to purify the fracking waste that is shale gas extraction’s by-product. There is no current technology to restore the water supply of the 15 million Americans reliant on the Delaware River, should the Delaware River Basin, which flows through five states, becomes contaminated through nearby fracking or pipeline infrastructural activity. Nor is climate change, which climatologist, Robert Howarth reveals is greatly increased by both methane release and the entire life cycle of drilling activity, reversible.
Fortunately, there is existing technology that can solve the energy problem—it’s renewable energy technology. As the film makes clear, shale gas is no bridge to a renewable energy future. It’s a detour away from renewables, a dead-end. As Stanford researcher Mark Z. Jacobson discloses in the film, the technology for renewables has evolved so thoroughly that 100% of U.S. energy needs could now be supplied by wind, complemented by some use of solar and water energy. Jacobson and his colleagues at the Solutions Project are devising a detailed plan to meet the needs of New York State spelling out all of the requirements, along with the jobs to be created.
In its evocative human scale report, Gasland Part II zooms in on the early stages of social disruption due to extreme energy extraction leads. The people profiled in the film are earthy and real. Their voices can be heard and counted. Though tens of thousands may be affected globally, the devastation has not currently progressed to a point where news reports detail mind-numbingly large numbers of the afflicted. Unless the concerns the film highlights are heeded, more extreme forms of devastation could lie ahead. Why undergo such risks when there are economically viable ways to meet our energy needs now and into the future, that don’t entail contamination, earthquake activity, and displacement?
Gasland Part II will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and will debut nationally on HBO this summer.