By Charlie Loeb
I rented Gasland by director Josh Fox to get a preview of the film the Denali Citizens Council is showing in Healy on February 4. The documentary has received a lot of press coverage, and I feared it would be a Michael Moore-style polemic, a genre that has its place but doesn’t necessarily have the right tone for the Denali Borough community.
The film was not the polemic I feared, although it is highly critical of natural gas development. Fox starts near his home in Pennsylvania where gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale is just beginning, and then follows the story across the country to more mature fields in Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere. He describes the process of gas development – including the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” – enough to provide a basic understanding of the technologies and techniques employed, but focuses on the collateral damage to homeowners, landowners, water, air, and wildlife.
The centerpiece of the film is a series of interviews with people who have had terrible experiences when gas exploration started in their communities or on their properties. While Fox himself comes across as a left-leaning nature lover, the film is notable in that few of the people he interviews are similar. They include rural homeowners in Pennsylvania, ranchers in Wyoming, and a small-town mayor in Texas. They share devastating experiences with gas – wells rendered unusable by chemical contamination, clouds of noxious or toxic gases around their homes, poisoned streams, favorite landscape features destroyed, unresponsive government agencies, illnesses, and more. It is a film, so there is a lot of time spent with the most visually dramatic of unintended consequences, like the homeowners who can light their tap water on fire.
A balanced film would have presented some examples of landowners satisfied with their arrangements with gas companies, happy with the cash they receive, unconcerned with the industrial infrastructure taking up space on their property, and absent the contaminated well water, streams, and air that affected Fox’s interviewees. Fox did not include any such footage, although he did make efforts to interview Halliburton and other gas development companies. They refused to participate and appeared only in some rather embarrassing footage taken during Congressional testimony. I wish the film had at least provided some perspective on how often among the tens of thousands of gas wells drilled that unwanted consequences occur. However, the wide geographic nature of Fox’s investigation accompanied by information from credible researchers is persuasive in demonstrating that the risks associated with gas development are not isolated but are inherent to the process and the lax regulatory regime.
Industry rebuttals of the film have kicked up some dust around a few of the facts it presents, but in trying to debunk the most dramatic scenes (e.g. the flaming tap water) have notably failed to derail the central problem of gas development illustrated by the film – the industrialization of rural communities and landscapes with unavoidable noise, air and water contamination, traffic, and more. I was less impressed by the flaming tap water than by the 1,000+ truck trips necessary to complete one well, the constant seepage of hydrocarbons and toxins into the environment, and one rancher’s loss of a favorite picnic spot on his own property, leveled to provide a well pad.
In the end, Fox makes a compelling case that there are systematic environmental problems associated with gas development and that these problems can wreak havoc in human communities that find themselves in the middle of a gas field. He equally makes the case that government regulation of gas development has been woefully inadequate nationwide, and that government agencies have been either unwilling or unable to do much to remedy or prevent some of the most atrocious examples of gas development gone bad (or they are actively helping the gas developers). Communities and homeowners are often on their own when trying to protect themselves. For the northern Denali Borough communities where gas development is pending, the film shows us snippets of the future we need to prepare for, including both the every-day headaches and the worst-case scenarios. If you live in or own property in the license area, this is a very important film to see.
The Denali Citizens Council presents Gasland at the Tri Valley School Multi-Purpose Room on Friday, February 4 at 6:30pm.