GASLAND film poster

A film by Josh Fox
Airing on HBO through 2012
DVD $29.95

When Gasland was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature in January, the natural gas drillers were furious.

“While it’s unfortunate there isn’t an Oscar category for propaganda, this nomination is fitting, as the Oscars are aimed at praising pure entertainment among Hollywood’s elite,” executive director Lee Fuller of industry group Energy In Depth said in a statement. “Without doubt, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated ‘Gasland’ for its work in the field of art, not science.”

When a natural gas driller offered Josh Fox cash to explore for gas on his property in New York State, the filmmaker was inspired to look into the issue of gas drilling today and make a documentary about it.

What Fox found was the dirty side of a fuel that’s touted as one of America’s cheapest options for energy today, according to America’s Natural Gas Alliance: “Natural gas represents the only clean energy option of adequate scale today to start now to make meaningful improvements over the next 10 years in our air quality. So breathe easy, America. With natural gas, our clean energy future may be closer than we think.”

Fox also found homeowners across the country who could light their tap water on fire.

A burning tap of fire

The fire came from naturally occurring methane. But the timing and source of the gas have become big issues of contention between Fox and the homeowners on the one hand and the drillers on the other, who have resisted attempts to pin contaminated drinking water on gas drilling.

faucet on fire
Firewater. But whose fault? Photo: Gasland.

After disputing two homeowners in Colorado who claimed that fracking polluted their water, industry-lobby ANGA writes that “the film’s claims are so egregious that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission was compelled to set the record straight. The COGCC information sheet corrects the film’s misleading depictions and addresses false allegations of methane migration in Weld County.”

And while the industry has complained that Fox’s film was biased, Gasland is filled with scenes of Fox calling gas drillers and producers for comment and in response, getting the brush off again and again.

To the specific charge about the source of gas in drinking water, Fox responds that “biogenic gas can migrate as a result of gas drilling. And hiding behind ‘biogenic’ gas classification is yet another common industry obfuscation tactic,” and further that,

Frustration among citizens with their state agencies was very common in my travels, in Colorado, in Pennsylvania, in Texas, and in Arkansas. Citizens pointed out time and time again how they felt their state environmental agencies were not up to the job, or even worse, were in cahoots with the gas companies.

What, can’t trust the government on an energy issue? For people who care about peak oil and climate change, this shouldn’t be hard to accept.

How many Saudi Arabias worth of gas?

And as far as America having an abundance of natural gas that can serve as a bridge from fossil fuels to renewables? The industry lobby claims that “our nation has more of this clean energy resource right here at home than Saudi Arabia has oil-enough to power our country for generations to come.”

Like the drillers, Houston-based natural gas expert Art Berman, who was just appointed to the board of Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA, is skeptical of claims that hydrofracking endangers groundwater. But Berman is also skeptical on the abundance question. He thinks that little of today’s highly touted shale gas resources will produce on meaningful scale.

Then why do the drilling companies say that America has so much gas left?

“They’ve committed themselves so heavily to this, they don’t have any options,” Berman told Transition Voice in October. “They’ve made themselves just a shale company. I don’t think a lot of these companies are particularly interested in getting more information. They must know, they’re not stupid, but are hoping that something will save then, higher prices, or who knows?”

While Gasland doesn’t deal with the issue, gas depletion rather than environmental concerns may ultimately burst today’s gas bubble.

And if dry holes can succeed where burning faucets fail, then it looks like America will have to find another way to bridge the gap between today’s fossil fuels and the renewables of tomorrow. And that bridge may just be the most green-friendly idea of all — deep, radical conservation and recognizing the limits to growth of our economies and our societies.