Are you interested in clean food and water? Do you feel that it’s important to stay alive? If you answer yes to these questions—and who wouldn’t?—then immediately go see the documentary Gasland.
This is not movie hype. This is not empty promotion. This is a clarion call.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process promoted by the gas industry to extract gas from the earth. It’s controversial, relatively untested and it has been, before this film, under the radar in terms of national politics and consciousness.
That is changing. This film, and its director, are one of the prime catalysts for this change—Gasland has been nominated for an Academy Award™ for Best Documentary. What follows is an extensive interview with its director, Josh Fox.
Adam Harrison Levy: We are constantly bombarded by dire warnings of environmental catastrophes. Why should we care about the effects of drilling for natural gas?
Josh Fox: Because we are talking specifically about the water supply and that is something that is urgent and irreparable and immediate. If we were to go ahead and drill for natural gas nationwide as proposed it would destroy huge areas of our clean water supply. And once you do that it affects everything—there is no way to clean water once it is contaminated.
AHL: How does the process of hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, potentially affect our water? And, as a result, our food supply?
Josh Fox: Irrigation water is not subject to the same regulations as drinking water. Which means that there is a huge chance that the chemicals used to extract gas during the process of fracking are already being used extensively in the heartland of America. You often get these gas wells right in the middle of cornfields, right in the middle of agricultural production—all these chemicals being used near our irrigation water. No one, up to now, has been testing our produce or our beef for these chemicals.
AHL: What exactly is this process? How does it work?
Josh Fox: Essentially you drill down into rock formations for gas and then the bore torques and drills horizontally—it’s kinda amazing—for up to a mile. And then down the well it gets flushed, at enormous pressure, between two and seven million gallons of water that is laced with toxic chemicals. The toxic chemicals are there to thicken the water and to carry sand which props open the fractures. What happens then is that pressure creates a sort of mini earthquake under the ground. If you are standing above it you can feel the ground shake. And that fractures the rock and allows the gas to flow more freely out of the well. Only 30-50% of the water is typically recovered from a well. This wastewater can be highly toxic. It can then mix with ground water.
We know that over 600 chemicals are used in that water and a lot of them are neurotoxins and carcinogens. The gas companies have successfully shut down every investigation into this hydraulic fraction since it started on a large scale in 2005. But now the EPA is starting to study it. The results of those studies won’t come out until 2014.
AHL: How extensive is the threat?
Josh Fox: If you go to Gaslandthemovie.com and click on drilling areas you see the huge extent. These are areas, which I call Gasland, that are no longer really a part of the United States of America. They don’t have the same environmental health protections. Because literally all of the laws that protect us have been overthrown by the gas companies, which are now in control of these areas. It’s as huge an issue in terms of civil rights as it is terms of water supply.
But let’s look at the water supply. Look at the Colorado River which supplies water to the southwest, including Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The headwaters of the Colorado river are being fracked to hell. Look at Texas, at the Barnett Shale—that water runs towards Dallas, so its water is threatened as well. In the northeast you’ve got Pittsburg, Cleveland, the Chesapeake Bay, the Delaware River, the New York City watershed—all those areas are in drilling zones. These are areas where we produce a lot of our food, especially our organic food. These areas are in the line of fire.
AHL: Let’s talk specifics. What would this mean for a city like New York, which gets a lot of its food, especially its organic food, from the Hudson River Valley?
Josh Fox: The pervasiveness of the potential contamination is scary. A specific instance: you’ve got the organic wineries, organic farmers throughout New York state who are completely up in arms. How are they going to get their organic certification when they could be living in the middle of an industrial zone? This is one of the last considerations of the various states but it shouldn’t be overlooked. In New York, for example, the two chief economic engines are agriculture and tourism. If you get rid of all the upstate tourism because you are not in a scenic area anymore, you are in an industrial zone, you have a problem. If you lose the organic certification for the sustainable farms and organic wineries you have another huge problem.
This is moving backwards. What we should be doing is moving closer to permaculture, more locally produced goods, more organic and local farms—the food is healthier for you and it has a lower carbon footprint. Instead, we are going to smash that breadbasket in favor of industrial production.
AHL: I don’t entirely understand. Are you saying that this process has already started?
Josh Fox: The gas companies have already come in and are taking over vast parts of our land. They have leased three quarters of Pennsylvania, half of New York State, they have surrounded our agricultural production areas, our watershed areas. In many cases these farms are surrounded by properties that will be drilled. Which would probably mean the end of their organic certification.
This process, this kind of drilling, has never been proven safe. No one has ever subjected it to the rigorous tests of water safety, air safety, health safety, and certainly not food safety. Food safety is last on this list. And that is something that its really worth being concerned about.
AHL: Did I hear you correctly? The gas companies have leased half of New York State?
Josh Fox: If not more than half has already been leased. That is all the southern tier all the way over the watershed just bordering on the Hudson Valley.
Having said that, a moratorium was enacted in New York State at the very last minute by the Patterson administration. It goes through the beginning of July. New York is currently the only state in the union that has a moratorium on this form of drilling—and it’s the result of an incredible outcry by grassroots movement across New York State. But it remains to be seen if that moratorium will hold and stay in place. It’s the first one and I think it’s strategic. There are calls for moratoriums in Pennsylvania, in Maryland, in places in Texas. Buffalo just banned fracking and Pittsburg banned fracking, so it’s starting to catch on.
AHL: But drilling has already started in Pennsylvania?
Josh Fox: There are eight thousand gas well permits in Pennsylvania right now. And there are almost as many violations. Many of those violations are deemed substantially harmful to the environment.
AHL: How is this possible? All of this sounds insane.
Josh Fox: It has been characterized as insane by James Ginaro, who chairs the Environmental Protection Committee for the New York City Council. He used that exact word—insane. And Scott Stringer, the Manhattan Borough President used similar kinds of words.
But this is not just a New York problem. It is happening all across the northeast— Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky as well as Colorado, all the Rocky Mountain states—a lot of our beef grazing areas—so you are talking about Wyoming, Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada. There are many instances where you see cattle die on the spot from grazing where they are doing hydraulic fracturing. Those cattle are then quarantined but there is no telling how many other cattle grazed through those pastures and didn’t die and just got sick and those chemicals are in their systems and are ready to be passed on to consumers.
Your reaction is the same that most people have. Which is why the gas companies are putting on the most expensive PR campaign in history—“the clean burning natural gas” campaign. Those aren’t facts, those are slogans and those slogans cost them a pretty penny to develop. The big lie is that it is safe to live and produce food and produce water in the areas where they are doing this drilling. It is absolutely not safe to live, produce food or produce water in the areas where they are doing this drilling.
The truth is none of this really needs to happen. We can move in the direction of sustainable green energy—energy that isn’t without its problems, it does have problems, but one of those problems is not chemical contamination and the long-lasting and permanent contamination of our water supply.
AHL: Why are public figures such as Mark Ruffalo concerned with this issue?
Josh Fox: Mark lives in one of the areas that is directly affected. He is surrounded by people who have leased their land. It’s near the Delaware River. Mark has been very helpful to us because he is directly in line, in the target zone. And I think when someone like Mark gets involved in this, your education on the issue goes skyrocketing. Everybody becomes a scientist, a hydrogeologist, an activist. You end up studying this because it’s so maddening and so infuriating and because it is such a scam. And you realize more and more how little these companies are beholden to anyone in government or society other than themselves. So you arm yourself with the facts. I know Mark has done this and he understands what is at stake here.
AHL: Is this simply a NIMBY issue—a Not in my Back Yard kind of thing?
Josh Fox: Of course it is. But it’s an issue that is going to affect the whole of the United States. We are talking about 34 states. The film does start with my backyard, but it’s really not just my backyard, its important because it’s a river that provides something like 16 million people with clean water.
When you go across the United States, and you see all the people who are affected, and then you go to Australia, which I have—where there are also proposals for fracturing—as well as England, France, Germany, Austria, Italy Poland, Indonesia, you realize that this is a worldwide issue. And the issue is do we let drilling for natural gas with all its problems—all the water contamination issues, all the industrialization issues, all the green house gas emission issues, all the health issues—be our next energy source for the next fifty years? Or do we move, as we should, towards renewable and clean energy? That is the issue here. The world is everybody’s backyard.
AHL: Is this threat at the same level of importance as previous fears about DDT in the early 1960s or fears about radioactive fallout from nuclear testing in 1950s and 60s?
Josh Fox: I think it’s more of an issue than even radioactive fallout because this is something that is going on in so many different places. Not having lived through either of those eras I don’t know how it felt then. But I do know what this feels like now. I have traveled a lot—I have toured the film personally to over one hundred different cities in America—and everywhere I go people are intensely afraid, they feel that they have lost control over their lives and over their environment.
All I can tell you is that I have never felt a movement like this in my life. The amount of people who are mobilized by this—who are personally and intimately involved—and this is not a Facebook thing or something like that—who are in the game, who are threatened by this, who are going to meetings, who are talking to their neighbors, who are outraged—this is their primary dinner table conversation. And that’s a food issue all of its own! People’s ability to enjoy their dinner!
AHL: But isn’t it better to risk our water supply in this way than to be dependent on foreign oil?
Josh Fox: I don’t think that is the right choice. The choice is not about dependency on foreign oil—this is dependency on multinational corporations. I love this argument about dependence on foreign oil. Can you name for me the top countries where we get our oil exports from?
AHL: I don’t really know. But its probably countries that you don’t expect like Canada and Australia…
Josh Fox: …and Mexico. I don’t think when people are talking about foreign oil the image of the terrorist they have in their mind is Celine Dion. It is playing on people’s fears and it is also inaccurate.
We are in a world global economy. However we have three states—North Dakota, Kansas and Texas—with enough wind energy to power all of our buildings, every single last energy use in the United States including our fleet of two hundred and forty million cars. That is real energy independence without being beholden to the transnationals that are coming in destroying people’s lives. That is just one source.
We can be doing a lot on an individual basis, getting our homes and businesses off the grid. That is very easy to do—you can do those conversions within six months. What we need is a national program to do those things on a national scale. We can make up the foreign oil gap through conservation and conversion quite easily. These are scare tactics by people who would rather you be dependent on them and their dollars and their energy sources than have any actual independence.
AHL: What did you learn about yourself in the course of making this film?
Josh Fox: I leaned how hard it is to be a spokesman for this issue. I have also learned how badly I want to win. I really want to protect where I live. But it’s not just about where I live. I’ve learned about America, about the backbone of Americans. When I’ve met these people I’ve seen the face of America and it’s incredible. It’s an amazing experience, to see America through people who have their backs up against the wall. If I ever get tired, I have to think about those folks. Especially if I get nervous and get called up on stage to do something, I think of those guys. I’ve learned the depths of the resiliency of people. Americans are often characterized as rude, quick to anger. That’s not what I have found at all. I’ve met people who should be so angry they should kill somebody but they are as dignified and as expressive as anybody I have ever met. I think that stereotype about Americans is wrong. The dignity I have seen is beyond anything I ever thought existed.
AHL: Is there one particular image or moment that you want the audience to take away from your film?
Josh Fox: The moment when people in the film are able to light their water on fire is not only a metaphor but it’s also an actual problem. When you can light your water on fire the world is upside down.