Competing visions of fracking went head to head last night in upstate New York.
Josh Fox screened his much-anticipated Gasland II at a school auditorium in the City of Binghamton, before a crowd of more than 500 people.* Phelim McAleer, a drilling supporter staking his career on discrediting the work of Fox, screened Frack Nation in front of several hundred viewers at an American Legion post in Vestal, about 20 minutes away.
After airing on AXS Cable TV early this year, Frack Nation continues to make the rounds in civic halls throughout the country. Similarly, Josh Fox is screening Gasland II in various communities as part of a “grass roots tour” prior to its television premier on HBO in July. It’s no coincidence that the films aired at the same time at nearly the same place this week. Broome County, which borders Pennsylvania, represents a strategic point in the frack wars, both symbolically and tactically. It sits over a prime part of the Marcellus Shale, a worldclass natural gas reserve, in a state where the fate of fracking is in the hands of an undecided governor, and stakeholders for and against it have been campaigning hard during a moratorium on permitting enacted almost five years ago.
I dropped by the American Legion just prior to the Frack Nation screening and found a full parking lot with strong representation from the pickup and SUV crowd, a horse shoe game going on outside, and a neon sign advertising Coors Light at the bar inside. Frack Nation promotes the industry view that natural gas development is harmless and economically critical, and portrays those who are victimized and their champion, Josh Fox, as phonies.
Running short on time, and having already seen and reviewed Frack Nation (more on that here), I moved on to the West Middle School in Binghamton and the upstate premier of muckraker Josh Fox’s latest film. Gasland II is a sequel to the 2010 film that depicts a deceitful, greedy, and destructive industry building profits off the backs of residents and the environment. It is not without flaws. It is one-sided, didactic, and prone to dramatization at the expense of depth. But it’s underlying premise, the industry wields unmatched influence that allows it to cover up problems, silence critics, and take what it wants through a mismatch of legal and lobbying power, is fair game. Its cinematography is masterful. Those who are skeptical that plutocrats are looking out for the greater social good will find the film a powerful rallying point. Those who feel Big Oil is being unfairly demonized will find it over-wrought and sensationalistic. But the true test of the movie is how it’s received by those with no particular view – the mainstream HBO audience it will reach this summer.
Fox emphasizes the scope and intensity of the on-shore drilling boom, spurred by the massive shale reserves that have become part of President Obama’s domestic energy strategy. These pay zones underlie dozens of states, including areas previously untouched by mineral extraction. Fox again showcases stories that served as the foundation for his original film – contamination in Pavillion, Wyo., Dimock, Pa., and pending development near his ancestral home in the Delaware Water basin in Milanville, Pa. Fox revisits these places for an update, and to establish a connectedness with down home America and a range of characters. In transition he explains: “My back yard is tied to national policy, which is tied to tiny places like Pavillion, Wyoming.”
There are parts of the movie, intended to be provocative, that just seem out of whack. I found an opening sequence pairing explicit footage of the devastating BP Gulf Oil disaster to the thumping groove of the Beach Boys Good Vibrations to be sardonic and more importantly off point. It doesn’t really tell us much. Perhaps the attempt with the music was to instill a sense of ignorantly blissful detachment to the cruel reality of what is happening, and perhaps that might work on a subliminal level for some. Or, it might just be weird.
I found other parts of the film broke significant ground. Fox gets Lisa Jackson, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, on record in an exclusive interview stating that there are “many cases of ground water and drinking water contamination” and that “states are going to have to step up” to regulate and enforce gas drilling.
Fox’s approach is urgent and unsettled – and in the hyper-tasking 21st Century media style, he packs an excessive number of visual cues and audio bites per minute of film. He moves from place to place, issue to issue, victim to victim, story to story, grounding the film in the occasional return to his own back yard, where the gas companies are closing in on a pristine section of the Delaware Water shed. Along the way, he sheds light on some important issues: the revolving door between the government institutions and the gas industry, the psychological war fare tactics the industry employs as a public relations strategy, and the chronic issue of methane migration found at drill sites globally.
He targets those who support gas, but never challenges the motives or stories of those who oppose it. I know that’s not a fit with the narrative line, but an effort to broaden his view would help his credibility and diminish a sense that he is cherry picking. I know through my own reporting that there are indeed many just cases and grievances against the industry from people pulled into the controversy by their own bad judgment or naivete, as well as from victimized innocent bystanders. But there are also cases where the industry becomes an attraction for opportunist, political or otherwise, posing as victims or champions of victims. Beyond that, Fox tends to mix images that are not clearly explained or sourced to amp things up. And while the visual style and frenetic pacing of the film will leave an impression on an audience that otherwise isn’t going to last through a plodding policy discussion, it will likely alienate those looking for a sense of precision and parity. (Surely, there are some people in the industry who are working to improve things?)
As with his first film, Fox excels at showing the gas development through deeply personal moments, and he improves, to some degree, his explication of the mechanics behind the problems. The flaming faucet that became iconic of Fox’s first film is presented again in various forms in Gasland II. Drilling increases the risks and complications of methane migration – the more holes you put in the ground, the more conduits you create for methane to move into places where it can blow things up. The risks go up when drilling into and through pressurized methane-baring zones. In this film, Fox uses Cornell University professor and fracturing expert Tony Ingraffia – a good choice -- for a tutorial on cement casing failure that plagues the industry. But flammable water is also a natural phenomenon, and by failing to explain this or even address it in either Gasland or Gasland II, Fox has left open the door for McAleer and other industry supporters eager to attack his work.
Still, Fox scores critical points for accuracy in a part of the discussion that has been muddied by the gas industry propaganda and they come at a place where McAleer’s movie runs aground as credible journalism. That is the part detailing the EPA’s investigation in Dimock, Pa, where methane migration and other problems associated with shale gas development became Exibit A for the anti-fracking movement. (I'm very familiar with this, as it's one of several story lines in Under the Surface.) It is a matter of record that, after Norma Fiorentino’s water well exploded on Jan. 1, 2009, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found nearby drilling had caused water contamination in an aquifer that supplied homes along Carter Road. A subsequent investigation by the federal EPA also found high levels of methane, arsenic, and various heavy metals – all elements associated with drilling -- in some of the Carter Road wells. The EPA ended its investigation late last year without “need for further action,” as Fox correctly documents, amid the election season and growing pressure on the Obama administration and Congress. Government officials in Texas, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and other gas states did not like the EPA looking over their shoulders and, further, there was fear that federally documented problems would encourage political action that would eliminate industry exemptions to the Safe Drinking Water Act and hazardous waste disposal laws. Without these exemptions, the industry would have to disclose the hazardous chemicals that go into and come out of the ground.
The mainstream media, encouraged by industry press releases, generally interpreted the EPA’s handling of the Dimock case as a signal that the water was “safe.” In fact, the EPA said in the text of its analysis that, although pollution was found at "levels that could present a health concern ... no further action” was required because the companies had offered filters and bottled water to residents with contaminated wells. Then the agency quietly turned the case over to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a sister agency that handles health investigations. That ATSDR review, which Fox doesn’t address, is still pending. You can read more about it here.
McAleer, along with various industry PR firms, seized the headlines that touted Dimock water as safe and presented them as vindication. There was no problem, and malcontents on Carter Road had made it all up to bolster their legal claims. This detail is important because it cuts to a point made in Fox’s film that rings true to me, after years of reporting. As with an addict, the industry’s unwillingness to recognize it has any problems is the biggest hurdle to any meaningful reform or improvement.
(Spoiler alert) Fox saves the most compelling scene for the end, and it will surely resonate with a broad audience without need for technical interpretation. As the industry presses Congress to have the EPA stand down, Fox is denied entry to document a Congressional hearing questioning the agency’s role in investigating water pollution cases. Fox persists, citing his First Amendment rights. After a few tense moments, Committee Chairman Andy Harris – a gas supporter with financial ties to the industry -- has Fox arrested. Harris had denied Fox’s prior request for media credentials to attend the hearing, and the ensuing scene likely makes more compelling video and gripping narrative than anything Fox might have gained at the hearing. It will surely resonate with mainstream audiences who are skeptical of government ties to Big Oil or any corporate interest.
Liberty is a sacrosanct ideal, but its governmental underpinnings, in practice, can fill a person with a sense of ineffectiveness, tedium, and saturation of discussion ad nauseam. Still, we take comfort in knowing that we are always welcome in this discussion, if and when we choose, whether at public meetings or at the voting booth. We elect officials who enlist wonks and lawyers to make the fine print of government and its service to people, even those with competing ideological values, into policy that hopefully provides net improvement to our everyday lives. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. By extension, we count on media to provide access into the discussion by recording and analyzing government’s workings. While many residents might not find the time to make it to a town board meeting, much less a Congressional hearing, they are reassured in knowing that these hearings are accessible for coverage by reporters with recording equipment. When people are arrested for insisting on their First Amendment rights – the most fundamental tool for government by the people -- alarms should go off with anybody who values liberty.
Gasland aired on HBO in the summer of 2010. It earned Fox an Academy Award nomination and an Emmy, and brought the issue of fracking to mainstream audiences. The sequel is expected to reach similarly large audiences on HBO this summer. I expect most viewers, because of Fox’s gift to combine story-telling with arresting imagery, will sit through and perhaps be moved by a film about issues involving policy that is otherwise dense and obscure.
Frack Nation is a film built on the basis of discrediting Gasland. It will please a political niche, but it’s not enough to gain traction with a universal audience. In this country, powerful institutions have traditionally made attractive targets for mainstream media. Joseph Pulitzer built a newspaper empire on this approach that would set the mold for 20th century journalism; and the work of Upton Sinclair – an earlier recipient of the Pulitzer Prize– popularized a name for it: muckraking.
Shining the media light on rich and powerful people and institutions – raking the muck -- is a revered function of the working press. Exposes of critics of rich and powerful, on the other hand, may find a place in the news hole, but are not typically front page candidates. In this regard, McAleer’s success is married to the success of Fox. The more famous Fox becomes, the more relevant McAleer’s efforts to discredit him.
But there is something more: We are no longer in the days of Pulitzer or Sinclair. The post-20st century media is shaped by a business model with less resources for reporting, which is expensive, and more room for talking heads, reality television, and other content that is inexpensive. The Internet has made news reporting and consumption more fragmented and segmented, with endless choices to fit ideological views. (This is not all bad, but that’s another discussion.)
Spread across this media, the shale gas debate is fragmented by political ideology over science, and at the core of this fragmentation are opposing views about the role government plays in a free country. In the shale gas debate, government is seen as both an intruder on free enterprise and a protector of people’s rights from the intrusion of others. In both Gasland movies, Josh Fox represents the liberal view that corporate America has run amuck at the expense of the planet and the well-being of its citizens, and government policing is the first step toward justice for those who have been wronged and the final step to bring things back into balance. McAleer represents the conservative view that free enterprise, in this case represented by gas industry, is benevolent and government is, at best, a hindrance.
It’s a discussion that applies to many facets of our life, including property rights, land use, public health, and standard of living, and it’s a discussion that was easy to ignore when energy was mostly produced in far-away places and global warming was less real. Hopefully, we will all not only get engaged, but think about the broad and collective impact of our personal energy decisions, aside from our political beliefs.
* I originally wrote "about 400" and changed it after an organizer noted that the school auditorium holds 900, and it was more full than not.