With issues surrounding fracking, natural gas and oil dominating headlines recently, Josh Fox’s 2010 Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning documentary Gasland seems all too relevant. The film is two years old, but the stories presented in the film are now — more than ever — resonant with the people of Ohio.
With a law now passed and signed by Gov. John Kasich demonstrating a weak attempt to regulate the oil and gas industry (see “Boom, Bust or Both,” CityBeat issue of June 6), it’s easy to see that fracking is becoming a big deal in the state. But Ohio really is a latecomer to the natural gas and oil boom. For years, going as far back as the 1990s, energy companies have been pushing for more and more land so they can drill into the massive shale formations underground that carry a large amount of natural gas and oil.
One such piece of land, in northern Pennsylvania, is where Fox’s story began with a letter making a simple request: Let us use your land for drilling, and we’ll give you $100,000.
“When I was offered that lease, I wanted to look into it because we’ve never had that kind of industrial development around here,” Fox says.
Fox’s house was built by his family in 1972. It’s a red, cottage-style house surrounded by rivers, trees and all sorts of nature. The property is also on top of heaps of natural gas and oil from the massive Marcellus Shale, or, as Fox calls it in his movie, “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” The shale formation extends from northeastern Ohio, through West Virginia and northwestern and northern Pennsylvania and into upstate New York.
When Fox was offered this lease, he decided to investigate. He already thought that allowing drills and fracking on his property, which is part of the Delaware River Basin watershed that provides water to 15 million people, could be a bad idea, but he wanted to confirm his skepticism.
The ever-present theme of the documentary is viciously repetitive. Many voices spoke out, but only one message came through: This natural gas and oil boom has hurt. It has contaminated water, poisoned air, endangered animals and made people sick. Shocking images, like water from a faucet catching on fire and river water fizzing and bubbling like it’s being boiled, were common in areas that were supposed to be unaffected by the fracking around them.
Despite his numerous efforts, Fox was unable to land a single interview with an industry spokesperson for his documentary. And when Fox approached legislators and regulators, they came off as at best naive and at worst purposely obtuse.
Such a lack of transparency does not surprise Fox. From his perspective, the oil and gas industry is actively trying to cover up any dangers caused by fracking. He says the industry has been seducing people into destroying their own land with the promise of money.
“You’re committing yourself to a lifetime of water treatment, buying water somewhere else or contaminating the water underneath you,” he says. “You’ve just completely destroyed the value of your property.”
That message is echoed by images from Gasland. In the film, dozens of people from Colorado, Pennsylvania, Wyoming and 21 other states show what fracking has done to their homes. From the desperate farmer to the terrified suburbanite, Fox shows that these people have faced all sorts of unexpected health and environmental problems, and, even worse, they have no idea how any of it can be fixed.
Many of these people didn’t even lease their land. Some had neighbors who leased theirs, and others had to deal with gas companies buying up land just outside property lines. Yet contamination and pollution still crept into these innocent people’s houses and farms.
After seeing the impact of the natural gas and oil boom in his travels, Fox arrived to a firm conclusion: “There is no regulatory package that could make this safe,” he says.
The documentary paints a fairly grim message for America’s current path and energy future. But, somehow, Fox has remained optimistic that change will come.
“What we’ve got here is a situation where oil and gas companies have really overstepped their bounds,” Fox says. “This is really going to rile a lot of people up, and I don’t think it’s in any way a done deal.”
Fox says some areas already exposed to heavy fracking and drilling might be lost, but he believes people will eventually rise up in an anti-fracking movement. Until then, he hopes his documentary will at least make people skeptical of what is happening in the “Gasland.”
GASLAND is currently available on HBO. Visit www.gaslandthemovie.com for more information. Josh Fox is currently working on a sequel that will investigate climate change and the international spread of natural gas.