By Annette Hinkle
A running tap, a burning match … a burst of flames.
It’s a dramatic way to make a point and one that succeeded to great effect in “Gasland,” a 2010 documentary about the hazards of hydraulic fracturing — or fracking, an extraction process used to tap into natural gas reserves embedded deep in shale layers across the United States.
“Gasland,” which was nominated for an Academy Award, woke the nation up to a form of gas extraction that few knew about prior to the film’s release. Ironically, director Josh Fox didn’t know much about fracking either, until 2008, when he says he got a letter from a gas company offering big bucks for a lease on his family’s land near the Delaware River in Pennsylvania for the purposes of fracking.
Plenty of other residents in Pennsylvania had eagerly accepted the offer and the big pay day that came with it, and gas wells had begun sprouting up all around him. Fox, however, was suspect and began poking around.
His curiosity led him across the country, camera in hand, where he learned that fracking was far more widespread than he had imagined, and was causing far more damage to private wells and public aquifers than anyone would admit.
That’s where the fiery tap water came into play. Several of Fox’s interview subjects had wells they said were tainted by fracking and demonstrated for him exactly how compromised their drinking water had become.
Now, Fox is back, this time with “Gasland Part II.” The film will be screened this Friday, July 5 at Guild Hall in East Hampton as part of the Hamptons International Film Festival’s SumemrDocs series. Fox will be on hand for a Q&A and panel discussion after the screening which will be moderated by Alec Baldwin. The nation will be able to see it as well when “Gasland Part II” premieres on HBO at 9 p.m. next Monday, July 8.
If “Gasland” took viewers on a cross-country journey while offering a primer on the fracking process and the affects it has had on wells and aquifers of unsuspecting Americans, then “Gasland Part II” focuses the issue squarely on the politics of Washington where Fox notes the gas industry has been given free reign to expand in backyards across America and around the world.
And many of those gas and oil firms, he notes, are multinational corporations looking not to solve America’s dependency on foreign energy, but rather, export this country’s resources and technology around the globe in an effort to reap big profits on the backs of those left to deal with the aftermath of a polluted landscape.
For Fox, it’s more than just a case of big business run amok. The issue, he says, tramples on the basic civil liberties of Americans. Incidentally, in “Gasland Part II,” the burning tap is back too — this time at the end of a gardening hose as well as an open well which catches fire to great effect.
“In the case of the exploding tap at the gardening hose, a prerequisite to any sequel is bigger and better explosions,” says Fox wryly. “The first film is about water contamination. This film is about how the natural gas and oil industry lit democracy on fire.”
Though he’s going up against one of the most powerful industries in the world, Fox is energized and heartened by the success he and his films have had in getting his message to the people.
“What’s so amazing is we have won the messaging battle in the media — but it’s also the reality of the situation,” says Fox. “It’s a toxic industry that wants to drill in backyards across America. It’s now in 34 states, half of Ohio, all of West Virginia, Texas. It’s everywhere. And they want expansion everywhere.”
Incidentally, New York currently has a moratorium on fracking, fueled by concerns that fracking upstate could affect the aquifers which are the source of New York City’s drinking water. Governor Andrew Cuomo is awaiting the results of a review by the state health commissioner on the potential health impacts before deciding whether to permit fracking or turn the moratorium into a permanent ban.
“We have one of the most controversial issues in the media and clear cases of thousands of people being harmed by multinational corporations — What the film does is ask, ‘What’s going on?’” says Fox. “They’ve taken away our right to self determination and engaged in civil rights abuses. And somehow, they have managed to get the government to betray the civil rights of Americans.”
“I think it comes down to the increasing influence the oil and gas industry has at every level,” adds Fox. “We tracked that problem through the new movie. It’s every bit as shocking and fascinating as watching the water catch on fire.”
By way of explanation, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method of forcing natural gas from rock layers deep below the earth’s surface by injecting a pressurized mixture of sand, water and chemicals down through the earth and into a deep, horizontally drilled well. The chemical mixture cracks the shale, allowing the natural gas to flow up to the well head.
While much of the water used in fracking is re-collected, chemical laden water can reportedly migrate into nearby wells and leach into nearby water tables. Environmentalists worry that cracks in the shale created by the fracking process can spread to existing cracks, becoming pathways to other groundwater sources.
When asked exactly what is catching on fire in those dramatic tap sequences — natural gas or the chemicals used in the extraction process — Fox explains: “You do have a situation where methane is migrating into aquifers and waterways. Methane migration is something we look at in the second film and we try to figure out why.”
Like the tobacco industry, which denied the addictive nature of nicotine despite the conflicting evidence of its own scientists, Fox maintains the oil and gas industry has decades worth of its research indicating the prevalence of well leakage.
“Five percent of wells leak immediately,” says Fox. “And 50 to 60 percent leak over a 30 year period. They’re losing their product to the aquifer. All the science can’t solve the leakage.
“It’s getting more and more obvious,” he says.
But besides the natural gas leakage, Fox says often what also comes up are the chemicals used in the fracking fluid, as well as naturally occurring substances that have been securely contained within the rock layers, but are unleashed as a result of the drilling process.
“These are volatile organics and normally occurring radioactive material all down in Marcellus shale that accompanies the gas,” he says. “The pyrotechnics is the gas, but once you have chemical contamination of an aquifer you can’t get rid of it. There’s a system nature derived for millions of years to separate toxic layers and heavy metals from the water table above it. By drilling, you connect those layers, you have a straw which is leaky going from very toxic materials, into the aquifer.”
In addition one of Fox’s major concerns is the fact no one knows exactly what chemicals gas companies are injecting into the earth because hydraulic fracturing was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and still is today.
“Normally, if you’re injecting something into the ground, you have to report what you’re injecting,” explains Fox, who notes the industry isn’t required to divulge that information in fracking. “What that means is the chain of liability is broken. The industry can inject these fluids and they don’t have to say what they did. Then when these chemicals turn up in our water, they can say, ‘We didn’t put them there.’”
While Fox had hoped the Obama administration would undo the policy, which was put in place during the Bush administration, he has been sorely disappointed.
“Unfortunately we have seen Obama do the opposite of what we thought he would do,” says Fox. “He stood up and promoted fracking. They have initiated the Global Shale Gas Initiative to export this technology to other countries. It’s a major plank in Obama’s climate plan. Unfortunately we’ve seen the frackers capture the White House and it’s not what we expected to happen.”
And Fox hopes that if “Gasland Part II” can send a message to President Obama, it is this:
“We know you’ve met with the gas industry many times we believe that persuasion has skewed policy in the wrong direction,” he says. “We ask you to meet with families and scientists and engineers in ‘Gasland’ to see it was fatally flawed.”
“We ask the president to give us equal time.”
For Fox, ultimately this issue is about even more than protecting drinking water — it’s also about global warming. Because of the high incidence of leaking gas wells, Fox says a huge amount of fugitive methane is escaping into the atmosphere in a form much more potent than when it’s burned as a fuel, meaning it has a CO2 profile worse than coal.
“There are 1.8 million gas wells in the world and 35 percent of them are currently leaking. That’s a problem,” he says. “The continued or expanded national gas industry is one of most terrifying prospects I can imagine. It’s building a huge problem for the next generation.”
When asked if he ever thought, through his films, that he would end up being the voice of the anti-fracking movement, Fox responds, “No. I thought I was making a five minute You Tube video for my neighbors.”
“But I quickly discovered it was much more,” he adds. “The first film was on TV in 30 different countries and played to audiences of tens of millions. The new film I have high hopes for. What it ends up being about is not fracking, but the American character and our American democracy. Will we be able to make sane energy choices or watch as our system of government and civics all disappear in the onslaught of these corporations?”
“That’s the battle,” he adds. “The much bigger issue is movement away from fossil fuel and toward renewables.”
To that end, Fox has a specific plea for residents of the East End and the rest of Long Island and that is to support development of offshore wind turbines to generate power.
“The wind turbines have actually been show to break apart hurricane winds,” adds Fox. “It’s an unintended consequence that they slice up the wind, like a kind of wind wall.”
“We have this incredible offshore resource in the Atlantic coast,” adds Fox. “A lot of people don’t like it, but if we don’t do something serious to end methane emissions, the next Sandy will be even more ferocious.”
The Hamptons International Film Festival SummerDocs series presents “Gasland Part II” hosted by Alec Baldwin this Friday, July 5, 2013 at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Following the screening, director Josh Fox and environmental experts will participate in a Q&A moderated by Baldwin. Reserved seating is $22 ($20 members). To reserve call 324-0806.