Josh Fox‘s home sits in the woods of Milanville, Pennsylvania, near the rushing waters of the Delaware River. In May 2008, a strange letter appeared in his mailbox. A natural gas company was offering him $100,000 if he granted them permission to drill on his property.
Instead of signing, Fox decided to investigate. Armed with a video camera and a banjo, he set off on a journey up and down the Marcellus Shale, a massive reserve of natural gas that stretches 600 miles from Pennsylvania to Maryland, Virginia and into Tennessee. Known as the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” the shale contains billions of dollars in untapped fuel.
Fox wanted to know: What happened to other families who agreed to drilling on their property?
What he found was a heartbreaking collection of severely ill families whose aquifers had become so tainted by the gas, they could literally light their tap water on fire. He edited his footage into a modest documentary, Gasland, which was soon embraced by outraged viewers across the country. It won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, the Lennon-Ono Peace Prize, and now has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
With the spotlight, Fox has been transformed from a mild-mannered art director at a Brooklyn theater company to a respected filmmaker to an outspoken activist on par with Erin Brockovich, a professional thorn in the side of the natural gas industry. A few weeks before his Oscar nod, Fox spoke with me about the unexpected acclaim and the oil lobby’s efforts to crush his documentary.
Kors: The movie opens with you, in 2008, getting a letter from a natural gas company offering $100,000 to drill on your family’s land. Was that really how your investigation started, or were you looking to make a documentary about natural gas?
Fox: Oh, not at all. When I got that letter, I was working down in the city as an art director, doing shows with actors and dancers. I didn’t know anything about natural gas. I certainly didn’t intend to make a documentary about it… or spend years investigating it.
Kors: Your film gets into the dirty details of this new drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, where they bore a long, narrow hole thousands of feet into the Earth, then blast into it with water, sand and chemicals, cracking the rock and freeing the natural gas. Every town you visit in the film, the fracking has begun, and the drinking water has already become poisoned. Now, the drilling companies are saying the chemicals they’re blasting into the Earth can’t possibly escape their pipes and, thus, can’t leach into the drinking water. So, how is the water getting contaminated?
Fox: Nobody knows. There’s never been an investigation. But everywhere they use this fracking process, all these illnesses keep popping up: cancer, liver damage, birth defects. And yet every single investigation into fracking has been shut down. The [Environmental Protection Agency] wanted to investigate in 2004, but the Bush administration shut that down because it was obvious who was to blame… The EPA has just started an investigation into all this. It’s not adequately funded, but it is moving forward. Two years from now, when the study comes out, we’ll see what they have to say.
Kors: I spoke with residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the drilling has left a lot of people ill, and they told me Washington should suspend the drilling until they figure out how the chemicals are leaching into the drinking water.
Fox: Makes sense to me. If they push forward with this drilling, and people keep getting sick, they’ll have to admit what this really is: a huge experiment on the American people. It’s completely irresponsible.
Kors: The natural gas companies are saying there’s no proof that fracking is causing this wave of diseases.
Fox: Well, of course you can’t prove something that’s never been investigated. (Fox laughs.) That “proof” claim has become the industry’s mantra: the link between the diseases that occur everywhere they drill and the fracking toxins isn’t proven. In any field, it’s very hard to establish a direct, causal link.
Kors: That would take an extensive investigation.
Fox: Absolutely. You have to watch their language too. When they say there’s no proof that “fracking” has caused harm, they’re talking specifically about the drilling and pushing of water into the ground. The reality, though, is that fracking is a much more complicated process than just drilling into the ground. It involves trucking in the toxic chemicals and trucking out the waste water: 1,200 trucks coming and going to maintain a fracking site. Forget the drilling: the possibility for an accident and massive contamination right there, with those trucks, is very high.
Fox: That’s right. That’s the main theory: that the tube casings are failing. And when I learned about the way the casings are tested — the lack of regulations on them — it’s amazing. The companies test the strength of their tubes by applying 7,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. But when they’re inserted into the ground and used for fracking, the casings have to withstand up to 20,000 pounds per square inch. So, is it any wonder that they’re failing? How could the companies possibly reassure us that their tubes are safe if they’re not even testing them at full capacity? It’s ridiculous and really dangerous.
Kors: I spoke with Susan Riha, director of Cornell University’s Water Resources Institute, and she said something interesting: “There’s an incredible demand for energy in this country. To those who oppose fracking, I would say, ‘You can’t just be against gas drilling. You have to be for something.'”
Fox: That’s right. We’re for renewable energy: wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels. Right now the natural gas industry is in competition with renewable energy. Middle school kids should be looking forward to a cleaner planet, and it’s natural gas that stands between them and that future. You know, I was just in Iceland, and there, it’s almost all geothermal and hydroelectric power.
Kors: Yeah, but Iceland is much smaller. It’s less than half a million people. And Riha was very clear. She said renewable energy simply isn’t ready.
Fox: That’s ridiculous. I mean, natural gas is not ready either. We’re laying down billions of dollars worth of pipelines to run this country on natural gas, and it’s going to take decades to set that up. Of course, in their commercials, the industry is trying to sell natural gas as not just ready but as a clean alternative.
Kors: Right. “Clean, abundant natural gas.” The fuel of the future.
Fox: But the way the refining process vents off raw methane, natural gas is on polluting par with coal… We’re in a race right now to stop climate change. And we are running out of time. It’s attitudes like Riha’s that keep pushing us in the wrong direction. We have enough wind to potentially power a large portion of this country. And it’s utterly specious to say that with a solid investment, renewable sources couldn’t become our main source of energy. Look at the incredible solar fields in Germany. That’s the direction we should be moving in.
Kors: You feel passionately about this.
Fox: (Fox laughs.) Yeah, I do. I’d say, even if we had rolling blackouts — if the electric company had to turn the lights off six hours a day — that would be better than poisoning our water with drilling. The message needs to get out there: Once you contaminate an aquifer, you can’t go back. There are projections that within 10 years, our solar and wind farms could be up and running in a serious way. What’s stopping us, I think, is not technological obstacles or logistical problems, it’s the power of the gas industry’s lobby.
Kors: The gas industry is not that happy with you.
Fox: (Fox laughs.) No, they’re not.
Kors: They put out this bizarre video of a beautiful woman speaking passionate, breathy words about how majestic our country is and how many factual errors there are in your documentary.
Fox: Yeah. On their website too they put up an essay detailing the “errors” in the film. Everything they said was 100 percent false. It was a smear campaign. If anybody wants to read it, we put a point-by-point rebuttal to their rebuttal on our website.
Kors: This movie, I imagine, must feel like a long, strange trip. What’s been the most surprising turn of events?
Fox: Actually, it was that: the industry’s reaction, that they attacked us so head-on. I knew the movie was going to turn a lot of heads. But by attacking it, they drew so much more attention to the film than I ever could have. And all that scrutiny just shined a brighter light on how false all of their claims were. But… I guess that’s what they thought they had to do.
Kors: One of the reasons the film is so powerful is that you really get to see what life is like inside these families ruined by poisoned water. They let you into their homes. They show you how their water is so tainted it can be lit on fire. The mothers talk about how they’ve fallen ill and have kids to take care of.
Fox: Yeah, I really grew close to those families, and it was painful to see all that they were going through. I hope the larger message doesn’t get lost, though. This isn’t about one or two families, or even one or two towns. Drilling is underway in dozens of states, and there’s no moratorium until they “get the process right.”
Kors: The part of the movie that really angered me focused on the so-called “Halliburton loophole,” which was inserted into the 2005 energy bill at the urging of Vice President Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton. That provision strips the EPA of its authority to regulate fracking.
Fox: That’s right. If it weren’t for the Halliburton loophole, the oil companies wouldn’t be able to do what they’re doing. Now, thanks to the loophole, they’re allowed to blast toxins into the ground without reporting it or even telling us what chemicals they’re using. If we don’t know exactly what’s being injected into our land, how can we know whether it’s safe or not?… When I started making the film, most congressmen weren’t even aware of that loophole. Hopeful now more of them will get involved in this fight.
Kors: You’ve gone from doing Brooklyn theater to winning at Sundance, accepting the Lennon-Ono Peace Prize in Reykjavik, and now the Oscars coming up.
Fox: The whole thing is dizzying. With each film festival and award ceremony, the movie’s gotten more attention, and so has the larger issue of drilling and water contamination. I hope that continues, that more people learn about the movie, embrace its message and become a part of the movement.