Home | Movie Reviews | Aug/Sep 11 | Gasland


From the revelatory to the ridiculous

In the past 18 months one documentary has caused uproar around the extraction of shale gas in the United States. But is it really the no-holds-barred tale it originally appeared to be, or a flagrant foray into industry ridicule and propaganda?

Depending on how your indignation is sparked, it might have been the flickering spectacle of animals losing their fur, people sitting in dimly lit homes—scared of drinking water from their taps, or the very idea that America’s heartland could be shredded by extensive and apparently ill-regulated shale gas extraction that stays with you from Josh Fox’s Gasland documentary (released at Sundance in January last year). After all, it isn’t every day that you watch someone ignite their own water.

The wholly low-budget edit, running 104 minutes, has had a lot of screenings lately: In Illinois, Philadelphia, New York state, North Carolina, and in London U.K. to name a few. Having ruffled feathers at The Oscars in February, where the picture was up for Best Documentary and prompted all manner of celebrities to don pins in support of waterdefense.org’s new campaign, it is not surprising to see that fascination has sustained—but to what end?

The piece is highly critical of numerous oil players focusing on U.S. domestic use of hydraulic fracking (“fracking”) and steals from plenty of rhetoric surrounding the practise with what may be construed as little balance, in any event turning up a compelling yarn. Does it spotlight a legislative failing in regulation, or over-dramatize bias personal accounts on an already contentious issue? Is it a ruddy good film, and what are audiences taking away from its highly charged, decidedly weighted account of middle American oil practise given recent news relating to its legislation?

A question of accuracy

Filmmaker Josh Fox, a self-confessed child of hippy origins, hails from Milanville, Pennsylvania. His house was built by friends and family (his first word was reportedly “hammer”) and is nestled in wooded and untouched country close to a stream running down to the Delaware River. It is also home to the Marcellus Shale, and upon receiving a letter which he says declared the region to be the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas” he was offered US$4,750 per acre to allow oil companies access to explore. Having 19.5 acres, taking the total offer to just shy of $100,000, the sum was certainly substantial, but Fox resolved that the environmental cost would be much greater.

Starting off with a visit to nearby Dimock, Pennsylvania—a locale which has since seen plenty of headlines as the environmental regulator has passed charges of water contamination onto companies featured in this film—Fox met with numerous residents who had a lot to show, and say, about how drilling activity had tarnished their lives and landscape. His road trip begins, taking him to backwoods and boondocks, culminating in Weld County in Colorado where he shows how tap water can be practically set alight. Critics have swarmed and called it everything from “first person activist filmmaking done right,” (Eric Kohn of IndieWire) to scenes described as “wildly inaccurate and irresponsible,” (oil and gas analyst Dr. Michael Economides blogging for Forbes).

The ‘fire water’ scene has certainly been a conversation point, and with ensuing talk about its shocking depiction of water contamination, facts otherwise skirted over have emerged. According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s report, “Gasland incorrectly attributes several cases of water well contamination in Colorado to oil and gas development when our investigations determined that the wells in question contained biogenic methane that is not attributable to such development.” In other words, the water contamination was already on public health radars and being dealt with properly without finger-pointing at oil players.

As of June 1, interview footage revealed that Fox, by his own admission omitted certain facts relating to the problems already identified by Colorado authorities, and their reasoning. However the film’s role in the eyes of anti-drilling protestors has been cemented, with or without further discussion of inaccuracy, and become a tool for debate in the wider ongoing issue of U.S. drilling regulation.

“Drill baby drill” meets “ban fracking now”

Sidestepping Gasland (as much as is possible) and looking more specifically at the adaptations to regulation and reports released over the past year, it is possible to see how respective states are contending with the subject of fracking, and possibly how they are working around, or in response to, the documentary. Throughout the past few months some of oil’s biggest names, notably Chesapeake, Chevron Corp. and BP PLC, have elected to voluntarily disclose the exact chemicals used in their fracking methods. On June 17, the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, signed in and passed the state’s first Hydraulic Fracking Disclosure Bill, requiring companies practising the technology to openly report chemicals used. However news engines also point out that under the bill, chemicals declared to be trade secrets may be exempted after all.

In Ohio, anti-drilling campaigners are to be met head on, and on June 15 the Ohio Chamber of Commerce announced that a new group named The Ohio Shale Coalition will tackle prejudices against fracking by promoting its economic benefits and readdressing balanced review on the issue.

The wider bone of contention in play is $4-dollar a gallon gasoline prices, with many pundits repeatedly stating that the battle will be fought on the forecourt, not in high court. As the world continually seeks to domesticate and secure its energy supplies, not least in the U.S., advances in technology will continue to open up new possibilities for extraction as consumers call for solutions to costly fuel. In this instance, documentaries like Gasland are important whether they are viewed to be propagandist or revelatory. In any heavy industry, transparent reporting of environmental and social impacts is imperative and likely to incite discussion on improvement. Gasland may be a piece of ongoing debate, but it is not comprehensive, more a catalyst for further research and personal judgement.

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