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The Fight Over Fracking

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

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.

Until Gasland, few Americans had heard of fracking. Unless you lived in one of the hundreds of rural communities affected – places like Wetzel County, West Virginia and Leroy, Pennsylvania, all lightly populated and far from the eye of media scrutiny – your image of natural gas was likely painted by the industry’s aggressive, ubiquitous, and well-funded “Clean Gas” p.r. campaign, which uses sun-dappled images of pristine nature and laughing children to portray gas as the happy, lifesaving fuel of a brave new world – so domestically abundant and environmentally friendly you just want to throw it a ticker-tape parade, if not tickle its tummy. The campaign successfully created the perception, even among the otherwise environmentally savvy, that gas is a fossil fuel without the notorious downsides of other fossil fuels.

Fox himself knew nothing about fracking when an energy firm offered him $100,000 to drill on his family’s land in rural Milanville, Pennsylvania, a couple hours’ drive east of the recent Leroy spill. Before accepting, he looked into the experiences of others that had accepted industry offers to drill their land around the country. What he found made a dark mockery of the company’s claims. Soon he was on the cross-country investigative odyssey documented in Gasland, which did for fracking what Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring did for pesticides. Upon its nomination for an Oscar, a broad coalition of environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, issued a rare joint statement praising Fox for having “catapulted … hydraulic fracturing into the national conversation.”

“Josh created a people’s history of gas drilling,” says the actor Mark Ruffalo, who lives in western New York state across the Delaware River from a Pennsylvania drilling site and was already active on the issue when he met Fox at Gasland’s Sundance premiere. “He captured the human toll in a way that gives voice to people who didn’t have one.”

Rudimentary fracking technology has been around since the 1940s, but its use was rare until the last decade, when breakthroughs made its widespread application possible. Under the Bush administration, the quantity of gas procured by fracking rose from one percent to nearly a quarter of national production. Key to this growth was a seal of approval from Bush’s EPA – a seal now judged by scientists and federal regulators as premature. The growth of fracking was given further impetus by a provision in the 2005 Energy Act, known as the “Halliburton Loophole,” which exempted gas drilling from EPA enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act. As a result, gas companies are not required to report the chemicals they injected into underground gas veins across the country. (In November 2010, a Democratic Congress asked the EPA to review the Bush policy, and most firms have since agreed to voluntarily list the chemicals used. It’s worth noting that reporting them does not render them less toxic.) 

Since releasing Gasland, Fox, a veteran theater company director, has spent a good deal of his time in Washington, D.C., where he often visits, sometimes with Ruffalo in tow, lobbying Congress and federal agencies. “The regulators at the EPA and Justice Departments are dying to do their jobs – it’s the lawmakers who are the problem,” says Fox. “Obama’s people are not listening. We led a letter campaign in which thousands of people wrote the president expressing concern over drilling in their communities. The White House sent back a form letter about the importance of national parks. We were like, ‘Did they send us the wrong letter?’”

In early May, energy secretary Steven Chu announced the creation of a panel tasked with studying the environmental impacts of fracking and coming up with recommend guidelines for state and federal regulators. The panel of seven, which has six months to issue its report, is led by former CIA chief John Deutch, currently director of Cheniere Energy, a Houston-based firm and a major player in the development of liquefied natural gas. (The company’s slogan is, “North America’s LNG Gateway.”)

Fox is trying to keep an open mind about the White House initiative, but does not find the line-up encouraging.

“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, 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.”  

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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