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A Fracking War: Industry Tries - and Fails - to Debunk "Gasland" Film
email this pageprint this pageemail usMike Ludwig - t r u t h o u t
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July 22, 2010

The information war over the natural gas drilling practice commonly called "fracking" is heating up as filmmaker Josh Fox responds to an industry attempt to debunk his hit film "Gasland."

"Gasland" won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and gave new life to a national controversy after airing on HBO. The film exposes the environmental and health dangers associated with largely unregulated hydraulic fracturing practices - or "fracking" - and includes interviews with residents across the county who say their air and drinking water has been contaminated by nearby gas wells.

Though it's tough to argue with the some of the images in "Gasland," which include a man turning on his faucet and using a lighter to cause an explosion of flames, the gas industry is attempting to do so. Energy In Depth (EID), an information service created and funded by the oil and gas industry, recently posted "Debunking Gasland," a point-by-point argument against the Fox's startling discoveries. EID paints Fox as a "purveyor of the avant-garde" who is guilty of "flat-out making stuff up."

Fox and his team of researches and scientists have responded with a report affirming claims made in the film. In a letter released with the report, Fox states that EID's debunking relies on "smear tactics" to further the industry's "attempts to shut down questions about their practices."

The Fox vs. EID face off exemplifies the debate over fracking, a drilling practice that has spread across the country, most recently to the vast Marcellus Shale gas reserve in Pennsylvania, as the energy industry rushes to take advantage of cheap domestic fuel. The debunking and the rebuttal provide an excellent summary of fracking disputes: the legitimacy of reports on contaminated water supplies across the country, the so-called "Halliburton loophole" in a 2005 energy bill that continued a decades-long trend of exempting fracking operations from the Safe Drinking Water Act and public disclosure of the chemicals in the fracking liquids - some of them hazardous - that are pumped into the ground to break rock and free up gas.

Through the fog of industry spin and activist attitudes, it's clear that EID relies on information provided largely by state regulators and the industry itself. Fox, whose film exposes how unresponsive state officials have been to citizens who claim to be affected by fracking, relies on independent scientists, researchers, community groups and the people living near wells who no longer drink the water that comes from their taps.

As Fox points out in his rebuttal, both EID and the industry, which is working tirelessly against moves in Washington to allow the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate fracking, consistently deny that fracking is causing water contamination.

This claim could change in the future as the EPA follows up on a Congressional mandate to complete a broad-based study on the impacts of fracking over the next two years.

Unfortunately for EID, "Gasland" is not the only documentation of fracking mishaps. Watchdogs and researchers have identified dangers and accidents across the country, including the recent blowout of a well in Pennsylvania.

In a report prepared for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, researchers concluded that developing fracking wells near city water supplies increases the risk of "degrading water source quality ... damaging critical infrastructure, and the risk of exposing watershed residents and potentially NYC residents to chronic low levels of toxic chemicals." New York lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would put a moratorium on fracking until the EPA releases its report.

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An 18-month study by the journalists at Propublica uncovered more than 1,000 cases in which water supplies were affected by fracking practices. Propublica has revealed that companies drilling in Pennsylvania have been regularly fined for environmental accidents including the spilling of hazardous chemicals.

And then there is the June 3 blowout incident in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. Last week, Pennsylvania state officials confirmed that "blowout preventers" in a fracking well failed during a cleanout operation, causing a blowout that spewed natural gas and thousands of gallons of fracking liquids across the area, contaminating a spring and a stream.

John Hanger, Pennsylvania's environmental secretary, said during a press conference last week that the blowout could have been "catastrophic" had any of the gas ignited. Hanger went on to announce a total of $400,000 in fines leveled against well operator EOG Resources and its contractor, as well as the department's decision to allow the firm to continue drilling. When reporters asked why EOG Resources' license was not revoked, Hanger said he believed the company could become a "first class" gas producer in the region.

Hanger, who admitted that state officials would have to be "more prescriptive" when regulating the thousands of wells permitted in Pennsylvania, is more than familiar with Fox and "Gasland" - he was interviewed in the film.

"He's not my biggest fan," Fox told Truthout.

Hanger told the Philadelphia Inquirer in late June that "Gasland" is "fundamentally dishonest" and "a deliberately false presentation for dramatic effect." He also called Fox a "propagandist."

In the film, Fox offers Hanger a bottle of water apparently polluted by a gas well tapping the Marcellus Shale and challenges him to drink it. Hanger uncomfortably declines. At the end of the interview, Hanger quickly takes off his microphone clip and walks out of the room.

Mike Ludwig is an intern at Truthout.

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