The Fight Over Fracking

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Josh Fox exposed the dirty secrets of gas drilling. Then the industry decided to play rough.

May 17, 2011 9:55 AM ET
Josh Fox speaks during a press conference for the Safe Drinking Water act on Capitol Hill, February 17, 2011.
Josh Fox speaks during a press conference for the Safe Drinking Water act on Capitol Hill, February 17, 2011.
Kris Connor/Getty Images

One afternoon in early April, Josh Fox sits in a café near his Brooklyn home and unfurls a peculiar map of the United States. Featuring a series of red overlapping blobs stretching from Colorado to New York, it resembles one of those Cold War maps depicting the blast radii of Soviet missiles. But it’s decades more current than that. With a sweeping hand gesture, Fox explains that the red blobs mark nearly two dozen vast stores of natural gas that energy firms seek to open for drilling in the near future.

As he’s done nearly every day in the 15 months since premiering his documentary Gasland at Sundance, the 39-year-old filmmaker describes his map as a visual recipe for environmental apocalypse.

“Drilling the red areas means the annihilation of the American Dream,” says Fox, who minus his thick-black frames is a dead ringer for a young Lenny Bruce. “We can stop them from turning the country into an archipelago of unlivable toxic industrial zones, but the Gulf Spill reminds us you never know how much time is on the clock.”

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Indeed you don’t. Two weeks later, on the eve of the first anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, a well operated by Chesapeake Energy, the country’s second-biggest gas producer, malfunctioned in the rural northeastern Pennsylvania township of Leroy. Tens of thousands of gallons of toxic drilling waste flowed into the local environment, threatening fishing streams and forcing the evacuation of nearby residents. The spill dramatically illustrated the downside of the controversial technology described in Fox’s Oscar-nominated film: hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” the process by which raw natural gas is extracted from shale rock sediment and brought to surface. 

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In essence, fracking involves shooting large volumes of water and sand laced with dozens of exotic toxins at extremely high pressure into the shale thousands of feet beneath the surface. This releases the raw gas for retrieval and refining. But the toxic waste remains a problem both above and below ground. Much of it is recovered and stored in what are often unguarded, open-air chemical sludge pools near the drilling site. The rest of the wastewater, sometimes up to half, remains underground, where it can contaminate nearby water tables and seep into the environment in ways that are still not completely understood. “We know there are significant risks associated with ... the pollutants involved in fracking,” says Anthony Ingraffea, a rock-fracture mechanics expert at Cornell University. “These drilling techniques result in amounts of toxic matter so large – in solid, gas, and liquid states – that, in effect, everybody is ‘downstream.’ You can’t get far enough away.”

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When speaking before audiences, Fox often employs his map to highlight the risks of secondary contamination. “When you include fracking’s effect on local water tables, you can color in much of the rest of the country red,” says Fox. “This includes some of our biggest cities.”

As research deepens our understanding of fracking’s environmental impacts, the incidents continue to pile up. Most of these fracking spills do not make headlines. An investigation conducted last year by Scripps Howard found that in Ohio alone, gas companies have in the last decade been charged with nearly 2,000 violations resulting in pollution and contamination of the local environment. Similar numbers could soon be reported across Fox’s gas map of the United States, where 34 states are now being targeted for drilling.

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