New Film Investigates 'Fracking' For Natural Gas

The natural gas industry says hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," could supply the U.S. with domestic energy for almost 100 years. But environmentalists are worried it may not be safe. Josh Fox, the director of the new documentary Gasland, talks about the potential dangers of fracking.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

What would be your reaction if you opened up your tap for a drink of water and discovered not only was the murky fluid that came out unsafe to drink, but if you held a match to the tap, you could make the rushing water catch fire? That's exactly what happened to people across the country who say they were victims of a process of drilling for natural gas called fracking. Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing. It's a process that blasts a mixture of water and chemicals deep underground to crack open the rocks and release natural gas.

And the tales of folks who lit their tap water to catch fire, some of them are saying they are becoming chronically ill while gas companies drilled in their backyards. They had nowhere to turn for help. It's documented in a new film to premiere on HBO on Monday. Josh Fox is the director of the documentary "Gasland." It premiers, as I say, on HBO. And he joins us here on our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. JOSH FOX (Director, "Gasland"): Thank you so much for having me.

FLATOW: You go all over the country for these people. And you start out in Pennsylvania.

Mr. FOX: That's right. I started out in Pennsylvania, because we were asked to lease our land in the Upper Delaware River basin, which is part of that interconnected watershed system which provides water to New York and to Philadelphia and southern New Jersey.

FLATOW: And you said no, finally.

Mr. FOX: Well, I started to look into the process.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. FOX: It was, of course, a tempting offer, $100,000. And when the industry came in, they said, oh, this won't be a problem. It's just a fire hydrant in the middle of your field. We won't even drill, all these things. And say, well, look at all these money you're going to make. It seemed to me like an offer that was too good to be true, and I wanted to look into it.

So I traveled to a nearby place called Dimock Dimock, Pennsylvania, 50 miles away from me. And I found the place in utter dismay and disarray. Halliburton trucks all over the place. People - very scared, their water bubbling and fizzing, kids getting sick. One of the resident's water well exploded on New Year's Day 2009, just spontaneously combusted because I guess so much natural gas is pooling up inside the water well that the pump ignited it and it blew up into...

FLATOW: Did this only happen after the drilling...

Mr. FOX: After the drilling.

FLATOW: It wasn't there all this time?

Mr. FOX: No.

FLATOW: It was like natural gas pockets underground and...

Mr. FOX: Well...

FLATOW:...that might have existed and they happen to tap into while they were drilling their own well.

Mr. FOX: Residents insist that their water was good. There were pre-drilling tests that showed no methane or natural gas compounds, which are also some of the more volatile organic compounds that are carcinogenic...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FOX: ...benzene, toluene, xylene. You know, the residents on the ground and everywhere that I went where this is a problem, chemicals migrating into the water supply from the drilling process. I mean, the natural gas industry maintains that this was naturally occurring.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FOX: But...

FLATOW: Did they appear on - they never showed up - did you invite them to appear...

Mr. FOX: Yes, I tried to get interviews with all of the major natural gas companies. They turned me down at every instance. At one point I did get a chance to talk to a spokesman for Cabot Oil & Gas in Dimock and -you know, but that's about it. They basically said, no, we won't sit down with you.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Mr. FOX: We did catch up with them in Congress though. And at the end of the film, you can watch Diana DeGette and Maurice Hinchey, two intrepid members of Congress who've proposed an act called the FRAC Act, which would re-regulate the industry under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

FLATOW: FRAC Act has been sitting in Congress for a year now. We just pulled up a copy of it.

Mr. FOX: It's true.

FLATOW: And it's been sitting in the Senate. It's a Senate bill.

Mr. FOX: It's a Senate bill and a House bill.

FLATOW: And a House bill.

Mr. FOX: Yeah.

FLATOW: It's been sitting there since June 2009. I saw the date on it.

Mr. FOX: That's true. And they're trying to gather support, because this is an issue that's starting to get enormous amount of attention because hydraulic fracturing, which is this form of gas drilling, is coming east. Fifty percent of New York, 65 percent of Pennsylvania, half of all Ohio, all of West Virginia, parts of Virginia are over this formation called the Marcellus Shale.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm

Mr. FOX: And so those areas are being leased, and they're coming to landowners like myself and offering huge amounts of money to lease the -people's lands. But, you know, as I discovered on this trip across the country - and I went to 25 different states. The film focuses on about 10 different states. This is a total disaster everywhere it goes.

FLATOW: You said not only are the people's pipes catching - the water catching fire, but their animals are dying?

Mr. FOX: Yeah.

FLATOW: Getting chronic illnesses, they claim, you know, and the people just living there in the backyard.

Mr. FOX: Yeah. In heavy drilling areas, whether it's the water or it's the air, the process does release an enormous emissions into the air, both natural gas and other volatile organics. Yeah, there's a lot -there are a lot of people getting sick. And it's at a point where some of the experts, like Theo Colborn, feel that we have - the moment is ripe for doing some epidemiology, doing a health study, that there are enough people out there that are sick and complaining and so much damage that has occurred, that there needs to be a moratorium on this practice. And in fact, New York State...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. FOX: ...is voting on two separate moratorium bills this week.

FLATOW: And the chemical they inject underground, the formula for that is secret...

Mr. FOX: Yeah, highly proprietary. Well, not everything is secret. Their - the fracking fluid is something - there are many different chemicals in the process that they use over time. At first, they thicken the fluid with gelants and then they turn it around and turn it into a liquid. And it's very, very - there's no friction at all. So they're injecting all these different chemicals down on the wellbore - about 596 that we know about - a lot of which are proprietary. We don't know the chemical compositions.

The industry is not releasing what those chemical compositions are. They're saying it's like the special formula for Coca-Cola. But this is, you know, being injected underground and left there by the millions of gallons. And we know that most of the stuff is toxic: carcinogens, neurotoxins, other - endocrine disruptors, things that are - can - that can really be very harmful in small, small quantities.

FLATOW: The FRAC Act, which is lying in committee in Congress, would force them to release all the information about what's actually in that...

Mr. FOX: Yeah. It would force the disclosure of the chemicals and reregulate the industry under the Safe Drinking Water Act. They were exempted from Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005 by the 2005 energy bill which was a baby of Dick Cheney and their energy taskforce. And, you know, in fact, hydraulic fracturing is exempted from most of our most basic environmental laws...

FLATOW: It shows it right there in the legislature?

Mr. FOX: In the 2005 energy bills, it says right there. Yes. This is the Halliburton loophole. It is the exemption for hydraulic fracturing to the Safe Drinking Water Act. But they're also exempt from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, which controls storm water runoff and the Superfund Act. So they don't have - they're not liable to clean up their mess. And also, the Community Right to Know Provisions. I mean, the list goes on and on.

FLATOW: It's interesting that just today I got a press release in - this afternoon - from the environmental - National Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA announced there's a schedule of public meetings on hydraulic fracturing research city. They'll be having public meetings in July, starting July 8th, across the country. I find it interesting, the timing of this is three days before the HBO special.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FOX: Well, there's good news, Ira.

FLATOW: Yeah. (Unintelligible)

Mr. FOX: We have shown the film to a lot of the - within the EPA so far. But the EPA study is partially good news. It's - they've had so much concern about this that yes, Congress has commissioned the EPA to do a two-year study. It's only a $1.8 million study. It doesn't include a health study, which is something that we think - I think this is really important because of all the sick people that I talked to across the nation. And they're scoping that study, I think, right now. And they're getting public comment on where to go and how to do it. And I think that's a good sign because - especially they're going to some of most heavily affected areas, Forth Worth, I think, Pennsylvania, New York and Colorado.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Steve(ph) in York, Pennsylvania. Hi, Steve.

STEVE (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

STEVE: Yeah. I'm just kind of interested, as a person that lives in Pennsylvania and I actually own some land on the Marcellus Shale. Do you have specific studies of how this has - how these illnesses have been manifested in people, in terms of what specific diseases these people are coming down with, that you're claiming.

Mr. FOX: Yeah. Well, we know what the chemicals do to people and we know the symptoms that we're seeing. Right now, there hasn't been a significant investigation into hydraulic fracturing, either by the EPA or - there has been one - there was one health study done in Colorado which found that it required urgent action to do a greater health impact assessment. But, basically - currently, what we're asking for is - I'm finding evidence on the ground. I'm going from place to place, town to town...

STEVE: What did they come up, endemic? I mean, what are people getting endemic? What are the - what illnesses are they coming down with?

Mr. FOX: Indeed. Well, the typical syndromes are neuropathies, sensitization, people having numbness in their hands and feet, which is signs of actual permanent brain damage. Other things that - just from drinking water - it's nausea, other digestive illnesses. And that's what people were coming down with in the immediate sense. And then when this water well exploded, people start to compare stories and figure out, oh, they didn't have some kind of a stomach problem. What they were having was something going on with their water.

STEVE: I'm just concerned that it's not very specific in terms of...

FLATOW: But the point is that they're - yeah, I think he's making, is that there haven't been any real studies done.

Mr. FOX: Mm-hmm.

STEVE: All right. Perfect.

Mr. FOX: We're asking for a study.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right. Thanks...

STEVE: Well, I hope they do, I really do.

Mr. FOX: (Unintelligible).

STEVE: Well, we need them.

FLATOW: Write your congressperson.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEVE: I am. Oh, believe me.

Mr. FOX: But there's a kind of gas drilling syndrome that people have been identifying which has to do with a kind of a peripheral neuropathy. But the symptoms for these - exposures to this kind of chemicals range from, you know, skin and eye irritation, to respiratory irritation, to cancer. And those chemicals - the ones that we do know about have Manufactures Safety Dash Sheets that list those possible effects and a lot of them are carcinogenic.

FLATOW: But, well the - but the gas companies would say that they have -they are right within the law of what they are doing. They haven't broken any laws. That...

Mr. FOX: Well, that's true. But the laws don't apply to them. That's part of the problem here, that they've managed to lobby their way into exemptions to our most basic, fundamental environmental protections. And that is unfair in my view. We should be playing by the same rules as everybody else.

If I throw a car battery into the New York watershed, I can be prosecuted. But if you take the chemicals in fracking fluid and inject them by the millions of gallons into New York City watershed - and a lot of those are the same things that are in car batteries - they're completely exempt.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're getting calls from scared folks in Pennsylvania. Hi, John(ph) in Mosherville. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. I'm calling because I'm also concerned about the chemicals. We have a farm that is a natural farm. We have oxen power and basically we're trying to keep the environment preserved as much as we can. And I guess, my point is that how can we effectively protect Pennsylvania and New York and other states that are at great risk? And apparently, there's no government action in the near future that will save us.

Mr. FOX: Will the New York State legislature, actually at the moment, is leading the charge. There's a - there are two moratoriums bills. There's a one-year moratorium and a two-year moratorium. And if you want to call them, I think that could lead the nation. Pennsylvania is allergic to the word moratorium. They're still worrying about - talking about regulations, which, out west, there was a campaign for regulating the industry. They - a lot of the grassroots organizations I've talked have said that's been ineffective in slowing the industry down.

So, the New York moratorium, certainly, that would be leading the nation right now, and would be a statement that would say, we, in New York, have no confidence in what the gas drilling industry is telling us. And, you know, that would put a brace on the process, I think, long enough to do some of the science - which we're trying to accomplish.

FLATOW: Talking with Josh Fox, director of "Gasland," which premieres in HBO on Monday, on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

We've heard from America's Natural Gas Alliance, Dan Whitten, who's in the public relations office there, who says the film leaves a clear and false perception that hydraulic fracturing was to blame. This is simply not true, and there are several examples that the film veers from the facts. He's talking about your flaming faucet and Renee McClure in Colorado, that this was investigated and was a local pocket of gas.

Mr. FOX: This is not true. Amee Ellsworth's net gas, in that one segment where you have people lighting their water on fire, was - what they're saying is they're making a distinction between different kinds of natural gas.

And this is what I got in Pennsylvania. When I called Cabot Oil & Gas, the spokesman said, oh, I have a manual on my desk from 1937 that says, oh, we can light water on fire back then. There was no drilling. Then, lo and behold, three months later, the PA DEP chimed in and said, no, this is production-layer gas. This is gas that's coming from way down and we've identified it. I didn't hear from the Cabot spokesman after that. They had to sort of fess up. And I imagine that these cases are very similar.

However, the jury is still out - this can - about what kinds of gases liberates. When you're doing this - this is not supposed to be occurring at all. Gas is not supposed to be migrating into people's water supply from all that way down. Chemicals in the fracking process are not supposed to be found in wells as we found them in Wyoming. So something is up. Something is going on.

And the - I happen to trust the citizens on the ground who are saying, look, our water wasn't flammable before. They came and did a frack job, all of a sudden, our water is flammable. And what we're asking for are detailed investigations.

FLATOW: Well, you can see the documentary called "Gasland" premiering on HBO on Monday. Make your own decision and pick your own kind of action in either direction. Josh Fox, director, thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. FOX: I really appreciate it. Thanks so much.

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