Friday, January 18, 2013

Frack Nation hits old themes like pickaxe on bedrock

Frack Nation, a movie to debut next week on AXS cable television purportedly to “tell the truth” about hydro-fracking, features several scenes of Julie and Craig Sautner. Those following the fracking debate might recognize the Sautners. They are the couple from Dimock Pennsylvania who routinely show up at anti-fracking rallies near and far with a turbid jug of water and harsh words about how drilling polluted their well. Their complaint is as much about what they see as the industry’s sustained attempts to avoid owning up to the problem as the problem itself.

I watched Frack Nation, by Phelim McAleen, as part of some homework I was completing for an interview today for WESA’s Essential Pittsburgh. More on Frack Nation in a moment, but first some context for the story line that is not included in this pro-fracking film:

It’s a matter of record that the Sautner’s well went bad shortly after drilling began near their house in Susquehanna County in 2008, that the Pennsylvania DEP recognized that the drill operator, Cabot Oil & Gas, was responsible for the problem; and that Cabot installed a basement full of filtration equipment to attempt to restore Sautner’s water. I covered these events personally, both as a reporter for Gannett and later in the narrative of Under the Surface. It’s also a matter of record that water wells can go bad on their own, but nearby well bores drilled through water tables into pressurized systems increase the chances, as does the handling and mixing of gross quantities of chemicals and waste water above the aquifer. It’s also a matter of record that human error or mechanical failure occasionally cause spills or, as the industry prefers to call them, “releases”.

The Sautners were unsatisfied with the inconsistent and largely ineffective results of the collection of tanks and filters that Cabot installed in their basement to purify their water. They grew more unhappy with Cabot’s assertion that the company was blameless, and it was providing assistance to the family merely as “a good corporate neighbor” rather than as a responsible party. So the Sautners joined a lawsuit with 15 other Dimock families who had encountered various problems with their water wells coinciding with nearby drilling operations. The plaintiffs included Norma Fiorentino, whose water well exploded shortly after Cabot sunk a gas well on neighboring property. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection tracked that problem, in part, to explosive concentrations of methane leaking from several faulty gas wells in the area – a finding Cabot refuted.

Meanwhile, some Dimock residents who experienced water problems were less antagonistic to the industry, including some who (unlike the Sautners) were getting compensation for both gas wells on their property and problems with their water wells.

This would have been a natural story line for McAleer, or anybody else who wanted to faithfully recount this compelling tale. But the way McAleer portrays the Sautners represents the broader shortcoming of Frack Nation. He systematically discredits them, along with various regulators, residents, celebrities and anybody else who publically calls into question gas industry’s motives and methods, as hypocrites, liars, and lunatics. Shale gas development is good, and the intentions and methods of the industry are pure.

In McAleer’s view, it’s that simple.

McAleer’s primary target is Josh Fox, whose 2010 film Gasland received acclaim ranging from an Emmy award to an Oscar nomination. Gasland is also one-sided. It focuses on the untold (as of 2010) risks associated with shale gas development, and the lack of oversight that allows the industry to flourish, sometimes at the expense of residents who are promised one thing and get something else.

Both Fox and McAleer are guilty of cherry picking sources and evidence to build their arguments. But at the time of its release, Gasland broke original ground in provoking and articulating challenges to the industry’s public relations campaign to pitch America’s emerging shale gas boom as clean, well regulated, and problem free. McAleer’s Frack Nation, by comparison, hammers away with the same old industry themes that hit home like a pickaxe on bedrock.

If there was anything promising that struck me about Frack Nation, it was the undeveloped implication that the controversy over fracking has split communities. McAleer passes on the chance to address this head on, however, and instead portrays the Sautners as part of a renegade minority. To advance this, he features a grass roots group of residents who are industry supporters – called Enough Already – who mount a protest to counter the claims of injustice by the Sautners and others who go unnamed. Enough Already is McAleer’s silent-turned-vocal majority.

This division gets more at the heart of the real story, in my mind, and it’s a place I attempt to take readers in Under the Surface. But rather than exploring this in a vivid, fair, and compelling way, McAleer, when he is not obsessively discrediting Fox and the Sautners, veers off into conspiratorial territory. He focuses one scene on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interest in discouraging shale gas development in America to preserve Russia’s interests in developing and exporting its own vast reserves. Perhaps the anti-fracking movement in America – with its collection of liberals, hippies, elites, and celebrities-- is subversively connected to Russian interests, viewers are invited to wonder. Sound familiar?

Dimock is not the first drilling community to be split by problems, as examples range from Dish Texas to Pavilion Wyoming. But it is one of the first communities where problems received widespread media attention after Norma Fiorentino’s water well exploded on January 1, 2009. The focus grew stronger when officials from the EPA arrived in the small town to test the water of the Sautners and others. The agency took samples from 64 homes near drilling operations and concluded that levels of pollution in five of the wells – roughly 8 percent -- were high enough to pose health risks, but those risks were mitigated by treatment systems installed in or planned for the homes. At the time of the testing last year, the agency found the Sautners’ water to pass spec. McAleer seizes on this with a candid clip of Craig and Julie Sautner reacting with an angry outburst of frustration and disbelief. (He captures and dwells on the Sautners’ anger in a way that serves his portrayal of them as unreasonable, unlikeable, and unbelievable.) He omits any history or context of the problem, or an explanation that groundwater systems are dynamic, or recognition that a problem that comes and goes is possibly much different than no problem at all. (The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is now assessing health risks of exposure to contaminants in the Dimock groundwater and has not yet released its report – another detail omitted from McAleer.)

In the penultimate scene, McAleer stakes out Julie Sautner and successfully provokes her rage. The police arrive. It’s not pretty, but McAleer, the one with the camera, the editing studio, and an agenda, holds all the cards.

McAleer claims to “tell the truth” about fracking. That’s an ambitious goal, and the movie falls well short in depth and sophistication that the topic deserves. It’s all fine to rebut and challenge Josh Fox. But McAleer could have done this far more effectively and helped his own credibility by recognizing some of the merits in Fox’s film and using them to advance the discussion. Instead, he reduces parts of his presentation to a Limbaugh brand of contempt while rehashing the tired industry line that fracking is problem free and the industry is the victim of mean and green liberal forces.

Still, this will be a movie that will be savored by people who are rock sure that fracking does not and cannot cause problems, and that the industry needs only to be left alone – or “turned loose” in McAleer’s words -- to stimulate wealth and comfortable living for all.


  1. I've actually struck bedrock with a pickaxe and I'm not sure I understand your metaphor. Futility?

    The real story for you is how this divides communities. Yes well it's a living isn't it?

    The real story is Albany continues to enforce the Morgenthau plan against it's portion of the Rust Belt. We are Albany, we have taken all, left none for others, and we shall salt the earth so you never rise again.

    Now in that spirit disarm.

    This is Rome vs Carthage.

    1. "Like pickaxe on bedrock... " Then you know what that feels like. Thematically, I’m suggesting imprecise, uncomfortable, and perhaps misguided use of blunt force.

      I don’t see Albany as conqueror of upstate New York, although it’s interesting that you brought it up, because this is indeed a battle over land and related rights. Thanks for your comments.

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    1. Thanks for this perspective. I'm curious as to why McAleer did not use footage from your interview, (although I did note the brief Yoko Go Home visual reference.)

      An incidental: I believe McAleer obtained the Sautner clip via a Freedom of Information request. Amazing how and how many people have been sucked into the public vortex of this story

  3. Very nicely done piece, thank you.

    To such a large extent, what happens as per fracking in New York is a by-product of the profile of our communities-- how many of us will be influenced by "Limbaugh-like" tactics? McCarthyism was welcome in the Southern Tier back in the day, but the demographics have changed since then. A whole lot of New Yorkers are "readers." It may result in us going a different way than the rest of Appalachia in PA, WV and further South...

  4. From the promotional materials, Frack Nation looks to levy ad hominem attacks in a sad attempt to discredit science-based arguments and concerns against fracking. Short of its place in gas industry propaganda, Frack Nation will be forgotten as quickly as it is dismissed. Phelim McAleer underestimates the American public; citizens will quickly dismiss Frack Nation's tired rhetoric and lies and will look to credible sources in forming their opinions about fracking.

  5. If only we could have the truth from both the Foxes and the McAleers of the world on controversial subjects. Everybody has their own agenda. As a result, I tend to listen to both sides of a disagreement and then decide the truth is probably somewhere in the middle--a little of both. It's still left to the individual to figure out which parts of both arguments need to be ignored.

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  7. I think that the folks (which constitute the vast majority) on the other side of the fence in Dimock have MORE than a right to have their story told. If Gasland had bothered to be even remotely truthful, there would have been no reason for FrackNation.

    As far as The Sautners being unlikable and unbelievable...your words, not mine. She did kinda/sorta threaten to kill all of them on the side of the road. What's not endearing about that?

    There's a LOT of worthy things in this film, whether or not you like the ultimate conclusion. Especially the stories from the folks who are being equally (if not significantly more) affected
    by the misguided moratoriums on gas drilling than anyone was ever affected by some elevated methane levels in their water wells.

    Why is their plight so easily dismissed? Instead of telling the truth, Josh Fox wantonly exaggerated the impacts of drilling to line his pockets with buckets of cash. And in doing so he caused pain for a lot of families. That's a story worth telling, and I thought that McAleer did it exceptionally well.

    And so did the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and many other publications that aren't exactly conservative puppets.

    1. Michael, I am well aware of the perspective of the Enough Already residents, as I have reported in Under the Surface the same scenes (and others) that McAleer features. Not sure how you have gauged them to be the "vast majority" although I agree that their position merits due consideration. My problem with the film is that McAleer presents methane migration as a purely natural phenomenon, without explaining how drilling into and through high producing, pressurized methane zones involves certain risks that the industry has never been up front about. Also, in attempting to discredit the Sautners, McAleer dismisses the entire anti-facking movement. Why did he not include footage from his interview with Victoria Switzer?

  8. It would be nice if everyone learned how to correctly spell the word "fracturing". The word doesn't contain a K. I watched the movie and thought for the most part that it went into the details well enough for those skilled in the art. And that may be why those that understand the mechanism may appear to be passé about the environmental effects from the process from those that never heard of hydraulic fracturing until the movie Gasland. Should there be oversight to ensure that safeguards are in place? Sure as with any endeavor that could cause potential risk. But there shouldn't be a "dam it all" approach.

  9. Many of us who are opposed to fracking (sorry, but I'm keeping the "k") knew quite a bit about it long before Gasland came out. In fact, I was at a hearing at which Josh Fox was filming and I remember looking at him and being grateful that someone was trying to get the word out about what was going on in NY, PA, and other shale regions across the country.

    One of the major problems with fracking for shale gas is that it involves drilling a huge number of gas wells. There is no way to drill at a very high well density without causing a very significant amount of damage to the environment and creating a very significant risk to the public just by virtue of the number of wells drilled--even a small accident rate becomes a problem when many thousands of wells are drilled. So even IF proper safeguards were in place (and they aren't and are not likely to be), the environmental devastation and the dangers to public health and safety would be very significant.

    The USGS has estimated the amount of gas that is likely to be extracted from the entire Marcellus Shale at about 84 trillion cubic feet--that's less than a four-year supply for the U.S. at current rates of consumption. The damage caused by extracting the gas would persist for generations.

    1. I'd love to know your sources for the thousands of wells that have to be drilled for FRACing to be successful? My husband works for Baker Hughes, a company that participates in FRACing, and that is simply not the case. One well can actually produce more using fracing, than with previous methods. They also use horizontal pumping to prevent from having to create more Wells. I'd also love to know who told you there are no restrictions in regards to companies who frac?? The environmental regulations for these companies are through the roof. There are constant measures to make sure that not only safety, but environmental protections are being maintained. This is from our personal experience working with this company. My husband is currently at a location that is operating right now. The liberal media would have you believe in a conspiracy theory that the big oil companies can cause sickness and death and ruin peoples water supplies, without any consequences. That is simply not the case. We have never been involved with a company that took the sheer number of precautions that this company does, and did you know there are rules about leaving the surrounding area in the same state that you found it in? We just had a company come in, create a well not five hundred yards from our house in three days, and right now you can't even tell that there was a rig there a week ago. I think you are sorely misled and are looking for someone to attack because you simply don't understand. And btw, refusing to spell it correctly only lends to your ignorance of the entire industry involving shale gas and hydraulic fracturing.

  10. i thought fracknation was lame. as an industry propaganda fluff piece, it was little better than the nonsense regularly flung around by charles payne and eric bolling. instead, the thing i found utterly reprehensible was the contention at the end of the film that evil, evil environmentalists were somehow keeping the third world poor and energy-starved. that is such an affront to history; for the most part fracknation is mostly stupid, but that contention is flagrantly evil.

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