It’s a tale of government incompetence (or collusion), mendacious energy executives deluded by profit and indifferent to collateral damage and an ecological catastrophe of so-far unknowable proportions: Sound familiar? It’s not what you think. This story doesn’t swirl around the Gulf of Mexico. It inhabits a different threatened ecosystem entirely.
Josh Fox’s complacency-jarring Gasland, follows the sulfurous trail of the natural gas rush currently raging across rural counties all over America, not the oily currents drifting toward Gulf beaches. But the parallels with the events leading up to BP’s environmental apocalypse are unmistakable. “Gasland” debuts on HBO this week as the latest installment of a worthy tradition of American muckraking. The film harkens back to the original exposé of corporate malfeasance, Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company, a text that similarly shocked the public back in 1904 when it disclosed the unseemly practices of the original Mr. Byrne, John D. Rockefeller.
This story of corporate shortsightedness and the steamrolling of mere citizens takes place on land as natural gas suppliers—enlivened by the Bush era’s Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the loosening of federal controls it mandated—seek out thousands of locations for establishing natural gas wells using a technique called hydraulic fracturing, “fracking” for short. “Battlestar Gallactica” fans will recognize the word and its slightly different, unprintable connotation. It’s etymological use in that fictional alternate universe would be quite apt for the offense “fracking” commits to Mother Earth in “Gasland.” Hydraulic fracturing is a form of natural gas extraction deployed to reach deep or otherwise hard-to-reach gas deposits. Once a well is drilled, millions of gallons of water, sand and a mixture of industrial solvents and other toxic chemicals—benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, even diesel fuel—are injected under high pressure into the well. The pressure fractures substrata which had entrapped natural gas deep underground and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well.
Fracking is an old drilling technique devised by our friends at Dick Cheney’s corporate mothership Halliburton, but a recent innovation has been to frack at distance horizontally under a landscape, allowing energy companies to reach natural gas trapped in shale in vast deposits throughout the United States. There are more than 450,000 fracking sites out there already, tapping a “clean” energy reserve that promises to put off a U.S. reckoning with its fossil fuel problem for several more decades while offering an indecent ROI for natural gas wildcatters.
What worries Fox and what’s the central focus of his film is what flows up after fracking. Not only is the emerging gas itself ruining well water sites across the nation, Fox alleges that industrial chemicals used by fracking wildcatters are likewise finding their way to surface water. Now gas companies have their eye on the Marcellus Shale Formation, a vast reserve of natural gas under the ground in eastern Pennsylvania and throughout a good chunk of New York. “Gasland” charges that tapping that shale gas threatens an interlink of lakes, streams and rivers in the Delaware River watershed and New York’s pristine Catskills that comprises a water resource that currently sustains more than 17 million people throughout the region.
Fox knows of what he films. His odyssey began when he received a letter advising him of the potential of earning as much as $100,000 in royalties and bonuses were he to sign over his family’s 19 acres in eastern Pennsylvania’s Delaware River Basin, an area called the “Saudi Arabia of Natural Gas,” to gas drilling. It wasn’t long before he was on the road across America’s vast Gasland seeking out farmers and ranchers and their displeased neighbors who were suffering serious buyer’s remorse after cashing those checks. Well water that had been put to use for years, if not generations on some properties, was now hopelessly contaminated; livestock, pets and family members were falling ill; and kitchen faucets had become ignitable flares. Natural gas producers deny all culpability, while providing a lucky few who sign nondisclosure agreements water cisterns and filtration systems to replace their poisoned water sources, and government bureaucrats who should have been representing the people’s interests were, and remain, missing in action.
Fox’s film nods to a number of classic American film genres, most obviously it joins the emerging tradition of Michael-Moore-ian rebel documentaries like “Sicko,” “Food, Inc.,” and “King Corn,” sustained as much by the documentarian’s skillful polemics as they are by more debatable elements like facts and figures. But “Gasland” also channels classic American road movies. It’s part industrial detective story and environmental agitprop, and if you live in the New York and Pennsylvania drilling fields of desire—or plan to drink water ever again—part horror film.
Fox comes across as a low-key Michael Moore. His outrage remains obvious but muted, maintaining a sort of bemused, drowsy despair rather than Moore’s scoldy grimace. It should come as no surprise that Fox has become the target of wild swings from the energy industry and “grassroots” landowner advocacy groups that are vehemently enthusiastic about shale gas extraction and long-term lease arrangements. A website dedicated to trashing Fox makes much of his credentials as a an avant-garde director and “fringe” artist, insinuating, I guess, that he is unqualified to have an opinion about trading off the Northeast’s water supply for a few more years of cheap energy. But in an era when CNN regularly features “iReporters” and rumors are considered acceptable fodder for TV “journalists” to toss about on the air, it’s not clear what their point is about professionalism. Every shmoe with a digital camera is a potential documentarian these days and in truth for whatever purported professionalism he lacks, Fox seems more than measured in his dissection of this problem.
It’s hard to discount first-person testimony from people in state after state who tell you that their water was fine before the gas company came but who can now hold up yellowy jars of chemically brackished water and demonstrate flame-spitting faucets. Watching the gas company executives line up before a Congressional hearing, a water-wellian murderer’s row, and deny any connection between their twisting, blasting and chemical loading of the substrata with the unpleasant outcomes at the surface, it’s hard not to be reminded of another corporate gang, perjuring themselves en masse a few years back in denials of the addictive quality of America’s nicotine-enriched cigarettes.
If Fox has given gas company executives indigestion, then he has probably done the polemicist’s job well. But his deeply troubling exposé will be the beginning of a movement if it gets the people of New York and Pennsylvania, so far mostly somnolent while the ground and the watershed beneath their feet has been readied for fracking, off their couches and into their Congress member’s office. In “Gasland” Fox interviews a Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger who blithely dismisses Fox’s concerns by speaking of social “tradeoffs” for reliable energy reserves—poisoned well water on one hand, a natural gas supply and short-term lucre on the other. Now we are on the precipice of endangering the drinking water for the entire city of New York and thousands of other communities in the Northeast. These days it is commonly understood that the nation’s energy policy subjects us all to some extravagant costs, but the events in the Gulf, the ugliness perpetrated by coal extraction methods like Mountain Top Removal and the potential of permanently contaminating the nation’s only unfiltered municipal water supply reminds us that some ask too high a price for cheap energy.