Josh Fox Digs Deep Into Fracking With ‘Gasland’ Series

National Journal
Christopher Snow Hopkins
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Christopher Snow Hopkins
Oct. 17, 2013, 4:48 p.m.

Josh Fox, the doc­u­ment­ari­an be­hind Gasland and Gasland 2, likens his five-year-old cam­paign against frack­ing to pulling on a root.

“You keep tug­ging and tug­ging, and even­tu­ally you end up at the cen­ter of the earth,” he said, speak­ing on the phone from his home near Mil­an­ville, Pa., in the Delaware River Val­ley.

This root has led the film­maker from north­east­ern Pennsylvania to Col­or­ado’s Front Range to Fort Worth, Texas. It has led him from hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing, a meth­od of ex­tract­ing nat­ur­al gas from un­der­ground rock form­a­tions, to a host of re­lated is­sues, in­clud­ing the polit­ic­al clout of the fossil-fuel in­dustry and the per­ils of cli­mate change.

The Gasland series is widely cred­ited with spur­ring a grass­roots move­ment, and Fox has achieved celebrity status as a banjo-pick­ing muck­raker with a mord­ant sense of hu­mor. He will ap­pear Fri­day at Power Shift, a bi­en­ni­al gath­er­ing of en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists, in Pitt­s­burgh.

Now that Fox has fin­ished the second in­stall­ment of the Gasland series, the 41-year-old is poised to be a full-time en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ist. Al­though his prop­erty is safe from frack­ing — less than a month after Gasland 2 premiered, the in­dustry with­drew from the Delaware River Val­ley — the ex­per­i­ence of mak­ing the doc­u­ment­ar­ies in­tro­duced Fox to the threat of a warm­ing plan­et and shift­ing weath­er pat­terns.

Fox noted that his 19.5-acre plot of land, which bor­ders a trib­u­tary of the Delaware River, had be­gun to mani­fest the symp­toms of cli­mate change. He ex­pressed con­cern about the balmy fall weath­er — “I’m stand­ing on my deck in a t-shirt!” — and men­tioned that Hur­ricane Irene had toppled a massive black cherry tree on his prop­erty.

“We’re still un­der threat, not from the drilling in­dustry, but from cli­mate change,” he said. “We could chase the frack­ers away forever and still lose everything we’ve ever loved to cli­mate change. We’re already see­ing cer­tain spe­cies of trees that are in trouble.”

For now, the ami­able woods­man must ad­just to the no­tori­ety of be­ing the coun­try’s best-known anti-frack­ing cru­sader. The nat­ur­al-gas in­dustry, which dis­putes the vera­city of the Gasland films, has tried to dis­cred­it his work by por­tray­ing him as a self-ag­grand­iz­ing rabble-rouser, rather than an ag­grieved homeown­er.

“The fossil-fuels in­dustry likes to beat up on me,” Fox ac­know­ledged. “They love to scape­goat and single out people. The de­mon­iz­a­tion of me makes me un­com­fort­able, but I don’t really care about that as long as the people whose lives have been des­troyed by this in­dustry are get­ting at­ten­tion.”

“It’s not about me. When you have this kind of in­form­a­tion, you are ob­lig­ated to work with it. It would be a dis­ser­vice to all the people who have spent hours and hours pour­ing their lives out to me on cam­era “¦ not to tell their stor­ies in the loudest way pos­sible.”

Fox ad­ded that the in­dustry’s de­cision to drop 100,000-acres worth of leases in the Delaware River Val­ley is a test­a­ment to the power of grass­roots or­gan­iz­ing. “We’ve chased them out of town. It’s proof that cit­izen move­ments do work. When you’re cornered, when you’re in­vaded, people or­gan­ize very, very quickly. It’s proof that when you have demo­crat­ic par­ti­cip­a­tion, you can fight off the largest cor­por­a­tions.”

Na­tion­wide, states are still de­bat­ing the en­vir­on­ment­al risks as­so­ci­ated with frack­ing. Some, like Texas, have em­braced hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing with gusto. Oth­ers, like New York, are more cir­cum­spect. The Em­pire State has nev­er per­mit­ted frack­ing with­in its bor­ders, al­though Demo­crat­ic Gov. An­drew Cuomo is ree­valu­at­ing a five-year morator­i­um. On Sat­urday, act­iv­ists will stage a “Glob­al Frack­down” to protest the con­tro­ver­sial tech­no­logy in com­munit­ies around the world. As for Fox, his next pro­ject is a half-hour film about the death rate and ab­ject work­ing con­di­tions of work­ers in oil and gas fields.
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