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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The Chase

Just after the LA press conference, Fox and his video camera get into the back seat of a car belonging to Chris Paine, director of the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? Paine lives in nearby Windsor Hills and is acquainted with the fumes of the rekindled oil field.

As Paine cruises down a winding parkland road and onto South La Cienega, Fox sees something coming toward the car: a big red-and-gray tanker truck, and another one behind it. “Halliburton!” Fox says, bringing his camera to his eye. The trucks pass — Oklahoma plates, ACID printed on the bumpers, hieroglyphs of hazmat warnings on the sides. A fresh current runs through Paine’s electric car. “Let’s follow them,” Fox says. Paine does a nifty U-turn, and Fox is half out the window with his camera as the little car pulls alongside the eighteen-wheeler. “This is one of my favorite pastimes,” Fox says merrily into the wind. “Chasing Halliburton trucks!”

Halliburton, energy-services giant, innovator and implementer of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, and, as Gasland reminds us, prime beneficiary of the Bush administration’s 2001 energy task force chaired by US vice president and former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney, who pushed for the 2005 energy bill that exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 — yes, that Halliburton — manifesting itself in full armor on the streets of LA. What are they up to? The truckers are as oblivious to Paine’s car as a ship is to a barnacle.

“Got ’em,” says Fox, drawing back into the car. Paine turns at the next light, and the trucks head off to an undisclosed location somewhere in the hills of the Inglewood Oil Field. 

Waiting for Cuomo

“Geologists estimate that the entire Marcellus Shale formation may contain up to 489 trillion cubic feet of natural gas throughout its entire extent. To put this into context, New York State uses about 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year.” 
     — NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), 2011

“Our two chief economies in New York State are tourism and agriculture. Those are two things that can’t happen in a gas field.” 
     — Josh Fox

Drill site, Forest Lake, Pennsylvania / Photo by Mark Ovaska / Redux  Two weeks before Los Angeles, Fox unplugged himself from an editing room in New York where Gasland 2 was under construction (according to Fox, the new movie will focus on “the contamination of our political system by industry lobbying and influence”) and drove up to Albany to testify at a state-senate hearing on fracking. On the way, he spoke about the state of the state.

“New York is facing a crucial decision on whether or not to allow the gas industry in,” he said. “With all the leasing that’s been going on in the Southern Tier, the amount of gas wells would be between fifty thousand and a hundred thousand, throughout 50 percent of New York State. This is the greatest environmental and economic issue facing the state in its history.”

In 2009, the New York DEC released an environmental-impact statement on gas drilling in the state. The report included a recommendation that drilling be permitted in the New York City watershed. This did not sit well with the water-huggers. That one of the world’s last great unfiltered water supplies, the drinking source for ten million people, should be exposed to risks of irreversible harm by an agency charged to protect it, was enough to draw thirteen thousand public comments to the DEC website (the previous record was a thousand). A revised study was undertaken. Then, last summer, Governor Andrew Cuomo, between a rock and a hard place, let a de facto moratorium on fracking expire, while agreeing to spare the watersheds of New York City and Syracuse. In September, the new DEC report was released, and this time more than sixty thousand comments poured in. Critics felt the statement failed to fully consider the potential effects on human health, and demanded a separate health study.

Final regulations may be handed down this summer.

“Why are we, in the twenty-first century, going on a statewide campaign to develop fossil fuels?” Fox continued. “We know that we have to get off fossil fuels. And we also know that renewable energy can run the state. So here’s the thing: we’re at this moment of real decision. A lot of politicians are very afraid of the repercussions of taking on oil and gas, but they’re simply on the wrong side of history.”

In early June 2012, the DEC floated a proposal that fracking be allowed in a few struggling counties on the Pennsylvania border, by local consent. Then, on June 20, two years to the day after the HBO debut of Gasland, Fox released, on the Internet, an eighteen- minute video called The Sky Is Pink. In it, Fox, using the gas industry’s own documents, demonstrates how gas drilling and fracking can indeed result in the contamination of drinking water, and appeals directly to Governor Cuomo to protect the entire state. This position is summed up in the video by Democratic state senator Daniel Squadron, who says, “When it became clear very quickly that drilling would be insane in the New York City watershed, the next question gets asked by the public automatically: ‘If it’s not safe for the New York City watershed, why is it safe for someone else’s?’”

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