Have you ever seen a water faucet burst into flames? You have if you’ve seen the documentary film Gasland, by Josh Fox. It’s the central message of his movie – that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or “fracking,” is polluting people’s water supplies so much that their running water can be set on fire. Yet Irish filmmaker Phelim McAleer knew that there were episodes of burning water throughout early American history (it’s why there are towns called Burning Springs and the like) and that this was the case in the area of Pennsylvania Fox concentrated on. He challenged Fox about this at a Q&A session, and Fox’s response spurred him on to make the documentary FrackNation, which premieres tonight on AXS tv at 9pm.
Fox first asked defensive questions, asking who McAleer was working for, then conceded the point but said that it was not relevant to the point he was making. This casual discarding of journalistic standards led McAleer to Dimock, Pennsylvania, upstate New York and to Poland to find out the truth behind the allegations against fracking. It’s a well-told tale, in turns fascinating, funny, heartbreaking and infuriating.
To the outside world, for example, Dimock is supposed to be a wasteland, devastated by water turned brown and poisonous by the evil, exploitative fracking companies. What McAleer found was a landscape with minimal intrusion and a populace bemused and annoyed by the portrayal in Gasland and the popular media. He interviews elderly residents who tell him their water has always been brown thanks to the prevalent iron, and others who say that they have always been able to set their water on fire, long before fracking arrived. He finds a population united in opposition to an expensive pipeline proposed to bring fresh water from a nearby town, which the residents say is unnecessary.
He also encounters a family that have been at the center of the anti-fracking campaign that refuses to let him take a sample of their water for testing, that cursed out EPA officials who told them their water was not contaminated, and that threatens McAleer with the fact that they are armed and with the weight of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s lawyers (I’m not sure which threat is worse).
The evidence is by no means all anecdotal. McAleer visits prominent scientists, including one of the world’s leading experts on carcinogens, who points out that the claims against Dimock’s water could also be made about a cup of coffee. Another scientist not only demolishes the claim that fracking has led to increased numbers of earthquakes, but turns that accusation back on geothermal energy, one of the darlings of the environmental movement.
Then there is Fox himself. One of the most damning parts of the movie is when the contract Fox claimed he was sent by a gas company is examined and found actually to be from the local land owners’ association. These New York landowners are interviewed and found to be dismayed by the results of Fox’s crusade – a moratorium on fracking in the area. His actions had cut off an economic lifeline in the shape of royalty payments from the gas companies to the landowners, possibly resulting in several family farms going under. Fox’s adulation in the environmental community is leading o the impoverishment of his neighbors.
McAleer is no stranger to this story. His first film, Mine Your Own Business, came out as a result of a story he came across when living in Romania as a journalist for the Financial Times. Environmental interests were stopping the development of a literal gold mine in rural Romania that promised to lift the nearby village out of poverty. The result was fame and fortune for the environmental campaigners, feted in world power centers, and destitution for their victims, poor local people.
In a compelling part of the movie, McAleer revisits Eastern Europe, talking to a Polish retiree about how much of her pension goes to pay the gas bill – about a quarter, it seems. This is because Poland is hostage to gas supplies from Russia. Fracking could free Europe from this dependence. Unsurprisingly, Vladimir Putin is extremely hostile to fracking, and some experts suggest that Russia and others could be financing the anti-fracking movement, although McAleer passes no judgment on this claim.
The movie ends with yet another attempt by McAleer to get Fox on the record. By this time, however, it has become clear that Fox does not believe he has to answer his critics. That is a shame, because if FrackNation is anything to go by, Fox has a lot of questions to answer.