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The Fight Over Fracking

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The backlash against Fox and his film has taken some ugly turns. Fox’s family property in rural Pennsylvania has been vandalized and subject to arson. Pennsylvania officials have issued bulletins to state law enforcement describing Gasland screenings as “eco-terrorist” events. In March, Pennsylvania’s chief oil and gas geologist compared Fox—whose father and grandfather survived the Holocaust—to a Nazi propagandist. The geologist later apologized for the remark, but Fox says he remains more offended by the officials’ support for the construction of up to 180,000 drill sites in his home state.

Fox says the industry tracks his media appearances closely, and aggressively lobbies producers for equal time. When he appeared on the Daily Show after the Oscars, Jon Stewart told Fox that T. Boone Pickens’ people had called the show “like a hundred times” to counter his appearance. (Fox visibly darkens at any mention of Pickens, the energy magnate whose eponymous “national plan” calls for maximalist drilling and converting America’s bus and truck fleet to liquified natural gas.)

Sometimes Fox finds media pushback in unexpected places. During a recent interview on The Dylan Ratigan Show, Fox was quickly put on the defensive when the MSNBC host began the segment by suggesting Fox had a “problem with capitalism.” When Fox held up his gas map and attempted to explain what it meant, Ratigan, who was broadcasting the show from the University of Oklahoma—something like the gas industry’s home field—cut Fox off, telling him, “I’m not interested in getting a propaganda speech from you.” The interview left Fox fuming. “It was like an episode of The Fifth Wheel,” says Fox. “Dylan Ratigan gets married to Natural Gas.”

If the gas industry follows Fox as closely as he says, he doesn’t make it easy for them. His life since Gasland has been a non-stop whistle-stop tour across the country—a blur of screenings, debates, and talks in more than 200 cities and towns. Most events are in small communities where he meets with local activists. But there have also been flashes of the exotic. In October, Fox found himself on a stage at the Yoko Ono Peace Prize Awards in Rejekavik between Ringo Starr and Alice Walker, playing “Give Peace a Chance” on Sean Lennon’s guitar. In March, Canada’s Blackfeet Indians bequeathed him with a ceremonial headdress and a Blackfeet name meaning, “He Survives.”

“My life since Gasland has had this Forrest Gump fantasy quality to it,” he says. “I try to keep a level head.”

As he works on Gasland’s sequel, Fox continues to agitate for a national fracking ban. Short of getting one, he’s lobbying against the gas industry’s official exemptions from environmental legislation such as the Clean Drinking Water Act and the Superfund Act. And the more prolonged the debate, the better. The longer the debate drags on and the more scrutiny the industry draws, says Fox, the more people will learn the risks of making gas a cornerstone of national energy policy. Incidents like the spill in Leroy County will continue to chip away at public confidence in its safety. Science, meanwhile, has begun to undermine other assumptions about the benefits of gas. In April, scientists at Cornell published a study suggesting the methane released by drilling and refining gas could undermine the fuel’s credibility as a climate-friendly alternative to coal and oil. Another scientific study, conducted by a team at Duke University and published in a recent issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, officially linked gas drilling to the phenomenon of “flammable faucets”, in which enough gas seeps into the water system that household drinking water can be lit on fire with a match.

As the science solidifies and the politics play out, there is no danger of the issue reverting to its pre-Gasland obscurity. “Fracktivists” across the country are organized to ensure drilling decisions cannot be made quietly behind the scenes in. Nationally, the future of drilling in Pennsylvania and New York is drawing widespread interest for its implications for the drinking water of millions living in the media capital of the world. “We’re girding for a fight,” says Roger Downs of the Sierra Club’s New York office. “I don’t feel confident about the future of the New York City watershed unless we get a permanent statewide ban.”

As he keeps tabs on New York and dozens of other states where fracking has become an issue, Fox maintains the roughly equal measure of cynicism and optimism necessary for any long-term fight against a powerful foe like the natural gas industry.

“Oh, we’ll win,” he says. “There’s too much at stake not to win. It’s just a question of how many places get destroyed between now and then.”

 

*Added: Attribution of claim to Fox; ANGA denial.

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