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EcoChat: Gasland Part II: Courting Controversy, Driving a Movement


Caption U.S. Geological Survey/Photo by Bill Cunningham. A drill rig in the Fayetteville Shale gas play of Arkansas.

Gasland Part II, the highly anticipated anti-fracking documentary sequel, premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival on April 21st. We missed the Page Six-worthy opening, but three Ecocentric bloggers – Kristen Demaline, Kyle Rabin and Kai Olson-Sawyer – made it downtown to see the third screening a few days later. That event was much calmer (considering some earlier red carpet controversy), although the film itself ratcheted up the intensity surrounding the practice of fracking in the three years since the release of the first Gasland  documentary, the significant influence of which was evidenced by its Academy Award nomination. After the screening, writer and director Josh Fox and Calvin Tillman, the former mayor of DISH, Texas, and a featured protagonist, answered a few questions. And, with his trademark Yankees cap and glasses, Fox proceeded to indulge filmgoers with a brief banjo performance in the theater lobby, as he has done at previous screenings.

To get the scoop on the film, listen to James Rose host a 37-minute EcoChat podcast with Kristen and Kai by either clicking on the audio player or downloading the podcast (both above right, beneath videos). In the podcast, they discuss Gasland Part II  and how it fits into the fracking debate as well as talk about its potential impact on the anti-fracking movement, centered in New York, which has successfully stalled large-scale natural gas development in the state. 

James Rose

 In 2010 director Josh Fox released a documentary called Gasland. At the time debate over a relatively new method for drilling for natural gas, hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" was heating up. The film focused on the communities across the United States that were being impacted by fracking and it resonated.

Gasland was nominated for an Academy award for best documentary in 2011. Now Fox has released a follow-up, Gasland [Part] II, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. A few members of the GRACE team had a chance to see the film and today we will get their reactions. I'm James Rose and joining me today is Kai Olson-Sawyer, senior research and policy analyst and Kristen Demaline, social media and communications coordinator. Thank you all for being part of today's EcoChat.

The original Gasland was a big success. What did you think about Gasland Part II and how did the two movies compare?

Kristen Demaline

Gasland II picks up in a different place certainly than the first Gasland because we are opening the film and taking a look at the Deepwater Horizon disaster area and literally taking a look at it. Fox is flying low over the Gulf, which is really an amazing vantage point frankly for all of us who haven't seen the real scope of that mess that was created by BP.

And I think that really sets up much of, at least one of the narratives of this film for Fox which is this idea that energy companies need to clean up their messes and that that is really what is driving a lot of the problems that people are dealing with nationwide when it comes to fracking.

Kai Olson-Sawyer

I totally agree. I also think that the larger point of “follow the money” was very apparent in this follow-up to Gasland the original. And really looking at the reach that the oil and gas industry has into the political arena, even into towns and communities.

I also think that, this was a follow-up, and so really one of the things that was happening was returning to places and to people that Josh Fox originally went to in Gasland, like John Fenton in Pavilion, Wyoming and Calvin Tillman in DISH, Texas, the families in Dimock added another big role to play in that.

James

Were there any spectacles? I recall from the first movie that they were lighting tap water on fire.

Kristen

You do see more of that this time so if you haven't seen that before, it's there again. As far as other spectacles I think there is another really dramatic shot from the air which shows, when you are flying over certain areas with a lot of rigs set up, you just see the sort of immense scope and scale of drilling operations in places, particularly out West and in parts of Pennsylvania. Which, again, if you haven't had that vantage point it's quite a striking image to see this sort of sea of rigs down below.

Kai

Right, I think that the industry a lot of times tries to portray fracking as a very small-scale, small-footprint operation. When in fact, it might be smaller in some cases compared to other extraction techniques, but when you have just well after well over many square miles, it's quite a sight to see, as Fox shows.

One thing I would say – I did enjoy the film – I do think that if there was any drawback, it was good to see the people that were in the first Gasland, I do think there could have been a little less of that. Maybe cut back a little, a little editing if you will. But I thought that as a standalone film it worked on its own.

Kristen

It was an interesting point that you raised, Kai, about how much follow-up really you would expect or would be necessary or too much even in a film like this. And for me I haven't really resolved that honestly. I enjoyed seeing how people were doing a couple of years down the road. And I think this reflects back on a larger problem probably, I'm speculating here, for Fox as a filmmaker, which is, what is the story he is actually telling here?

And really, what is the ending of the story going to be? I think for a lot of us who knew that this film was coming for the last couple of years, I can speak for myself, I thought that it might end with either, “oh, here is this decision on fracking from Governor Cuomo in New York State,” and that would be sort of the culmination of this narrative.

And of course we still don't have a definitive, we don't have a decision in New York State and there is not that sort of big dramatic definitive event that you could use as the easy conclusion to the film, not easy for people who are opposed to the practice of course. So it's interesting to just watch this through that lens and think about what kinds of choices he was making in terms of the stories he was telling within this larger film.

And I think a lot of this in terms of the follow-up had to do more with building this movement, so it was sort of like seeing, for some people at least, seeing these old friends. Like, this is what's happening in Wyoming now. And I think there is some value to that for people who have become really involved in this sort of activism against fracking.

James

You mentioned New York State. What does this move give people that are opposed to fracking?

Kai

I think in New York State it's kind of almost a hotbed of, for activism or anti-fracking opposition. I think it gives both a movement for and against fracking, ammunition. So essentially if you already have a side, if you have chosen a side I think this doesn't necessarily sway you one way or another.

And I agree with Kristen, it's kind of like catching up with old friends, so to speak. And so you see what's happened to these people that we were introduced to in Gasland, the original documentary. So I don't know if it's necessarily going to influence people one way or the other too much, but I do think that it might reignite an intense debate that we are already having, particularly in New York State. But New York State is kind of a bellwether for the US and even the rest of the world. 

James

Who is winning this debate?

Kai

I think that's hard to say. Although fracking has been curtailed a little bit, it's progressed and in fact it's progressed more rapidly and expanded over greater parts of the US than we saw when Gasland the first, originally came out. So if you look at that as an indicator, then I would say the oil and gas industry and the people that support fracking, frankly, are on the rise.

Kristen

That being said, you make good points, but the fact that the governor of New York has held off on his decision for as long as he has I think is noteworthy and I feel like some others in the fracking world have commented on this, but he really is taking his time and we have run out the clock a couple of times at different moments in this process.

And I have to think that that was in part due to the really strong uprising in activism on this issue just in the last year alone. And I think the thing I've noticed about the first Gasland is that this is a film that is sometimes used for, again, movement building. So we are going to have a showing of this film and it will benefit our efforts to fight this in New York or what have you.

So it's kind of a gathering tool, at least the first one. And I know for the second there is, I believe there's going to be some viewing parties and events that are sort of similarly constructed. And I think what that's done in terms of fueling people's activism is it's really empowered a lot of people to become involved in this issue, even if it was by making a phone call or writing an email or something like that which can be very powerful actions of course.

I think it's had a pretty big impact. And, of course, it's hard to say at this point what's next because at the same time there's been this success in holding it off in New York State, as Kai said, it's only exploded really in some places, in other areas of the country that aren't even as much in the film. So that's definitely a concern for people who are concerned about the spread of fracking.

James

You mentioned these movies are helping to build a movement. Do you think that Gasland one or two, or a combination of the two, will help drive policy either on the state level, at the country, the world?

Kristen

For me I think that's a really important question. It leads me to kind of a speculative answer but, and it goes something like this, I think the film's power, Gasland [Part] II's power in particular, it lies in the personal stories that we are hearing. So we're meeting a lot of families in places that already have been fracked and who are dealing with some of the negative effects.

And of course you can't hear about negative effects before they have happened. So in some ways it's definitely a way to share those stories with people who are going to be making policy and I think can be certainly compelling in terms of maybe influencing what kinds of questions they might ask the industry or what kinds of regulations they may want to ensure are developed. Assuming that fracking goes forward in New York State, for example.

Because the film does a very good job of laying out just this wide array of medical problems and environmental damage. And even the number of families who have moved away from areas where they have lived for generations because of what has happened to their land. So I think it could be important on that sort of personal level. And again it could influence larger numbers of people to become involved in terms of making their voices heard in the legislative process.

Kai

I agree in terms of it being a personal, almost visceral film. You see the heartache and the physical, medical problems that people are experiencing. And I do think it helps to galvanize the movement which was already kind of forming during Gasland, the first.

But at the same time I think it goes a step further and it shows that not only are these personal stories really heart aching and harming people in their communities, but it goes further in the context of business, politics―especially within states because the states are the ones developing the regulations, and are in charge of enforcing them since the federal government essentially is not enabled to do that.

So I think in that way, since it tends to be more local in terms of fighting back or fighting for, in some cases, fracking, that these personal stories will have a lot of impact on the movement and on the people that are involved in fracking or have a drill rig set up in their community or next door or whatever the case may be.

Kristen

I think it's also interesting that the film does a really good job of showing some of the contradictions that people are dealing with every day. In terms of what advice or rules, frankly, they're getting from the EPA about things like, can I drink the water? That's really the big one. How is our drinking water?

And for me one of the most striking parts of this film was seeing the families who were told, again, on the ground by the EPA, folks who were standing in front of them, well, yeah, I don't think I would drink the water even though the EPA at large had said, oh there's nothing wrong with the water in Dimock. It's all good. It's just, how do you make decisions for your family when you are getting competing advice from the same agency really.

James

So they are saying it's safe?

Kristen

Right, but it's not.

James

But when they actually do it, they don't know if it's safe?

Kristen

Right, exactly. And I think that is the best way to put it is that they don't know. But again it just leads to inevitably mistrust of basically what you hear in the future. If you know you're hearing contradictory stories now, it makes it hard to know how much to trust whatever we here going forward. Which is going to be a problem to deal with I think in terms of enacting policy and then regulations frankly. Things are at a very confusing point and I think that was definitely very powerfully reflected in Gasland [Part] II.

James

So let's take a step back. What is fracking? What does it mean for these people, what do they stand to gain? Josh Fox is known to be having an anti-fracking bias. Does he present any of the so-called positive aspects of fracking in the film?

Kai

To begin with, fracking is a relatively new form of drilling for oil and gas. What they do is they drill down but then they drill horizontally into shale rock and after that they push down a huge amount of water under high pressure with frack fluid basically mixed in and that fracking fluid has certain chemicals and other things that could be harmful, and they essentially create these fractures and then they tap that well and pull out the oil and gas, whatever it may be. Most of the time it’s natural gas, particularly in the Marcellus Shale and the Utica Shale, Barnett Shale.

James

Where are those?

Kai

The Marcellus and Utica Shale are in, I think, it's at least seven states in the Midwest to the northeast. So places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York State, West Virginia. And then the Barnett is in eastern [sic, central] Texas. And there's many others, there is the Bakken Shale in North Dakota which is a huge oil reservoir.

So this is going on all over the country. But essentially what we're looking at is as this is expanding, people are feeling both the positive effects, in some cases, where you might not have jobs in a certain area or high unemployment or it's an economically depressed area. And then all of a sudden there's an influx of money from the oil and gas industry so you might benefit to some extent.

What Josh Fox is showing through these two films, and I think to some degree Gasland [Part] II does an even better job than the first Gasland, in showing the downsides that are often glossed over, especially by the oil and gas industry. And, again, I will just reiterate, by the state officials that say this is all good. This is going to help our tax base, we're going to only benefit. We're definitely on the right track with large-scale fracking.

Kristen

I think the other important note in that I agree he does a good job of really showing in this film in particular is the part that upsets people I think particularly about this process is really the frack fluid and the fact that we don't know exactly what's in it. They haven't disclosed that and they won't disclose it. It's considered proprietary industrial information. But the thing is, this is a slightly different industrial process because it's going to affect so many people as well as the environment.

James

And it's in their backyard.

Kristen

Exactly. Literally in people's backyards. So that's really I think one of the biggest pieces to understanding where we might be first of all seeing the cause of problems that are attendant to fracking but also because we see problems and we don't exactly know what's in the fluid, that tends to be one of the rallying points I think for people.

And then there is the fact that there is, as Kai said, a lot of water. We're talking millions of gallons per frack job which, if you think about how many of those individual sites you're talking about, you can just imagine how much water we're talking about using. And after that's been used you can't just go and drink it.

So it's creating a tremendous amount of wastewater and other byproducts. So it's not really that we're just talking about the literal extraction process but it's everything that happens to enable that process and everything that happens after that process that in some way can have such an impact. And again he shows it to great effect I think.

Kai

Right. I think that it's very interesting, the definitions of fracking. So essentially you have the narrow definition used by industry which is, fracking is one or two steps of the process where there is a perforation gun, like a detonation that goes off underground that opens small fractures and then you put down millions of gallons of frack fluid and water to open up the fractures even bigger. So that is fracturing for them.

Fracking now, in common parlance, is the entire drilling, fracturing, all the water involved, the wastewater involved. So there's many steps involved in fracking as most people understand it now. So along all these different steps, since it is an industrial process, there are many possibilities of pollution, of contamination of water: surface water, groundwater.

The well casings are particularly problematic because, if you don't do a good job of cementing them the concrete breaks down and potentially breaks down and there could be methane migration, there could potentially be water migration. And then once the produced water, the flowback water, the water that comes up as wastewater, that can potentially contaminate drinking water, surface water.

So there's many different possibilities, let alone the transportation, distribution of the natural gas where you have compressor stations, diesel engines running all the time, so there's air pollution as well, smog, there's venting. You could go on and on.

Kristen

Well, and with all of that, what makes this such a really emotional and complex issue for communities and families I think is that, as you said earlier Kai, a lot of fracking is taking place in communities that have really suffered a great deal, not only during the most recent recession but have been Rust Belt communities for example who have been having problems with job loss and economically as a region for many years.

And the reality is that one day you can have someone from the industry show up and say, you know, we want to buy the rights to drill and you're looking at an enormous amount of money which can be of real assistance to you and your family as you see it and so you can understand why this becomes pretty complicated pretty quickly.

And it's certainly not only communities that need more money or more jobs or what have you that have this happening. The other thing that I found really interesting in Gasland [Part] II is one of the folks that he profiled, Fox profiles, is actually pretty wealthy. He built this amazing palatial estate, more than a house really. So this is not somebody who necessarily stood to, like he would benefit from money coming in for this but –

Kai

He's not hard up.

Kristen

He's not hard up, exactly. So seeing that this is really cutting across all economic levels at this point I think is another important thing to bear in mind.

James

So when you walked out of the theater, were you depressed? Were you motivated to take action? What was your reaction to the film?

Kristen

I have to say, honestly, I had seen Gasland, the first, quite a few times now and have covered various rallies and such for Ecocentric over the last year, some of you may know out there who are loyal readers, so in terms of, was I surprised by a lot of it? Honestly, no.

I think I was actually quite impressed with, as I said earlier, with the fact that he crafted I thought a very good narrative throughout the film given the complex circumstances and the fact that he's making a film about something that is unfolding in real time which I think if you stop and think about for a second is kind of amazing.

So he's not looking back at something where we know the actual outcome and we know the governor will decide and we have a lot of hard information over several years to tell us exactly what happened to all of these communities. And there is something really bold about that I think as a choice. So I was impressed in that regard.

And I was really curious to hear what people would think of the film who either hadn't seen the first Gasland or maybe who honestly just haven't spent as much time thinking about the process and all of the players. And it was interesting. It sounded like there were at least one or two viewers who said in the screening that they had not seen the first movie and they were very interested in learning more and getting involved it sounded like. It's hardly, I would say one or two people doesn't constitute a proper focus group but it was definitely interesting to see that they were very upset and moved to action by it.

Kai

And the fact that it's going to be on HBO I think sometime this summer of 2013, that will reach an even broader audience, that should be interesting. As far as my take on it, I thought it was really well done. He definitely is good at crafting films.

I really was taken by the behind the headlines things that I learned. Like in Dimock and in Pavilion, learning about what the EPA said initially, coming out and stating that there was contamination of drinking water wells. And then doing an about-face months later and saying, no, there isn't. What we learned is that affected people – actually we are hearing from mid-level EPA reps that they shouldn't drink the water, that there was contamination and that the water was unsafe.

So again it goes back to what Kristen was saying earlier that, who do you trust? It seems like industry and state governments are kind of hand-in-hand in terms of facilitating fracking. So those are the sort of things that really stuck with me. It also goes to when Josh Fox was arrested on Capitol Hill after trying to videotape a hearing where they were going to talk, I think it was about the Pavilion case.

And so it was kind of unusual, it seemed like he did all that he needed to in getting permission to record and yet he was taken out. So those are the kind of things that really drove home to me how big this is and how it really is unfolding and how we are right now at this point watching this all happen.

Kristen

Well, and I think he is a very appealing narrator. He starts off this film as well by explaining, as he did in the first film, what prompts his involvement in this and why he made the first film at all. Which was that this process was about to start happening near the Delaware River where he grew up.

I think it's not only an obviously useful storytelling technique to be so personal but it's just that there is a real genuine concern of his and a person who's behind all of this and telling this story. And I think when he is going in to film the hearing on Capitol Hill he says what I think a lot of people might want to say about covering such things in politics which is, this is going to be really boring, I really don't want to have to do this. And so I think he's very relatable in that way. So I think that helps the film as well.

James

Rumor mill: I heard there was some controversy at the film's premiere.

Kai

Yes, it turns out that as Josh Fox was walking down the red carpet some fracking supporters were shouting out questions and basically trying to get him to respond on the carpet and there was kind of like a row about that. As these people were trying to enter they were barred from entering, even though they had tickets. So there was some initial controversy which is not to be, I guess, it's not surprising since all the controversy that fracking really has created.

Kristen

Yes, it didn't surprise me either that something like that had happened. Just given the really rather heated place the debate is in. And I know that the people who wanted to come in to view the movie had driven quite a few hours to be in the city, to attend the screening. And it's one of those things where I also think though that there was some possible confusion over how an event like that works in terms of if you had a ticket, did that mean you automatically had a seat or did that mean you could wait in line? And it was first-come first-served for seating.

Or that in a film festival context you're going to have a big block of reserved seats for people involved with the festival. So those might sit and look almost empty until show time. So some of this was also, I thought it was hard to say exactly what happened not having been there.

Kai

They probably should have just waited till a later screening. They would have a lot more access and they can yell and scream at that point. They probably wouldn't have been, it wouldn't have been as noteworthy since it was on the red carpet but it's interesting, I think we went to the third screening but it was definitely well attended but there were seats because there were so many films going on.

Kristen

Well, I guess you could say it's more of an interesting red carpet chatter than what are you wearing, right?

James

Yes, it is interesting that fracking is so controversial you have activists on both sides of the argument. What's your reaction to that?

Kai

I think it comes down to interests. Is it in your interest to receive $1,000 a month from oil and gas industry because they are leasing your land? Or is it in your interest to get a job on a drill rig because you don't have a job or it's a higher paying job?

On the other side, is it in your interest to have your water polluted, to have truck traffic going by constantly, to have lights on for twenty-four hours a day for weeks at a time? And this is all happening on your neighbor's property, not yours. So the thing is, there's a balance, essentially, I think our society has to understand what the realities are.

There might be benefits but there are a lot of costs that are not widely represented and not widely publicized. Films like Gasland Part II really help to bring those costs and the problems associated with fracking to the front.

Kristen

I think the other thing that's about this in terms of all of the interested parties, let's say, some of them are, as Kai just said, individuals making choices. But those choices are being made in a larger context and I think, for me, I am always interested in, for a really long time now actually, sort of the embraced lack of transparency by energy companies.

I said at the beginning of this chat that energy companies need to clean up their messes, is kind of the subtext of this film. And I think for me thinking back over many of these incidents over the years and now with fracking, how much of this would be a different conversation if there was just more transparency.

And saying, in this case, yes, we screwed up and we're going to clean it up. So I think that that sort of quality to the industry, coupled with the astonishing, truly astonishing, amount of money that they have that they are putting into this debate as well, it's like there's this huge invisible player in this debate which is industry in many ways because we don't necessarily see exactly how they are operating.

I think that that's worth remembering as well. So that is again something that just makes this so complicated. Because an individual who is for this or at least not against it, let's say, is in a very different position in this whole conversation than either someone who is against it and for their own reasons or a big oil and gas company.

Kai

Picking up on that really great point, I think that, have you really ever heard – I guess BP might be one of the few instances – where a giant fossil fuel, oil and gas, coal, whatever, one of those companies just say, we admit that we are wrong and that we screwed up and that we do pollute. If we just had, instead of insistence that fracking has never caused any problems ever, anywhere at any time, if we could just have an oil and gas company come forward and say, you know what, we're trying to do the best we can, we do make mistakes, we do pollute in some cases, and I guess become more transparent, that would be a huge step forward.

And I think a lot of people would at least understand that and that's an opening to work with them. At this point you are either with the oil and gas industry or against them, there is no in-between.

Kristen

Well yeah, and the burden of proof I think is so much now on the individuals which you can see in both of these films when families are talking about just what they are going through in order to prove to various insurance companies, and we're talking about for medical claims in part here, having this burden to prove, well because this process happened and this exact chemical was used but we're not sure because that's a confidential fluid mix so we can't definitively say if that's exactly what was used, there's just such a burden of proof on individuals in this who are being affected by it. And I think that also skews this.

But I am encouraged actually; I mean I think for me it's always good to see healthy really engaged conversation about issues like this. I would rather that we are in frankly the moment we are where there is this really mobilized and growing number of people on all sides of this who really want to make their voices heard and be a part of this whole process in terms of deciding what's going to happen.

There are so many other issues that people work on and, whether it's the environment or other types of issues, where you really would die in some ways to get this many people so fired up about your issue. So I'm really impressed by the engagement that's been shown and the way that so many people who clearly are not professional activists have really made such a powerful decision to become activists based on this issue.

That's something that really strikes you when you see the sort of cast of familiar characters to Fox's movie or hear people who speak out about this. It's people who in some cases would be the last, you know, if you just picture in your head if I said, environmental activist, you're not going to probably picture the array of people that you will see speaking out about this. So I think it's really terrific that so many people are participating.

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