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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This past January, the US Energy Information Administration, which in 2011 had estimated 410 trillion cubic feet in the Marcellus, revised the figure to 141 trillion — about six years’ worth of natural gas for the United States.

Is that a bridge worth building? Will all end well in the wells?

“I believe that with rules and oversight, and using the best technology and best practices, this drilling can, for the most part, be done safely,” Odland says. “But it’s an industry that will not self-police.”

Anderson nods. “Too much money involved. You’ve got another problem, and it’s the same as in the Gulf with BP: a regulator has to know as much as the driller. They have to be highly educated and highly paid.”

“Yes,” says Odland, “and you’re in a time when states are cutting their budgets. So enforcement is a huge issue.”

“The BP explosion was partly caused by the regulators not doing their job,” Anderson says. “Aside from BP not doing its job. But it’s a very long history. If you let them do whatever the hell they want, we’ll end up with a lot more messes.”

A View from the Ridge

Two hours after his rendezvous with the Halliburton trucks in South LA, Fox goes out to find them again. Two locals take him on a drive along a steep jogging path in Kenneth Hahn Park to the top of a hill. The plateau holds ball fields, playgrounds, and lookout points that command vistas of a vulnerable-looking city long overdue for the Big One.

The driver parks the car and everyone gets out. Fox brings his camera. The air has a chemical tang. It’s the oil fields. Nearby, along a dirt hiking path, some fifty feet from a playground, behind a barbed-wire fence, lies an industrial plant, half hidden by trees. Signs hang from the fence, warning that the forbidden area contains substances known to cause cancer and birth defects.

“What’s going on when you have a sign like this and a playground there?” says Fox, getting all this with his camera. “And the wind is blowing directly toward it.”

Fox is working. His running monologues of casual observation of the absurdities we all take for granted form countermelodies over the cracked juxtapositions sniffed out by his camera. (An example of Fox’s cunning comes early in Gasland when, at a hearing on Capitol Hill in which gas executives are testifying to the safety of fracking, the camera tilts down a few inches from the speakers’ heads to reveal, on the tabletop, a row of plastic water bottles.)

Fox follows his guides along the hiking trail in the hot sun, still filming. The air induces dull headaches, itchy lungs. The party veers off the trail, through some overgrown brush, and into a secluded area of scrubby vegetation. A few feet away, at the bluff’s edge, stands another barbed-wire fence. Fox goes to the fence and looks out across the canyon road to the dirt-brown hummocks of the Inglewood Oil Field. There, on the carved-out hill, in plain view, sit the red-and-gray trucks. There are other trucks, too, some outfitted with pumping equipment. The scene has the silent, motionless, furtive feel of a desert deal going down. If the workers at the site look up, they’ll see a black speck on the ridge — a man with a camera.

Fox films for a few minutes, then ducks back through the undergrowth and takes the hiking trail back to the car. Just before he reaches the parking lot, he sees, on the side of the path opposite the hazardous-chemical signs, a sign for park safety that says NO GOLF. NO MODEL AIRPLANES.

Fox shoots both sets of signs.

Meanwhile, Back in Pennsylvania

Immediately after Susan Kraham and her colleagues filed for an injunction against the zoning provision of Act 13, the industry pushed back.

“The gas industry moved to intervene in the case and become a party,” says Kraham. “The judge said no. The head of the senate and the head of the state assembly also moved to intervene, arguing that they had a ‘real interest in the court getting the law right.’”

The judge said no.

Judge Keith B. Quigley was not the original judge in the case. The previous judge had disclosed that he had a gas lease on his property and a partial interest in a drilling company. The petitioners asked for a recusal. Now it was Judge Quigley.

On April 11, 2012, in a courtroom in Harrisburg, Judge Quigley handed down his order.

“The motion,” Quigley wrote, “is granted.” So it was: a 120-day preliminary injunction. “While the ultimate determination of the constitutionality of Act 13 is not presently before the Court, the Court is of the view that municipalities must have an adequate opportunity to pass zoning laws that comply with Act 13.”

The court also expedited the briefing and argument of Act 13 so that it could determine the law’s validity before the 120 days expired.

Governor Corbett’s spokesman, Eric Shirk, betrayed no concern. “All this decision means,” Shirk told reporters, “is the municipalities will get an additional 120 days to come into compliance with the zoning provision of the law.”

Kraham had other ideas. “We want the court to rule that Act 13 is unconstitutional within the 120 days,” she says.

On June 6, before seven judges in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, the petitioners presented oral arguments on the constitutionality of Act 13.

The stakes could hardly be higher: if the court finds the zoning provisions unconstitutional, it could invalidate the entire law.

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