Documenting the Drilling

Gasland was Nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar; E Talks with Director Josh Fox
Nominated for the Best Documentary award at the recent Oscars, Josh Fox’s Gasland brings to light the devastating health and environmental effects of modern natural gas drilling, also known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” Despite not winning the award, reports are undeniable about the dangers of fracking. Hydraulic fracturing gets to natural gas in shale rock that conventional drilling cannot, through a high-pressure method involving millions of gallons of water and 596 chemicals. The brew of these chemicals and water, known as “Frac Fluid,” contains known carcinogens which, in turn, contaminate surrounding drinking water. Residents near hydraulic fracturing sites have drinking water that’s turned yellow, brown and black — water that smells like gas and that ignites if one holds a match to a running faucet. Yet oil and gas industry officials insist a contamination problem does not exist, and contend that if these residents want, they can hire a lawyer.

One couple did just that, and won a $21,000 settlement to have a sophisticated water filtration system installed on their property. But their water was still contaminated. The filter could not siphon out the toxic glycol ethers which can cause kidney, liver and brain damage. If filtration systems had to be installed on a large scale, the economic toll would be enormous. For instance, if natural gas drilling were to contaminate New York City’s drinking water, a filtration plant would cost “$20-$30 billion to install, and $1 million a day to run,” Fox says. That’s a steep price to pay for a drilling method that can provide only an estimated 20 years’ worth of our national energy needs.

With plans to drill a 600 mile-long rock formation called the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from West Virginia to western New York and is known as the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” the natural gas industry has incredibly profitable development plans in its future. Hundreds of thousands of new wells are planned along the Marcellus Shale without any U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigation or regulation from the Clean Water Act or the Safe Drinking Water Act. Air pollution is also an issue near drilling sites. A remote area of Wyoming, with about one resident per square mile, has worse air pollution than Los Angeles due to extensive nearby natural gas drilling.

A recent bill known as the “Frac Act” may force the industry to disclose the chemicals they use during hydraulic fracturing; however, it has yet to pass. But as Representative Maurice Hinchey, (D-NY) recently said: “Thanks to Gasland and the millions of activists across the country, we finally have a counterweight to the influence of the oil and gas industry in our nation’s capital.”

Since the film’s release, industry officials have waged a war with Josh Fox and Gasland, criticizing the film’s science and accuracy in a seven-page letter titled “Debunking Gasland.” In an unprecedented move, they even sent a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, asking them to remove the movie from their list of Best Documentary nominees.

Fox stands by the science and accuracy of his film, with the document “Affirming Gasland.” Going into Sunday’s Oscars, three million people will have viewed Gasland, which was shown on HBO and received the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize at 2010’s Sundance Film Festival. Fox toured over 100 cities with the film, including screenings for members of the EPA and Congress. “I went to Washington, D.C. four or five times,” he says, adding that he will continue to work with organizations that are campaigning for renewable energy as well as with people who are directly affected by hydraulic fracturing. “This is not just about awareness.”