The Gas Menagerie

Josh Fox’s documentary “Gasland” triggered a groundswell of opposition to fracking, the technology driving America’s gas-drilling boom. Now, as the industry hits back, Fox and other Columbians are digging in.

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2012
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A natural-gas drilling site in northeastern Pennsylvania / Photo by Mark Ovaska / Redux

“When you think of this as insanity, it is.”
     — Josh Fox at an antifracking rally in Los Angeles, May 2012

They’re out there.  

Two men with white mustaches in blue California casuals stand at the back of a group of fifty people on a green soccer field atop a bluff overlooking America’s largest urban oil field. Beyond, the city of Los Angeles unfurls in ledges and promontories of pink-and-salmon rooftops, white walls, and barren palms, a fabric sewn together with utility wires and mountain scrub, a brittle blanket flung over a rickety bed. The sun burns hard in the gas-blue sky. Below, on the parched, brown hills of the thousand-acre Inglewood Oil Field, hundreds of black pump jacks work the strata, their hammerhead-shaped weights nodding over the ground like prehistoric birds pecking for the last drops.

Up on the soccer field, in the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, Food & Water Watch holds a press conference to kick off a statewide antifracking campaign. A lectern stands in the grass. A few feet behind it, people from communities around the Inglewood Oil Field hold placards that spell out GOVERNOR BROWN, STOP THE INSANITY. BAN FRACKING NOW.

The word fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, has had a semantically complicated life. Strictly speaking, it describes a well-stimulation technique in which millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals are injected at high pressure more than a mile underground to open fissures in shale rock and release trapped gas. But to fracking opponents, the term signifies the whole production process enabled by hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, which have allowed companies to tap gas deposits inaccessible through conventional vertical drilling. This wider process covers well boring, well casing, wastewater disposal, land clearing for well pads and pipelines, infrastructure building, methane flaring, sand mining, and heavy trucking.

Now, in the noonday heat, a man walks to the lectern. He wears a gray Yankees cap, black Simple Shoes, a dark-blue hoodie, and knockoff Wayfarer specs, suggesting a cross between a young Elvis Costello and a late-period Beastie Boy.

People clap and cheer. The men at the back clap, too.

The speaker speaks. “I’m happy to be here for the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the work-over rig right behind you,” he says, referring to the yellow derrick rising into view from the gulch below. East Coast irony glints briefly in the California sun. He goes on: “We’re at a moment where every trend in the world is to move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy — solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal. To be taking steps backward in the heart of Los Angeles? I wish I could say that this was unfamiliar and strange to me as an emissary from New York and Pennsylvania, where the proposal was to frack in the New York City watershed and the Delaware River basin.”

The emissary is Josh Fox ’95CC, a theater director and filmmaker whose movie Gasland pushed fracking onto the national stage. Ever since Gasland aired on HBO in the summer of 2010, Fox has spent much time in front of microphones in shale-striding states — at colleges, rallies, concerts, town meetings, and anyplace else where people come together to oppose gas drilling. Advocates of fracking tout jobs (for engineers, welders, pipefitters, food-service workers, lawyers, realtors), energy independence, a cleaner-burning alternative to coal and oil, lower energy costs, and, through the leasing of mineral rights, financial relief for people who really need it. The industry says fracking is safe. Yet to Fox, the whole thing seems absurd, surreal, a tragedy made ridiculous by the “what could possibly go wrong?” setup and an all-too-foreseeable denouncement.

“We’re here over the Newport-Inglewood fault,” Fox says. “Earlier this year, I toured central Arkansas with Nightline, visiting a series of towns that had suffered a thousand earthquakes in a year due to injection wells and fracking. The earthquakes ranged from the very small to a 4.7 that cracked the walls of a school.”

The two men at the back shift their weight, watching Fox with pleasantly mild expressions of attentiveness.

“This is insane,” Fox says, “to be thinking about fracking in the fault lines of Los Angeles.”

You don’t have to watch Chinatown nine times to know that water is everything in LA, and Fox doesn’t dwell on the most conspicuous threat — the contamination of the city’s drinking water due to some wildly improbable scenario, much like the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster or the BP blowout in the Gulf or the Baldwin Hills dam collapse right here in what is now Kenneth Hahn Park or the methane-tainted drinking wells in Dimock, Pennsylvania, or the earthquakes last winter in Youngstown, Ohio. Nor does he rattle off the health problems that the oil field’s neighbors claim to have endured since 2006, when the Houston-based energy company Plains Exploration & Production (PXP) began restimulating the Inglewood wells after years of falling production. No, for Fox, it’s the fracking-in-a-major-fault-zone angle that really captures the magnitudes.

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