What a fascinating story. Filmmaker Josh Fox is offered $100,000 for the natural gas drilling rights to his property in the Delaware River Basin on the border of New York and Pennsylvania. Drill, baby, drill? Many would be tempted to take the money and run. Not Fox. He just ran. Or rather, set off on a cross-country trip to do a little investigating about what it would have meant if he signed on the dotted line and let the gas company drill away.
"Gasland" is Fox's urgent, cautionary, and sometimes darkly comic look at the largest domestic natural gas drilling campaign in history, which is currently sweeping the country and promising landowners a quick payoff.
Part verité road trip, part exposé, part mystery and part showdown, "Gasland" follows director Fox on a 24-state investigation of the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing. What he uncovers is mind-boggling: tap water so contaminated it can be set on fire right out of the tap; chronically ill residents with similar symptoms in drilling areas across the country; and huge pools of toxic waste that kill livestock and vegetation.
Among the stops on Fox's journey:
--Dimock, Pa., the town closest to the New York City watershed, where residents' animals begin losing hair after drilling started, presumably from drinking contaminated water.
--Wyoming, where Fox visits ranchers whose well water erupted with a geyser of natural gas for three days.
--Tiny Dish, Tex., where emissions from natural gas wells and pipelines measure 55 times the acceptable public health level for cancer-causing benzene and 107 times the health standard for carbon disulfide, a neurotoxin.
--Dallas-Fort Worth, Tex., where approximately 10,000 gas wells produce air emissions from gas drilling that are greater than all the air pollution from all cars and trucks in that metropolitan area, the fourth largest in America.
Gas companies have turned their attention to the massive Marcellus Shale Field, where Fox's Pennyslvania home rests. Stretching from the Catskill region of New York State to West Virginia, the so-called "Saudi Arabia of natural gas" is also home to the country's largest unfiltered watershed, supplying water to millions of Americans, including residents of New York City. Thousands of leases have already been purchased by drilling companies, prompting a public controversy.
Fox reveals alarming facts about America's natural gas industry. In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, championed by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, which exempted fracking from numerous long-held environmental regulations such as the Safe Drinking Water Act. Natural gas companies have installed hundreds of thousands of rigs in 34 states, drilling into huge shale fields, tight sands or coal bed seams containing gas deposits trapped in the rock. Each well requires the use of fracking fluids--chemical cocktails consisting of 596 chemicals, including carcinogens and neurotoxins, as well as one to seven million gallons of water, which are infused with the chemicals. Considering there are approximately 450,000 wells in the U.S., Fox estimates that 40 trillion gallons of chemically infused water have been created by the drilling, much of it left seeping or injected into the ground across the country.
"Gasland" features interviews with ordinary citizens whose lives have been irreparably altered by hydraulic fracturing; scientists like MacArthur "Genius Award" fellow Wilma Subra, who warns of the dangers of arsenic poisoning from drinking groundwater affected by fracking fluid; and government officials on both sides of the issue, including John Hanger, Pennsylvania's secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, who minimizes the effects of fracking, but refuses to drink a glass of water from an affected well, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who laments the possibility that New York City's safe, great-tasting water will become a thing of the past.
The public remains largely unaware of the potential dangers of hydraulic fracturing, while state and local environmental agencies do not have the resources to fully investigate or regulate the gas industry. In many instances, residents have received huge tanks of water to replace their water wells, but the smell and lingering illnesses of people and livestock attest to the damage done. Anyone able to secure compensation from the gas companies must sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from bringing lawsuits or informing others of their experiences with natural gas drilling.
The fight against hydraulic fracturing has now moved to Congress, where lobbyists are trying to prevent legislation that would require the chemicals used in the fracking process to be subject to the Safe Drinking Water Act once again.
"Gasland" is an HBO Documentary Films presentation of an International WOW production; a film by Josh Fox; edited by Matthew Sanchez; produced by Trish Adlesic, Josh Fox and Molly Gandour; written and directed by Josh Fox.
Debuting Monday, June 21, this shocking exposé shows that America's zeal to produce homegrown natural gas--often touted as "clean burning"--may be poisoning the water and air. The timely documentary won the Documentary Special Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
"Gasland" will also be shown on June 24, 26, and 30, and July 5 and 9 on HBO.