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May 24 2011

Film review: Gasland

This award-winning documentary provides a stark warning about the danger that hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ as it is popularly known, poses to the water supply in the nation and to its air quality. It blasts the notion that natural gas is a ‘clean’ source of energy. It may be clean when it is used but the way that fracking extracts it from shale rock formations underground creates very serious environmental and health hazards.

Fracking involves pumping huge amounts of water mixed with about 600 chemicals (some known to be toxic and carcinogenous) deep underground at high pressure to create the equivalent of an explosion to fracture the shale rock, thus releasing the natural gas which is then extracted. But only about half of the contaminated water is recovered. The rest, mixed with natural gas, can end up in the water table and watersheds and streams and rivers, polluting them.

The film has much lower production values than Inside Job but, like that film, will make you angry at the way that big corporations, in this case the oil and natural gas industry, aided by its allies in government, ride roughshod over ordinary people, destroying their water supplies and air and, in the process, their very lives. It is heartbreaking to see ordinary people being treated like dirt and having nowhere to turn.

Here’s the trailer for Gasland:

It is a personal film, starting with Josh Fox, who was involved with the writing, directing, producing, and camerawork, receiving a letter from a gas company offering him $100,000 for the right to drill wells on the 20 acres of land in rural Pennsylvania, a wooded area with clear running streams, on which his parents had built their home.

Fox travels the country to talk with the people whose lives have been impacted by fracking. In investigating the effect of such drilling, he discovers that it can result in destruction of the environment and the health of the people in the vicinity. People’s wells become contaminated and the air gets polluted, resulting in people and animals developing serious health problems.

Most of us assume that industries are subject to regulations imposed by the government to protect people and the environment. The high water mark for such protections occurred in the early 1970s when presidents Nixon and Ford (both Republicans incidentally) signed the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974). What I had not been aware of, and was shocked to learn from the film, was that in 2005, the energy bill that was pushed through Congress by Dick Cheney exempts the oil and natural gas industry from those three laws as well as the CERCLA/Superfund Law (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability) Act (1980). The oil and gas companies were also exempted from even informing the public what chemicals were used in the fracking fluid. They could now act with impunity and they did. Cheney’s former company Halliburton benefited greatly from these exemptions.

But that is not the only way that these big companies get their way. They also use their power to defund the regulatory agencies that are supposed to provide oversight to protect people and the environment so that they cannot match the resources that these corporations can bring to bear. That is what this current push against ‘big government’ is largely about. It is not about eliminating waste or saving money or cutting red tape by reducing the bureaucracy. It is all about making sure that federal, state, and local governments, the only entities that (in principle at least) represent ordinary people and are large enough to act as a counterweight to industry, are made ineffective by cutting the budgets of their regulatory agencies, forcing them to reduce staff and creating working conditions so bad that they cannot attract the kinds of technical experts who are needed.

The people in the Tea Party and other groups who rail against ‘big government’ and think that ‘drill, baby, drill’ is a cute and catchy slogan, are being played for suckers by the big corporations and the oligarchy. I wonder how many of the ordinary people that Fox interviewed in the film, whose lives and livelihood were destroyed by the oil and gas industry, were among those who had bought into the idea that government is too big, and whether they now realize that they were duped.

One of the most alarming things in the film were the maps of the country that showed the network of rivers and watersheds, and superimposed on them were the shale formations and the natural gas wells that had been drilled. Much of it consists of public lands that the oil and gas corporations are eagerly eyeing to exploit for their purposes. You immediately see that almost the entire water supply of the US is threatened. Furthermore, they are discovering shale formations around the globe and you can be sure that fracking will spread as money is dangled before the eyes of poor people and nations to provide the oil and gas companies the same immunity they got here.

Gasland should have had people up in arms but although it received an Oscar nomination (it lost to Inside Job), it has not aroused much anger. Interestingly, the film has aroused public opinion in France against fracking and there are moves in that country for a nationwide ban on fracking, citing what we have learned in the US. It seems like people in the US are passively accepting the destruction of their once pristine lands and water supplies, and are reduced to serving as guinea pigs that other nations benefit from.

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