Gasland Part II and the Dangers from Drilling


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of CREDO: Cuomo Policy Summit 2012.

Fracking is a process of extracting fuel that takes place deep in the ground, well beneath human habitation.
However, what fracking surfaces is not just natural gas but a complicated and problematic set of scientific, social, and political issues, as displayed by Josh Fox’s Gasland Part II.The documentary, which premiered on HBO Monday night, is a sequel to Oscar-nominated Gasland.

Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, is a process of extracting natural gas by drilling deep into the Earth and introducing a mixture that consists of water, sand and assorted chemicals. This mixture is injected into shale rock at high pressure to break the rock and release gas so it can then freely flow out of a well and be harvested.

Some argue in support of fracking as a means to free the United States from being dependent on foreign energy sources. Economically, landowners can make money from leasing their land to gas companies, and hydraulic fracturing creates jobs for the local community.

That is if this method of obtaining energy hadn’t bred a bold and growing opposition. Initially setting up a fracking site transforms a landscape, extracting gas requires millions of gallons of water, and certain chemicals in this water are known to be hazardous. There have been cases in which the population residing in proximity to drilling well pads (stationed above fracked shale) have reported a number of health issues, which they attribute to air and water contamination.

As what goes on deep beneath the earth is not visible to us, Fox features Professor Anthony Ingraffea, the Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering at Cornell University, to illustrate how gas pipes that are cased by cement often leak, causing chemicals to contaminate water.

Maybe we cannot see this dangerous leakage with our own eyes, but to give the contamination problem some transparent visual perspective, Gasland Part II incorporates imagery of people setting their house’s water on fire in places like Texas and Pennsylvania. Fox even travels to Queensland, Australia, to light well water on fire above a fracking site to show the international extent of aquatic chemical contamination.

In addition to such shocking and flaming footage, Fox illustrates how fracking has detrimentally affected various communities. Zoning in on his home state of Pennsylvania, Fox travels to Dimock, a small town that has had an ongoing battle with the gas company Cabot, with claims of groundwater contamination and a conflict with the EPA for effective safety testing.

While in Dish, Texas, Fox interviews several people who have been suffering from strange nosebleeds that they attribute to air pollution; many residents had to pack up and leave their homes because they were always feeling sick — even the town’s mayor.

Though Professor Ingraffea has researched several aspects of fracking he credits Fox’s more personalized portrayal of these problems in his filmmaking. As an engineer, Professor Ingraffea interprets these cases as “evidentiary proof of technical problems that exist,” but more importantly, Fox sees them as “sociological and economic problems.”

Having been involved in energy research – like analyzing the amount of methane released by hydraulic fracturing as being an effective greenhouse gas – Ingraffea acknowledges the significance of relating such scientific studies to humans.

“You can have a technical problem that isn’t causing anybody any harm, but who cares? I can write a paper about it, but no one would care,” says Ingraffea. “Here, we’re talking about problems that are not only technical, but they have tremendous impact on families and on whole towns.”

Building on the personal and community cases, Gasland Part II is more politically charged than the original. This movie begins with audio clips from President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address about the need to promote natural gas drilling, stating that US natural gas can supply the country with energy for the next century.

In all he has seen, from the flammable water to the abandoned family homes, Josh Fox labels the president’s praise of hydraulic fracturing as being one of the most shocking policies from a supposed environmentalist politician the he’s ever encountered. Consequently, Fox also holds that the anti-fracking movement has taken focus on trying to communicate with President Obama. The filmmaker himself is calling on the president to watch the documentary.

At the end of the film, Fox also tries to reach out to the legislative branch. On an attempt to walk in on Congress to film a hearing on natural gas, he winds up getting pulled away and then arrested.

Josh Fox was released, though fracking is still occurring. In the midst of all these complications, what kind of response will Gasland Part II entail?

From an activist standpoint, Sam Bernhardt, the Pennsylvania organizer for Food and Water Watch, predicts a higher mobilization for the anti-fracking cause.

“The first film was a real energizer for us, and there’s no reason why Gasland Part II can’t be just as energizing for the movement.”

Tony Ingraffea, however, forecasts a rampant opposition from other forces.

“You can anticipate an even more forceful, negative reaction from the gas and oil industries than you’ve seen with Gasland 1,” says Ingraffea. “Including allegations of false testimony.”