“I don’t think this is a particularly good time for objective information.”
So says a scientist midway through Gasland Part II, Josh Fox’s new documentary premiering tonight at 9PM on HBO, and it’s hard to disagree with him. As simultaneously disheartening and infuriating as is the film’s examination of the environmental impact and the governmental policies involved in the controversial natural gas mining procedure known as fracking, the concurrent assault by the gas industry and those politicians in their employ on the truth is even more painful to watch. And if Fox’s presentation of the film’s argument that fracking policy is corrupt, unfair, and environmentally unsound is occasionally less than subtle, it’s also almost entirely, depressingly convincing.
For those who haven’t seen the original Gasland (like me), or Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land (like me), or who haven’t had their drinking water suddenly burst into flames, Gasland Part II helpfully explains that fracking (short for “hydraulic fracturing”) involves drilling a well into gas-bearing shale and forcing water under extreme pressure, and laced with necessarily toxic chemicals, into the rock in order to force open cracks which release the trapped natural gas. Long a talking point of those interested in reducing America’s dependence on oil from unstable regions, natural gas is presented as a safer, cheaper, less environmentally harmful alternative, one whose “clean-burning” domestic nature is held up as a panacea. Unfortunately, as the film presents in two hours of relentlessly demoralizing testimony, nothing is ever so easy, especially when there’s money involved.
Opening with stark photo-negative footage of a man holding up a garden hose with flames jetting out of its end, Gasland Part II presents an image of American life gone crazy. (It looks like something Devo would have put into one of their videos.) And as the film progresses that eerie, shocking image begins to seem more and more appropriate, as Fox interviews homeowners from places as far-flung as Pennsylvania, Texas, Wyoming, California, and Australia, all of whom relate stories not only of the havoc wreaked on their property and health by nearby fracking but also of the maddening legal nightmares they’ve fought against in order to force huge corporations to take any sort of responsibility or, indeed, to acknowledge that their problems even exist. (This Kafka-esque aspect of the subjects’ stories becomes more chilling as most of them gradually disappear from the film, the victims of, as Fox implies, secret settlements with non-disclosure agreements.)
The evidence that Fox presents in the film is damning. Apart from the camera-friendly spectacle of people being able to ignite their drinking water (a phenomenon the film attributes to the massive amount of fracking-released methane leaching into wells), Gasland Part II produces convincing evidence of a myriad other detrimental effects of the practice, none of which homeowners, if given the choice to lease their land, were made aware of. In addition to having no potable water (thus necessitating enormous expense to purchase it), Fox’s subjects feelingly relate tales of decimated property values, serious health problems, and, as they encounter government obstruction, an erosion of their belief in their country.
It’s this last point that adds another level to the discussion of the issue as nearly all of these home owning, largely-conservative, (and white) Americans find themselves running up against the sort of corporate and governmental exploitation the less fortunate have always known. As Texas Representative Lon Burnham states, “Upper middle class people with college degrees are getting ticked off because they’re being treated the way that third world people have always been treated by corporate America.” More than one subject goes out of the way to explain that they’ve never been “the typical tree-hugger” (one couple proudly shows off their numerous hunting trophies), but that their experience in fighting against an entrenched bureaucracy increasingly in the pocket of the very companies they’re supposed to be overseeing has made them question everything they believe about their country and the nature of democracy. As one subject says about his fight to wrest control of his town’s fate from the local gas company, “Three years ago, I was a Republican. Now I’m an Independent. This is the biggest assault on private property rights I’ve ever heard of...and they’re Republicans? That’s supposed to be one of the founding principles of conservatism is private property rights.” Another, a burly, no-nonsense rancher in Wyoming states, “If this world worked the way it should...they’d have the list of chemicals,” in response to the fact that gas companies need not disclose what chemicals they’re releasing in their operations (thus making the case that they’re poisoning wells impossible to prove). Watching the realization dawn on these “red state” Americans that there’s something fundamentally unfair underlying their way of life is affecting, certainly, but also strangely promising. It’s a shame so many people have to get hurt in the process.
Throughout, Fox presents his case that, for huge gas companies, the fix is in. Apart from the fact that gas producers are somehow exempted from provisions in the Safe Water Drinking Act, and that they collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars to elect pro-fracking candidates to office, the film shows in infuriating detail the extent to which the industry will go to destroy those who threaten its interests through lawsuits (they even sued the guy with the flaming garden hose for defamation), smear campaigns, and, most ominously, bringing in ex-military experts in PSYOPS in order to destabilize communities opposed to, as the film calls it, their “invasion.” Using secret recordings and internal documents (some of which Fox alleges “fell off the back of a truck”), Gasland Part II continually hangs the industry with its own words as much as those of its opponents.
Could the film be more even-handed? Probably. While Fox cedes ample interview time to experts and government officials to eloquently support the anti-fracking side, the opposition is relegated to clips of industry shills (like former Homeland Security head turned industry flack Tom Ridge being barbequed by Stephen Colbert) or one bumbling old industry scientist trotted out to say nothing in particular at a town meeting. There are, one would theorize, at least a few scientists (not on a gas company payroll) who could have provided counterpoint to Fox’s subjects. And Fox’s final narration, as ever intoned in dramatic hushed tones, goes a little purple. But, unlike Michael Moore, whose sloppy reasoning often undermines his premise, Fox seems to have done his homework, and the inescapable impression one is left with here is that, when powerful corporations are involved, money trumps democracy. Even truth.
- After he made the original Gasland, an energy company erecting a drilling rig within sight of Fox’s house in the Pennsylvania woods just seems like a poor tactical move.
- One subject is the mayor of a small town in Texas which changed its name to “Dish” in order to receive ten years worth of free Dish Network service, a parallel example of corporate appropriation of American life which seems equally depressing.
- As much as one might wish it didn’t take a personal injustice to wake up someone to a global injustice, it’s pretty stirring when the Wyoming rancher responds to a gas company offer of a buyout (and mandated silence) with, “Fuck you—you think I’m gonna leave all my neighbors here? What kind of man do you think I am?”
- There’s a move afoot to begin massive fracking in California’s Monterey Shale which encompasses much of the nation’s food-producing land. And the San Andres Fault?! Is Michael Bay writing energy policy now?
- The gas industry has hired the same PR firm, Hill & Knowlton, which successfully lied on behalf of the tobacco industry for decades about the health risks of cigarettes. Begs the question—What Would Don Draper Do?
- In Colbert’s interview with Ridge, the following, “Radium, uranium, benzene, methane, boron, magnesium, strontium—now which of these can I feed to my infant?”