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.