Gasland Filmmaker Josh Fox Pushes Back at Critics and Disinformation About Fracking

Fox says corporate misinformation tactics cloud the true environmental debate.

Photo Credit: Kris Krüg / Creative Commons

This interview took place last week, the day after news broke that conservative videographer James O'Keefe tried to “punk” Josh Fox and other environmental filmmakers into taking money from a fictitious Middle Eastern oil tycoon to make an anti-fracking movie. O'Keefe's Project Veritas heavily edited Fox's comments for its 20-minute film, implying that he showed some interest in their offer. However, Fox turned the tables on O'Keefe, releasing his own uncut recording of the conversation, proving that he was not at all willing to take money from a group that refused to be transparent with its background and endeavors.

Cliff Weathers: Do you ever feel like they're putting a target on your back?

Josh Fox: For the last four or five years, it’s not just me but everyone in the films — the science experts, those dedicated to get the word out on fracking — who have suffered unbelievable amount of attacks, both of the most nefarious and deceptive kinds as well as just the normal criticisms as you might have with any kind of new information. But what's most disturbing is the persistent smear and misinformation machine that’s constantly coming after people in the films and myself, and everything that has to do with this issue. It’s become damaging to our civic dialogue in the United States.

Today, we just assume that there are going to be corporations that attack information and lie to protect their interests, and they’ll do it in the most devious and blatant fashion. It's become part of American life. The so called debate on issues has one side that is just lying. That’s not a debate; deception is not a point of view.

When I started working on the film, it was already a very contentious and controversial issue in my area. So, in the Upper Delaware River Basin, there were a lot of people who wanted to lease their land to make money off of this. And it was surprising how quickly that broke down along certain cultural lines, and it exacerbated political tensions that were there for a long time. So, I became the face of people who were trying to preserve the beauty and integrity of the environment and the health of the community. And there were a lot of people who wanted their money and who were willing to put their neighbors in jeopardy and put all of us in harm's way, and really destroy what is one of the most astoundingly beautiful areas of the world (the Delaware River Basin), which is also the watershed area for New York City, Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.

So from the very beginning I knew it was going to be hot in the kitchen. But I could never anticipate the deviousness, the bald-faced lying and character attacks. Every every single type of bizarre attack was waged against both of my films, against me personally, and against the people in the films. It's a constant presence in life.

There are people who will go to restaurants to tape things and do things with hidden cameras. I find that really shocking. I can't see how you could ever campaign for a point of view when your principle mode of operation is deception. This is all designed to create confusion and doubt with the mainstream audience. It creates a cloud of doubt around the real reporting, so that people don't really know what to believe or who to trust. Our work is profoundly researched and verified by as many sources as you can possibly imagine. Every line in those movies has been vetted not only by our staff, which is very fastidious about accuracy in our reporting, but also by HBO who wouldn't put it on if it had a line that was untrue.

CW: One of the people in Gasland, Part II was a man who left the Republican Party over his disgust with hydrofracking. To the casual observer, this is a partisan issue, but that's not the case with the people you've met. How do you think fracking changes people who are directly affected by it?

JF: It's created an enormous amount of conversation between people who wouldn't ordinarily speak to each other because of that partisan divide. It's not a partisan issue. I tour constantly with the films to talk to environmental organizations. I'm talking red state, blue state, blue parts of red states, red parts of blue states. And when the fossil-fuel industry comes to these towns and then it's "we're going to destroy everything you have," that is the equalizer. People come together pretty quick, and there are conversations between people who are social conservatives and people who are progressive Democrats. It's an amazing convergence.

I carry a business card around in my wallet from a guy name Craig Stevens. He's a sixth-generation Pennsylvanian. His card has the "Don't Tread on Me" snake with a drilling rig rammed right through the middle of it. And that's your Tea Party, anti-fracking activist; people have even coined the term "green tea."

And then you realize that these are not American companies, but multinationals that have no country, and no allegiance. And they will destroy a place whether it's Pennsylvania, Texas, or New York, or even in Nigeria, or Ecuador, or Peru. You realize that there's always been a group of people who are "expendable" in the face of business. Whether they were massacred by the National Guard striking at coal mines in Colorado a hundred years ago or today in the Niger Delta, or in West Virginia where mountains are being exploded. And right now, in the target zone are people who live in the Marcellus Shale, the Barnett Shale, or the Haynesville Shale. The fossil-fuel industry has always considered these people to just be in their way. They have no rights and they have no way of appealing through the normal democratic channels. This is the way the fossil-fuel industry has run their business for a hundred years.

So, now that area of expendability has expanded and it catches all sorts of folks in its wake. So, their reaction to being subjugated by such a huge industry is going to be similar, I think, whether you're a liberal Democrat or a conservative or Tea Party person. The divide that often happens between people is one of money. Some people really want the money and some people don't, and that can happen across the political divide as well. So, what's happening here is that Americans are realizing just how disenfranchised we are.

A favorite thing I like to bring up is this recent Princeton University study. They asked "What form of rule does America really have?" They did all the research through their political science department on all these popular issues and they polled and they figured it out, and they came back with the answer.... Oh, America doesn't have a democracy actually, America has an oligarchy; ruled by the rich and powerful.

What does that mean for us? Well, that means 90% of people could want background checks for buying assault rifles and not get them. Ninety percent of people could want the minimum wage raised to $10.10 or even higher and not get it. Eighty percent of people could want curbs on greenhouse gas emissions and not get it. That means that we don't count, our opinions don't matter. That's what the Princeton study says. And people fundamentally understand that right now, and there's an incredible amount of frustration and that's where you see some people pushing off to this radical right and pushing off into a more progressive left-wing. There are more and more conversions there because people don't have power.

We have to realize that America has not always been a democracy. When women didn't have the vote, America was not a democracy. When people of color did not have the vote, we were not a democracy. What did we do at those times to make more equality in our society? Well, we did everything: We organized, we struck, we committed civil disobedience. We took over the waves of culture; we created music, art and film. We did everything in our power to try to transform society.

When we're talking about what's happening in America today, I'm watching an incredible movement against fracking. I'm watching people being extraordinarily attentive to history. They're saying that we need to do all these things; to create films, events, and protests. We need to birddog our legislators. Recently, 300 people decided to greet President Obama at Cooperstown with anti-fracking signs. On the same day, a couple hundred people decided to greet Governor [Andrew] Cuomo in Long Island with anti-fracking signs. This is going on perpetually. I'm watching this and it's beautiful. It almost makes me feel like democracy is an irrepressible force. It's bounding back at the grassroots and local levels and it's very exciting.

CW: I was watching the original Gasland recently, and then I watched Gasland, Part II. And I noticed that the message of Gasland is so dated by comparison. There have been so many developments since.When Gasland was released, this was a subject people didn't know about and the message was really simple and straightforward. The second movie took it to another level of sophistication.

JF: I feel that way, too. I didn't know about fracking when I made the first Gasland, it really was about my journey of discovery. And I think everyone who watched that film went through that same process. I think that's why it was so successful because it told that story. But now everyone knows about fracking. And the question of the second film is that now that everyone knows about it and there’s a movement out there, we want to know what's the government going to do about it. So the second film is an inquiry into why should the government get fracked. When I go to Washington, DC, I like to point out that it is the largest fracking site in the United States. The government is being destroyed with an injection of high-pressure money, and that's completely fracturing our democracy.

CW: So, what's the next film about?

JF: I'm making another film, this one about climate. It's very difficult, and it's extraordinarily upsetting to see the fix that we're in. So, to go from someone who knows nothing about fracking to end up with this incredibly deep and damning knowledge of the biggest issue facing the planet — changing climate — is actually quite a crazy progression that I've spent the last six years of my life on.

What I'm realizing is our structures of this grassroots democracy are the most important thing that we can offer. In fact, this is not a question only of emissions, pollutants and toxins, this is a question of value structures and we are not fighting just industrial corporations, we are talking about how we protect our civilization. How do we do that? Well, we do that by coming together and having common values.

It's both a private property and individual rights question as it is a communal, public property and greater human rights question. It really shows the depth of this idea of the social contract.

These are the thoughts I'm having now, they're just as profound as having thoughts on ocean acidification, and carbon dioxide parts per million, and mass extinction. I'm trying to think deeply about the roots of our obligations to each other in this process. So, it's really been almost like a metaphysical type of journey, so I have no idea where we're going to end up with this new film.

CW: You've become the voice of the anti-fracking movement. Is this movie also a way for you to broaden your appeal or horizons?

JF: I think it's a natural progression. We're talking about fossil fuels. Before I did any of this, I made plays and movies, and I'll continue to make plays and movies, narrative as well as documentary. So, this movie is an important next chapter in this environmental work. But I'm also working on a screenplay right now that has to do with the Iraq war; it's in its final stages. We're going be doing a tour about renewable energy, first in New York State and then across the United States. 

I find these thoughts so interconnected between fracking and climate that they almost don't seem like separate issues to me. I just think fracking is the way that people understand this in a very immediate sense. You know, 15 million Americans live within a mile of a fracking well, and that's just the beginning of what they want to do. So, it is the manifestation of this extreme drilling campaign across the world, which will push us over the edge into a completely inhospitable planet. So, to me, they're fundamentally connected.

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Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.