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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Josh Fox near his home in Milanville, Pennsylvania / Photo by Jörg Meyer

Talking to Rock

Rock Zierman is on the line. He’s the CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, which calls itself a “nonprofit, nonpartisan trade association representing approximately 450 independent crude oil and natural gas producers, royalty owners, and service and supply companies operating in California.” Zierman, it turns out, doesn’t know much about the activity at the Inglewood oil patch — he suggests contacting PXP, the company that leases the field — but, addressing the notion that fracking on fault lines in a city of millions is “insane,” says, calmly and reasonably, “There are no founded cases of seismic activity due to fracking.”

Zierman is speaking about fracking in its narrowest sense. According to John Armbruster, a retired seismologist at LDEO, fracking, which occurs at shallower depths “where the rocks are weak and not supporting any earthquakes,” is of less concern to seismologists than the associated practice of reinjection: the pumping of wastewater into deeper disposal wells, a process that can last months or years (fracking takes a few days).

It was Armbruster who, last November, drove to Ohio to set up the seismological instruments that allowed LDEO to accurately measure the Youngstown quakes that occurred weeks later. (State regulators shut down the problem well.) While Armbruster rates the odds of an individual fracking well causing a major earthquake as “tens of thousands to one,” and maintains that “society has to take some risks,” he grants that “the chances of what happened at Fukushima were also minuscule.” And in California, he says, which has a lot of earthquakes anyway, there is room for plausible deniability: “If a frack caused a few earthquakes, it’s easy to say, ‘Well, I don’t think we’re causing these earthquakes. You have no proof.’”

Proof, or the lack of it: a big theme in Gasland that continues to play out. Andrew Kirchner, the law student studying waste disposal in Pennsylvania, recalls seeing puddles of tainted water outside a house located downhill from a well pad. Residents claimed their drinking water contained heavy metals. “It makes sense that elevated arsenic levels in people’s well water would come from the fracking, but can you prove it? And a lot of these people can’t,” Kirchner says. “Getting your well tested can cost thousands of dollars. No one tests until there’s a problem. The gas company can then say, ‘Do you know what your water contained before?’”

But it’s not just a lack of funds — or even nondisclosure agreements from settled lawsuits — that keeps people quiet. Kirchner reports that some residents believe their phones are being tapped, their e-mails intercepted. “The activists there are concerned for their well-being,” Kirchner says. He isn’t talking about bad water or earthquakes. Paranoia strikes deep in the gaslands.

But that’s Pennsylvania. We’re in California now.

Summer and Smoke

It’s been a long day for Fox up in the sooty air of Baldwin Hills, but he’s still full of energy as he walks onto the stage in the auditorium of UCLA’s Hammer Museum in Westwood. Hundreds of people have filled the seats to hear Fox and Bill McKibben, the Vermont-based author, environmentalist, and educator, give a talk called “Fracking and Keystone: Energy Independence Versus the Environment,” about the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that would pipe tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico.

After the talk, Fox plays a traditional Scottish tune on his banjo. Then he and McKibben go into the glass-enclosed lobby to sign DVDs and books, and to chat with the audience and pose for pictures. As the crowd mingles, there is a commotion near the door. Someone shouts for Fox: it’s a man in a suit, blond-haired, red-faced, his angry words garbled by the intensity of his feeling. A security guard confronts the man, who shouts and stabs his finger at the air, accusing Fox of misleading the public.

The guard gets the man out the door, and seconds later he is gone.

“Did you see that?” Fox says, to no one in particular. It’s a rhetorical question, another way of saying, They’re out there. Then someone, a fan, comes up to Fox and thanks him for Gasland, tells him how important it is, how brave. Fox thanks her. Then she asks if her friend can take their picture.

“Sure,” Fox says, and he turns, smiling, to the camera.

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