Sparks Fly Over 'Gasland' Drilling Documentary

Filmmaker Josh Fox visited families across the U.S. while fliming Gasland. In some homes, the tap water was so contaminated that it could be lighted on fire. i i

Filmmaker Josh Fox visited families across the U.S. while fliming Gasland. In some homes, the tap water was so contaminated that it could be lighted on fire. Courtesy of International WOW Company/HBO hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of International WOW Company/HBO
Filmmaker Josh Fox visited families across the U.S. while fliming Gasland. In some homes, the tap water was so contaminated that it could be lighted on fire.

Filmmaker Josh Fox visited families across the U.S. while fliming Gasland. In some homes, the tap water was so contaminated that it could be lighted on fire.

Courtesy of International WOW Company/HBO

In 2008, filmmaker Josh Fox received a $100,000 offer to lease his 19 acres in northeastern Pennsylvania for drilling by the booming natural gas industry.

Fox promptly responded with a decisive "no thanks." Then he set off on a road trip across 24 states to investigate the environmental impact of natural gas drilling on local communities.

Along the way, Fox met dozens of families who say they have developed health problems after leasing their land for hydraulic fracturing, a type of natural gas drilling also known as "fracking."

Fox's resulting documentary, Gasland, questions the industry's portrayal of natural gas as a clean energy source. The film has drawn harsh criticism from the oil and gas industry, and Energy In Depth, a coalition of U.S. oil and natural gas producers, charges Fox with alternating "between misstating and outright ignoring basic and verifiable facts."

"I stand by the film 100 percent," Fox tells NPR's Neal Conan. "The purpose of this is to try to create a controversy or to create doubt on what is a very sincere and honest project that's been thoroughly researched and vetted."

Fox won't speculate if the Gasland controversy will influence its chances for the Oscar for best documentary, but he questions the wisdom of the natural gas industry's response to the film. "I think that it's created a lot of attention, and I think that was ... unwise for them to do."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And today we conclude our series on the films nominated for best feature-length documentary at the Oscars.

"Gasland" focuses on natural gas and questions the industry's portrayal of this fuel as clean energy. In particular, filmmaker Josh Fox focuses on the costs and hazards of a drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gasland")

Mr. JOSH FOX (Director, "Gasland"): They started out West - New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Wyoming, Oklahoma; and in the South - Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama; 450,000 wells times 18 times one to seven million gallons, something like 40 trillion gallons of water. All of it infused with the 596 chemicals in the fracking fluid. And now they're coming east.

CONAN: If you've seen the movie and have questions, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Josh Fox joins us now from NPR West in Culver City. Welcome to the program. Congratulations on the nomination.

Mr. FOX: Thanks a lot. It's great to be here.

CONAN: And as you, I'm sure, know better than I, "Gasland" is probably the most controversial of the nominated documentaries. A group connected to the natural gas industry sent a letter to the Academy that says your picture is so full of unsubstantiated claims and factual errors, they shouldn't even consider it.

Mr. FOX: Well, the gas industry has been attacking us for over a year, as they've been doing to almost everyone who's reporting on the situation. What you have here is the largest onshore natural gas drilling campaign in domestic history. And this is causing thousands of contamination incidents, water contamination, air pollution, a health crisis.

And what's happening now, and the reason why I got involved with this, is because it's coming east. They're proposing hundreds of thousands gas wells across New York and Pennsylvania, including in the New York City watershed and the watershed that provides water to southern New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other major cities, calling this the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.

And what the gas industry has to do is convince people to lease their land -and there's usually cash offer for a signing bonus and a percentage of the gas that they pull out - in order to turn their area into an industrial drilling zone. So you know, what - this is, I think, a tough sell for the natural gas industry. But they have been ramming this project through in 34 states. And it's causing a lot of havoc and a lot of people getting severe environmental damage, health damage, property value damage.

And so natural gas is promoting itself as this clean fuel source. But the untold story which we go into in "Gasland," and it's a trip all across the America, is that this form of drilling, onshore, is incredibly problematic and it's inherently contaminating. And, you know, it's a proposition - I don't know how many people would want to live in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. But certainly, you know, that is what is on the table here for huge areas of New York State, 50 percent of New York State, three quarters of Pennsylvania.

CONAN: And you raised a lot of questions about hazards. Obviously there are a lot of people who disagree with you and not all of them who work for the natural gas industry.

Mr. FOX: Well, I don't know. I've heard principally that the criticism is coming from the natural gas industry and their PR machine. They have issued a smear campaign, a misinformation campaign against the film. I stand behind the film 100 percent. We've published all of our research and our facts. Not all of it, but a good rebuttal to all of their attacks, at our website, gaslandthemovie.com, and people can look at it. They say outrageous things.

You know, the gas industry has been exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is the act that monitors an underground injection of toxic chemicals. And this form of drilling, fracking, injects toxic chemicals underneath the ground. But in 2005, the Bush-Cheney administration, in their energy bill passed by the U.S. Congress, exempted fracking from that law specifically. And when that happened, then you see the drilling explode all across the United States, because these companies no longer have to report the chemicals and the toxins. And these are neurotoxins and carcinogens that are actually going into the water table and being injected by the millions of gallons to do this fracking process. So they come out and say, well, we're not exempt from Safe Drinking Water Act, even though you can actually just look up the law.

And I think that the purpose of this is to try to create a controversy or to create doubt on what is a very sincere and honest project that's been thoroughly researched and vetted, you know, to take potshots at it. Because this is what they do.

CONAN: Do you think that's helped the film's chances or hurt it?

Mr. FOX: Well, I don't know. It's hard to say. I mean I think that it has created a lot of attention. And I think that was unwise for them to do, especially when we have the facts and the science on our side. And they've just been shown lying to Congress. They were injecting diesel fuel - diesel directly into the ground. And they initially told the U.S. Congress, no, we're not doing that. And they told the EPA, no, we're not doing that. And lo and behold, Henry Waxman's investigation finds that they are doing it. And they say, oh well, we didn't really break the law, we just broke out handshake agreement with you.

This is the kind of industry that we're dealing with. It's very bullying. It's very aggressive. So I think, to a degree what it's doing, not only creating, you know, more publicity for the film, but it's also showing their tactics, which is that they're completely in denial of these thousands of cases of contamination across the country. They continue to promote this as a great thing, as a boon for, you know, the places where they're proposing the drillings, there's no possible risk to water supply, even though Mayor Bloomberg issued a report just last year that said this was a catastrophic risk to the New York City watershed. And they are very, very powerful and they like to push people around.

CONAN: We're talking with Josh Fox. He is the director of "Gasland," one of the five films nominated for this year's Oscar for best feature length documentary. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get Al on the line. Al's with us from White County in Arkansas.

AL (Caller): Yes. I'm calling just to say thank you, Josh, for your film, for your help, because we are ground zero down here. No one has been listening.

Mr. FOX: Yeah.

AL: They started really intensively - well, they started buying up mineral rights back in 2007, 2008. And a lot of us didn't know what was going on. And then they, you know, they got permission to drill. And a lot of people in our area have lost their wells. Their wells have gone bad.

CONAN: You mean, their water wells?

AL: Their water wells, their drinking water. And we called the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality. No one - well, they said they were going to investigate but they were short on staff, short on inspectors. We called the governor's office. We called our former senator, Mrs. Lincoln, Senator Prior -no one would listen. But Josh visit - Josh came to Arkansas. He came to Clinton last summer and showed the film, and then he was in Little Rock, and suddenly everything changed.

There's been a bill introduced in the Arkansas legislature, a landowner's bill of rights. There's a disclosure provision to make the companies disclose what kind of chemicals they're injecting into the water. It's in committee right now, but it's - Josh, thank you for your...

Mr. FOX: Well, I really appreciate your comments. And I'm actually going to be in Arkansas doing a speech at Hendrix University right after the Academy Awards. I'm looking forward to it. I have great friends down in Arkansas. It's one of the places that I visited first. And you can see their footage on the "GasLand" DVD. There's some of it in the film.

Just an incredible instance of water contamination. We hear this same story over and over again. The state departments of Environmental Protection, Environmental Quality, are overwhelmed. What they've done is they've exempted this form of drilling from all the federal legislation - the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, so that in many ways the EPA doesn't have laws to enforce.

And I was down in Washington, D.C. last week, holding a press conference. I called on President Obama for a national moratorium on this form of drilling, because this is the same story that you're hearing over and over and over again in these states, Arkansas and New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming. It's going on all across the nation.

Were actually encouraging people to write to President Obama on Oscar night their details about that on the "GasLand" Facebook page, so people can take a look at that, because this is an extreme situation. There's been a bill introduced in Congress called the FRAC Act, which would re-regulate the process under the Safe Drinking Water Act, because these states are overwhelmed, that we do need federal a federal - ground level regulation for this, the very basic minimum of it.

CONAN: Get another caller on the line. This is Timothy(ph), Timothy calling from Casper, Wyoming.

TIMOTHY (Caller): How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

TIMOTHY: I just have a comment. (Technical difficulties) but I used to work in the natural gas for Halliburton. And I have a hard time understanding why everybody says that fracking is a very polluting process, because I worked in the (unintelligible) department (unintelligible) isolation. And all the freshwater reserves, all in Wyoming, we always (unintelligible) I believe it was 500 feet below the water, and that was 1,500 feet, so at most maybe 5,000 feet down would be the water supply.

And all the natural gas we were drilling into was all down about 10,000 feet deep. And all the production zones and all the water zones were all completely sealed in cement, and then there's thousands of feet of hard formation between where they were fracking the water and everything like that. So I just kind of wanted to say that, and I'll go ahead and pop off the air here.

CONAN: All right, Timothy, thank you.

Mr. FOX: I really appreciate that, actually. You know, there - the shale layers and the other layers that they're fracking are far below the water table. The problem seems to be that there's this massive failure rate of wells. And a massive failure rate, to me, is between two and five percent, which is what the industry admits. You don't come in with one well. You come in with 100 wells.

So if you have a failure rate of two and five percent, you have contamination incidents in a large percentage that can contaminate each of them up to 10, 20 square miles, which is what we saw in Pennsylvania. Some say it's the casings that are failing. Others say that there are natural fractures under the ground, which lead all the way up to the surface, so that the ground is actually porous, especially in areas where there are mountains.

Here's what we're asking for - we're asking for an investigation. In Pavillion, Wyoming, which is right next to Casper, which is one of the places we cover in the film, you're seeing evidence of fracking fluids and these chemicals that are being used in people's water wells. EPA has investigated that. Twenty out of 44 water wells surveyed showed these chemicals in the water. We also know that from Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, somehow the gas is migrating.

But here's the thing. The industry has been successful in blocking all of the investigations into this form of drilling since it really exploded.

The EPA is currently investigating, but the industry is not happy about that. So we don't know exactly all the ways in which the process is going wrong. We just know that there are number of ways that it can go wrong and it has been going wrong.

CONAN: Josh Fox, thanks very much and good luck to you.

Mr. FOX: All right. Thanks very much.

CONAN: John Fox, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary "GasLand," with us from NPR West in Culver City. You can view the trailer for the film at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our interviews with all of the other filmmakers nominated for best documentary feature are also there, both from this year and last year. We're not going to tell you who won last year. It was "The Cove."

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