Gasland Part 2 (debuted on HBO July 8 and now is On Demand) is the sequel to Gasland, the documentary written and directed by Josh Fox about the complicated issues, dangers and controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking is a drilling method using a combination of water mixed with a recipe of chemicals to break shale at very high pressures, releasing natural gas so it can be captured.
The first film shocked viewers with fearful testimonies of well-water pollution, sickness, flammable tap water and what seemed to be the unrelenting power of the companies who used the controversial extraction method.
Gasland propelled some viewers to complain to their congressmen and protest the use of fracking. In New York, the state government imposed a moratorium against using it until the process can be further investigated. Gasland galvanized many already opposed to this form of gas extraction, inspiring them to ramp up the fight against the gas and oil industry’s reach. Whether or not Gasland 2 fulfills its mission to create a groundswell of public opinion against fracking and persuade the President not to embrace it as a “viable energy alternative” remains to be seen.
As a documentary, Gasland 2 has its problems. The film drags, and Fox’ lyrical prose is heavy-handed in sections. It also repeats the concepts of the first film, albeit with more spectacular pyrotechnics and more tragic evidence. We watch garden hoses breathe fire. We are told some houses near wells have enough methane to skyrocket measuring meters, create intense sickness, threaten explosion and drive home owners to the arms of the gas and oil companies to buy up their property. Of course, the property owners must sign non disclosure agreements promising not to discuss their situation publicly. We discover what happened in Dimock, PA and to Dish, Texas mayor Calvin Tillman and some others. They all have had to move because of water contamination and sickness (nosebleeds and headaches), which Tillman attributes to fracking.
Of course, proving that fracking caused any or all of the well water contamination, chemical poisoning of rivers, nerve damage, asthma, intense migranes, etc., is a slippery slope; litigation is ongoing. Fox points out that it is especially slippery since Lisa P. Jackson, administrator and chemical engineer resigned from her position at the EPA after working to safeguard and enforce environmental regulations. By the end of the film, Fox indicates that each step taken against the industry by those in the EPA or those litigating ended up in futility and sell outs. He does point to a number of individuals who, despite defamation suits by the oil and gas industry and despite protracted litigation, refuse to move or be bought out.
Fiery water and gas houses filling with measurable methane may appear to be indisputable facts, but proving company liability has become near impossible. There is hot debate and doubt surrounding whether or not fracking is as dangerous and harmful as Fox would want us to think, especially with climate change looming in the background and the need for countries to create a sustainable, renewable energy supply (though apparently gas production is not what the companies crack it up to be… it’s more complex).
An interesting component in Gasland 2 is its examination of how the industry deals with the negative publicity related to fracking. Gas and oil industry spokespersons and scientists have continually and categorically denied that fracking has caused or been responsible for poisoning water supplies, contaminating drinking water or dispensing sickness. Two prime arguments are that fracking does not cause migration of toxic chemicals into ground water; second, naturally occurring methane underground in a rich energy field often ends up in water wells and the surrounding environment (for example, houses near wells).
Fox has trotted out Dr. Tony Ingraffea, a renown scientist, Weiss Presidential Teaching Fellow at Cornell University and former industry insider who opposes fracking. With an illustration and specifics, Ingraffea discusses the problems surrounding the process with an implied certainty: it is not a matter of “IF” the chemicals and gas will migrate, but “WHEN” they will migrate. Ingraffea’s dire statements that 1 in 20 wells fail and leak immediately, and that over a 30 year period, half the wells will fail are intense, if one considers that there are thousands upon thousands of wells in the US, and there is an extensive plan to expand natural gas production and fracking globally.
On the other side, players in the gas and oil industry have hired PR companies, Fox suggests, to “war” against those they’ve deemed “eco-terrorists.” Some have advised the use of military PSYOPS, psychological strategies employed during wartime to destabilize the culture of insurgents (environmental activists). Fox highlights this, almost humorously by playing audio from an industry conference in Texas at which a drilling company official encourages the use of these PSYOPS, to counteract anti-fracking advocacy. Companies have even hired the same PR firm that helped the tobacco industry side-step accusations that smoking was dangerous. By raising doubts in the public’s mind, the public, not knowing what to believe will continue to pursue its addictive behaviors: their decision is relegated to choice, based upon opinion. With a brief clip by one of the authors of Merchants of Doubt, Fox indicates the power of PR firms’ effective strategy to manipulate the public into forgetting the negatives. It worked then for the tobacco companies and the same method is being used now to diffuse antipathy about fracking.
None of this should be news; the film is not news. The public is well aware of how corporations operate, and that recent rulings like the Citizens United case have encouraged global companies to increase their lobbying efforts, campaign contributions and revolving door policies between industry and Capital Hill. Fox is on a mission to point this out. We know, we know already.
It is obvious Fox has stepped up the urgency of voice especially because many have said we are on the brink of an explosion of natural gas production globally. Is natural gas the best or one of the worst ways to stem our reliance on coal and oil? Is it a smart step toward greening our way there or a disastrous one? Are we shooting ourselves in the foot exporting natural gas making it a given that we will pay more for it in the future? These are important issues that will not go away.
We know how Fox and the corporations are presenting the arguments, but we must also consider that the issues are even more complex than what each side would want us to believe. As citizens, we are in the crosshairs of both. Perhaps some of us should become active after learning about how such a process can potentially impact our lives for good or ill. More importantly, being engaged in our democracy at a grass roots level is one of the finest admonitions to take away from Gasland Part II. The corporations are certainly taking advantage of what this democracy offers. Shouldn’t we do the same?