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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So he made Gasland, a real-life disaster movie in which people who live near fracking sites in Dimock, Pennsylvania, and in Colorado and Wyoming, experience headaches, nausea, sick livestock, contaminated well water, flaming faucets, neuropathy, tumors, brain damage. The gas companies deny blame, regulators appear ineffectual if not compromised, and lessees with health problems and buyer’s remorse fear retaliation for speaking up. We learn that fracking fluids contain proprietary mixtures of hundreds of chemicals, including known or suspected carcinogens (benzene, toluene, xylene), and we see postcard-perfect images of Western landscapes that have been pocked and punctured with well pads and derricks.

Gasland won the 2010 Sundance Special Jury Prize, got picked up by HBO, was later nominated for an Oscar, and turned Fox, the film’s sharp, droll, banjo-picking narrator, into a kind of environmental pop star. Rather than let HBO do all the work, Fox hit the road: for the next year and a half he toured two hundred cities around the United States and ten countries. He screened Gasland; sat on panels with scientists, educators, and actors (Alec Baldwin, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson); and did solo stuff, delivering dead-funny, dead-serious monologues enumerating the perils associated with fracking and noting that “even if you were to get all this gas out perfectly safely, and everyone was really happy with the process — even if nobody got sick from it — we’d still have a huge problem with burning another twenty, fifty, hundred years’ worth of fossil fuels.” Eager crowds turned out wherever he went, and Fox, amazed, found himself at the heart of a grassroots movement largely of his own making.

Not everyone went gaga for Gasland. To his critics, Fox was an alarmist, an agitator, a master of innuendo, a manipulator of facts, an ends-justifies-the-means trickster bent on destroying the energy future of a nation that President Obama has called “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” The gas industry tried to discredit Fox by zeroing in on Gasland’s alleged inaccuracies, particularly the case of a fire-breathing kitchen faucet in Weld County, Colorado, which the movie implies was caused by fracking but which the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission determined was the result of naturally occurring methane in the landowner’s water well.

This past March, Teddy Borawski, the chief oil and gas geologist for Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, compared Gasland to Nazi propaganda. “Joseph Goebbels would have been proud,” Borawski told an audience in Lancaster County. “He would have given [Fox] the Nazi award.” Fox, whose father and paternal grandparents survived the Holocaust, wrote an open letter to journalists condemning the slur and calling on Governor Tom Corbett to take action: “If the Corbett administration fails to fire Borawski and fails to begin a real assessment of the effects of gas drilling on the state, then certainly the Corbett administration has lost all credibility and legitimacy.” Borawski made a public apology and kept his job.

A month earlier, on Valentine’s Day, Corbett, who according to the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics received $1.3 million in campaign funds from the oil and gas industry, signed Act 13 into law. Act 13, among other things, stripped municipalities and townships of zoning authority for gas drilling and gave it to the state. Dozens of Pennsylvania towns that had attempted to regulate fracking saw their local zoning ordinances overturned. It seemed that Gasland’s indictment of Pennsylvania’s modern-day Gold Rush had failed to impress the state legislature. With the new law, Pennsylvania managed to justify Gasland’s paranoid visions and to exceed them. 

Columbians on the Case

The fracking question has made for busy times at Columbia’s Environmental Law Clinic. The clinic, an academic program run by law professor Edward Lloyd and senior staff attorney Susan Kraham ’87CC, ’92LAW and staffed by twelve to twenty law students, is representing clients in drilling-related cases involving air pollution exemptions, the Tennessee Gas Pipeline, the Delaware River Basin Commission (a regional regulatory body that includes four states and a federal representative), and, not least, Act 13.

“Pennsylvania had been litigating for years over the scope of municipal authority to limit the production of natural gas,” says Kraham. “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court made it clear that while municipalities couldn’t regulate the operations, they could regulate their location. Act 13 essentially says, gas drilling can happen anywhere.”

On April 4, 2012, in Harrisburg, Kraham and three other attorneys representing eight Pennsylvania townships and counties, a doctor, a town supervisor, and the nonprofit Delaware Riverkeeper Network filed for a preliminary injunction against the new zoning rule.

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