Watch out, Washington. The next Gasland is directed at you.
Filmmaker Josh Fox is putting the finishing touches on a sequel to Gasland, his Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary on the natural-gas industry. Gasland 2 will focus on how lobbying efforts by the industry have influenced Washington—what Fox describes as a “contamination of our government.”
The first Gasland galvanized environmentalists and local residents wary about hydraulic fracturing—an extraction process that’s viewed as essential to developing recently discovered reserves of shale natural gas but is controversial for its environmental impacts. The film was panned, however, by industry and criticized by some independent experts and government officials who said it misconstrued facts and embellished water-contamination concerns related to “fracking.”
The natural-gas industry is still bitter about the first Gasland and doesn’t expect much to change in the sequel.
“Mr. Fox knowingly produced a misleading and factually inaccurate portrayal of natural-gas extraction. For what reason, we can only speculate,” said Dan Whitten, spokesman for America’s Natural Gas Alliance. “Given his history, we don’t hold much hope for any more of a balanced approach in what is said to be a second film.”
The animosity should surprise no one; Fox’s ultimate goal is to ban fracking in the United States.
“Gasland 2 focuses on an entirely other layer of contamination due to gas drilling, one that’s not covered in the first film,” Fox told National Journal Daily in a recent interview. “That is the contamination of our government,” he said, citing statistics on industry lobbying against regulations at the local, state, and federal levels.
The debate over natural gas has changed a lot—especially inside the Beltway—since the first Gasland came out two years ago. To Fox’s disappointment, President Obama has thrown his support behind the resource. And efforts have collapsed in Congress to enact comprehensive climate-change legislation that would have promoted renewable energy over fossil fuels like natural gas and coal.
“Despite all the money running around Washington, D.C., my hope is that America is still a democracy and the power still comes from the bottom up,” said Fox, who was arrested on Capitol Hill earlier this year because House Republicans holding a hearing on fracking said he didn’t have the credentials to be filming in the room. Will that kerfuffle make a cameo? “I think so,” Fox replied. “We’re not in the final cut.”
The first Gasland included controversial scenes of flaming water faucets in Colorado—homeowners ignited fireballs by lighting matches with the tap turned on. The movie says the spectacular eruptions are the result of methane in the water pipes and provide proof that fracking contaminates groundwater.
The Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental agencies have not confirmed any such contamination from fracking. Government officials have found isolated cases of contamination caused by poor well designs, which the industry concedes can be improved upon but insists is a separate concern from fracking.
Nevertheless, Gasland has ignited a national debate on fracking that some call polarizing.
“We’ve spent a lot of time resolving that with our community and making sure they understand what’s presented in the movie and what the real facts are,” said Democratic Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at an energy conference last month. “A movie like that can create false impressions that take years to contradict.”
Asked whether he’s succeeded in shifting public sentiment, Hickenlooper said with a laugh: “I’m getting much better at it, but I don’t have a movie yet.”
Others do. Aside from Gasland 2, at least two other documentaries and a Hollywood movie are in the works about natural gas.
“It’s going to be the battle of the documentaries,” joked Robert Hefner, who founded Oklahoma-based gas company GHK in 1959 and has produced a documentary, The Grand Energy Transition, which premieres in Washington on Wednesday. He says his film seeks to educate viewers about natural gas and, to some extent, refute the images and perceptions Gasland provoked.
“I had a lot of friends who watched [Gasland] and said, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s terrible what you’re doing,’ ” Hefner said, referring to the work his company does. “I watched it, and thought, ‘Wow, that’s persuasive.’ ”
A trio of filmmakers is making FrackNation, another documentary due out this summer to coincide with—and counter—the anticipated release of Gasland 2.
“There is a lot of emotion in Gasland, a lot of scary stories,” said Phelim McAleer, one of FrackNation’s filmmakers. “Our story is true stories, not scare stories. We’ll look at his stories, and then we’ll look at the scientific basis to them.”
Even Hollywood is getting in on the action. Matt Damon is starring in a fictional movie, The Promised Land, that’s considered to be “anti-fracking” and will focus on how the drilling affects a small town. Filming on that movie is expected to begin this month.
In addition to the lobbying focus, Gasland 2 will highlight two other trends: exports of fracking technology and the impacts of the process on climate change. Plus, Fox says, “Like any sequel, there are bigger and better explosions.”
For everyone affected by fracking and still reeling from the flaming faucets of the first Gasland, it might not be so funny.
This article appears in the April 18, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.