COVER STORY

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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“It’s an absurdity of the kind that is all too regular back East, where the audacity, the bullying, the level of impunity under which these companies operate can be rather astounding.”

The two men glance down at the grass. When Fox is finished, they join in the applause.

One of the men then approaches someone nearby who is scribbling on a pad.

“Hi. Are you a reporter?”

“More or less.”

“I’m from the California Independent Petroleum Association, and we’re out here to let people know the truth. You can’t believe what you hear in Gasland.” The man hands the reporter a flyer containing quotes from regulators and engineers denying any proven link between fracking and groundwater contamination. “I mean, why on earth would you want to ban something that brings jobs and prosperity and better air, and can free us from Mideast oil, and that we’ve got in abundance? Why would you want to stop something like that?”

“What about those earthquakes in Ohio —”

“That had to do with a reinjection well. Not with fracking.”

“But wasn’t it wastewater from fracking?”

“Give Rock a call.” The man hands the reporter a card. “Rock will be glad to answer any questions.”

“I heard there’s a school next to the oil field that has sixty inhalers for students with asthma —”

“Call Rock.”

After the press conference, Fox, his video camera in hand, chats with local activists and poses for pictures. Then he walks across the soccer field to the parking lot. He doesn’t notice the industry men, but when someone tells him that they were in attendance, Fox isn’t surprised.

“They follow me around,” he says dryly. But you can hear the faintest tremor underneath.

Who’s Afraid of Pennsylvania Fox?

“Pennsylvania is getting fracked to hell. It’s a disaster area.” 
     — Josh Fox, May 2012

Gasland seeks to inflame public opinion to shut down the natural gas industry .... The film presents a selective, distorted view of gas drilling and the energy choices America faces today.” 
     — John Hanger (D), former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

“The myth that terrible chemicals are getting into the groundwater is completely myth. It is bogus.” 
     — Michael Krancer (R), current secretary of the Pennsylvania DEP

“The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been wholly captured by the natural-gas industry. I don't think there's any question about that.” 
     — Susan Kraham, senior staff attorney at Columbia Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic

“If the specific identity of a chemical, the concentration of a chemical, or both the specific identity and concentration of a chemical are claimed to be a trade secret or confidential proprietary information, the vendor, service provider, or operator may withhold the specific identity, the concentration, or both the specific identity and concentration of the chemical from the information provided to the chemical disclosure registry.” 
     — from House Bill 1950, or Act 13, signed by Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett (R) on February 14, 2012

When the fox came to the henhouse — no, when the landsman came to the Fox house, the story took a turn. The gas boom hit a bump. The letter arrived on a spring day in 2008, the landsman never knowing that the fellow studying the fine print from under the brim of his Yankees cap in the red house in Milanville, Pennsylvania, was the founder and artistic director of International WOW, a New York– based film and theater company devoted to creating work addressing political and social crises; and even if he had, he might reasonably have assumed that anyone in so unremunerative a business as the avant-garde theater would find his offer a godsend: nearly five thousand dollars per acre to frack the property. At nineteen and a half acres, that was almost a hundred grand. All Fox had to do was sign.

“Even if you were to get all this gas out perfectly safely, we’d still have a huge problem with burning another twenty, fifty, hundred years’ worth of fossil fuels.”

But Fox, unlike many in northeastern Pennsylvania, had no hungry mouths, no failing farm, no mortgage arrears, no crushing medical bills. His parents had built this house in the woods near the Delaware River the year Fox was born, and while the money would certainly have been useful, the prospect of his own tabernacle of wood and stream being transformed into a gas field bestirred the man’s inner Thoreau, not to say his inner Rachel Carson. “I woke up one morning in 2008 and declared myself a journalist,” Fox later wrote. “I had to. My home was under siege by the gas-fracking industry. I felt that I had to not only seek out the true effects on public health and the environment of the largest onshore natural-gas drilling campaign in history but also to report what I found to my community.”

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