The Fight Over Fracking

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“It’s worrisome that the panel is frontloaded by advocates of gas drilling,” he says. “There is no one with established scientific credentials with a history of saying, ‘These are the risks,’ no one who has a track record of looking at issues such as drinking water contamination in the past three years. Why not pick experienced people?”

The anti-fracking lobby is not completely without allies in Washington. Democratic representatives Maurice Hinchey (New York), Jared Polis (Colorado) and Rush Holt (New Jersey) have appeared at events with Fox and Ruffalo and are working to close the fracking loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act. But they are in the minority, standing against a rising tide of gas industry cash in the nation’s capital.

“The gas industry has increased its lobbying efforts at the federal level considerably in the last decade,” says Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics. “In 2002, they spent $300,000 at the federal level. So far this year, they are on track to spend $2 million.” The numbers get even larger at the state level, where the mountains of cash reflect the size of the local political stakes. According to Common Cause, gas companies spent $2.87 million last year in New York alone fighting a temporary fracking moratorium. Direct lobbying investment is matched by the industry’s latest media campaign, launched in 2009, which spread an initial $80 million among a bevy of heavyweight advertising and p.r. firms, including Hill & Knowlton, a legendary D.C. firm that also represents the nuclear industry and specializes in the creation of fake grassroots organizations.   

Since HBO picked up the rights to Gasland last June, fracking has come under a level of public scrutiny that the industry – encompassing hundreds of firms involved in drilling, refining, and transport – has spent the last decade trying to avoid. It’s easy to see why. The spotlight on fracking’s risks has seriously retarded the industry push to gain access to the entirety of the nation’s gas reserves. In statehouses around the country, momentum has been slowed and moratoriums proposed and instituted. The stage is set this year for especially raucous public showdowns in New York and Pennsylvania, which sit on the northern tip of the Marcellus Shale, a massive underground gas deposit extending from Southern Virginia to within spitting distance of the New York statehouse in Albany.

The deep politics of gas development will feature prominently in Gasland’s sequel, which Fox is currently shooting for an early 2012 release. It will include cameos from those at every level in the debate, including U.S. senators, small-town inspection officers, and petition-wielding parking-lot activists. “On the one side is a very powerful industry and their political and media allies,” says Fox. “But there are small groups of extremely dedicated activists fighting fracking in every state where it’s a threat. It’s incredibly inspiring to see these mini-labs in democracy in action.”

Fox has made new friends working with these activists. He’s also made some enemies.

Even before the credits rolled at Gasland’s Sundance premiere, America’s National Gas Alliance, the leading industry association, knew it had a potential p.r. problem on its hands. Fox says they sent a reporter from EnergyInDepth.org, an industry-connected website, to Sundance to bootleg the film. (ANGA denies this.)* The first signs of a counterattack appeared prior to the film’s theatrical release in the form of dismissive posts on industry sites.

As long as Gasland stayed on festival circuits and in art houses, the industry response was muted. This changed when HBO bought the rights in June. Shortly after the announcement, oppo-research packets titled “Debunking Gasland” began to appear in the mailboxes of national media. Peter Applebaum of the New York Times forwarded a copy to Fox and asked for a response. “It was all misinformation and lies—all of it,” says Fox of the industry packet. Because there was no way to answer the charges in a sound bite, Fox compiled a  39-page rebuttal (PDF) with more than 100 references. America’s Natural Gas Alliance next “purchased” Fox’s name and that of his film. The first result of Google and YouTube searches for “Gasland” or “Josh Fox” is a commercial called “The Truth About Gasland.” Like all natural gas commercials, the spot views more like an ad for an anti-depressant or penile-dysfunction drug than a plan for the massive development of a fossil fuel. Full of beautiful beaches and beaming babies, but devoid of drilling sites or chemical waste pools, the four-minute video describes Gasland as a “dramatic but flawed [film] that contributes to a dialogue based on fear not facts.”  

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