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Frack You

Filmmaker Josh Fox Battles the oil industry to warn about the dangers of fracking


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Of all things flammable in the wide world, tap water shouldn’t be one of them.

At least that’s the consensus—call it crazy—among environmentalists and fracking foes, for whom the phenomenon, supposedly brought on by nearby hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas extraction, has grown into quite a powerful symbol. It’s fitting, as fire has conveyed the angry heart and distempered emotion of many movements in modern history, from bra-burning and flag-burning to self-immolation.

It’s clear from speaking with Josh Fox, the amped-up faceman for the anti-fracking movement, that he views Americans’ battle against big industry, not to mention their own elected leaders, as nothing short of a fight to the (slow) death: our health versus their wealth.

Fox, 40, earned some celebrity with the 2010 film Gasland, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary, as well as for four Emmy Awards (winning one for its directing). Opposition upped Fox’s profile soon after: An independent film team used Kickstarter to produce the pro-fracking FrackNation. And special-interest groups that support fossil-fuel development, groups like the Independent Petroleum Association of America, backed the documentary TruthLand in an effort to discredit Fox’s “fearumentary.”

It’s a strange David & Goliath conflict, pitting billionaires and multinational corporations against the relatively lowly founder and artistic director of the New York-based International WOW Company, a theater & film collaborative dedicated to illuminating “global social and political crises.”

But if you frack with a Columbia University grad who’s written, directed and/or produced more than 30 stage works, and who cut his cinematic teeth with 2008’s Memorial Day—an exposé of Abu Ghraib atrocities—growing national resistance is what you get.

Fox landed in Colorado Springs, Colo., recently on a limited grass-roots screening tour, ahead of the impending wide-release of Gasland Part II on HBO on July 8. He’s a stranger neither to the town nor to highly spirited discourse, which I quickly learn when he kicks off our interview by asking the first question:

Josh Fox: How’s everything over there in Colorado Springs? Do you know my uncle, Bob Rundo, the Tree Surgeon?

Matthew Schniper: No, I don’t, actually ... Did you visit here as a kid?

JF: Oh, totally. Colorado Springs is the very first place that I’ve been in the West in my entire life. Because we went out to see him ... [he’s] politically quite conservative. We’ve had our disagreements over the years, but what’s interesting ... when I gave this speech in Colorado Springs [this past November] I talked about this, he was in the audience. He said, “You know, back when we were spraying trees ... we used to use Malathion and all these chemicals on the trees and it was that book by—and he starts tapping his fingers—Rachel, um, Rachel ...” I said, “Rachel Carson, Silent Spring?”

[And he says], “That’s the one, yeah.” And he tells me stories about how all the people who used to work with those chemicals are now dead. And his doctor told him he can’t lose weight too fast because he’s got all that stuff stored in his fat cells. So, my conservative Uncle Bob and I bonded over these issues of chemical contamination ...

And this is what I’ve found all across America, is that you’ve got no ideological boundary here: Chemicals are chemicals, contamination is contamination, health is health, and you’re seeing this unify people.

MS: For this Gasland II Grassroots Tour, how did you schedule the cities? Are these important battlegrounds?

JF: Yes, they are. Each one for slightly different reasons. But we did want to encourage what we think works the best. And what works the best is a ban movement. We’re seeing a significant ban movement grow in Colorado. We’re seeing a significant ban-moratorium movement grow in California, and, obviously, in New York that has worked.

We’re going to Pennsylvania because Pittsburgh and other places have banded together to ban there. And in Illinois, we’re going there because it’s a real crisis right now.

This is a practice that can’t be regulated. The regulations approach has been the rack and ruin of Pennsylvania, the rack and ruin of the Western Slope of Colorado. You cannot fix the problem that this rapid industrialization brings on a community, on the water supply, on the air quality ...

MS: What did you most want to do with Gasland II?

JF: Well, I was compelled to make the follow-up film because, frankly, we saw just an enormous movement happening. Now, I’m not crediting the film with that. ... The movement has happened because there is this largest domestic drilling campaign in history happening, and people are angry and upset and protesting that.

But what we found was there was another layer of contamination due to fracking we wanted to investigate. And that’s the contamination of democracy.

Gov. Hickenlooper, or as I like to call him, “Frackenlooper”—we don’t call him anything but “Frackenlooper,” “Frackenlooper” is his name—is moonlighting as governor of Colorado, and his main job is to be representing the oil & gas industry. And it is incredible to see the Democratic establishment—Gov. Frackenlooper, President Obama, [former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed] Rendell, everyone except [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo right now, frankly—literally in the gas tank. And to be betraying the health concerns of its own constituents in favor of toeing an oil & gas development line, when every indicator says we have to move away from this and move towards renewable energy.

MS: Since the film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival on April 21, what’s the response and blowback been so far?

JF: More of the same. I mean, the industry got caught hiring PSYOPS officers. People who’d just come from Iraq and Afghanistan who were trained in PSYOPS—psychological operations—and they were employing those techniques against landowners fighting the industry in Pennsylvania.

Josh Fox, the amped-up faceman for the anti-fracking movement. - COURTESY IMAGE
  • Courtesy image
  • Josh Fox, the amped-up faceman for the anti-fracking movement.

They got caught doing that. They were tape-recorded at their own teleconference describing landowners fighting for their basic human rights in Pennsylvania as “insurgents.” This industry has pursued a line of disinformation, of deceit.

Now, it’s not surprising. Understand that my first glimpse of the oil & gas industry was them coming to me [as a member of a family that owned property in Pennsylvania] and saying, “Oh, it’s not going to be such a big deal, we’ll hardly even drill, just sign at the bottom line, it’s free money.”

When their first note is deception, how do you expect the next note to be something truthful?

What they’re doing here is doubling down on denial, and it’s following the strategy of Big Tobacco. Big Tobacco had a problem they couldn’t solve. There was no way to make a healthy cigarette. The gas industry has been studying well leakage, water contamination, all these problems for decades. And they’ve come to the conclusion in their own scientific reporting—and we show this in Gasland II—that there is no way to make a leak-proof well. And in fact, their leakage rates are alarming and astounding.

Five percent of all wells leak immediately upon installation, and their cement casings fail. And 50 percent of them leak over a 30-year period. It’s the industry’s own science.

So, in the same way that the tobacco industry had these memos in their drawers that said, “Oh, we knew all along that nicotine’s addictive and that tobacco’s harmful,” the gas industry has their own research. And some of that stuff has been published, even. It’s not even hidden. Some of it is hidden and we uncover a lot of that material in the new film.

MS: The oil industry made a fake trailer before your new trailer—

JF: The fake trailer is hilarious!

MS: How much do you think they’ve spent?

JF: One of my publicists did at one point estimate hundreds of millions of dollars to try to change the message. It goes from the sublime to the ridiculous, but that stuff I don’t worry about as much.

What I worry about right now is a different tactic from oil and gas, which is the reasonable voice. It reminds me a lot of those liberals who came out and said that the Iraq war was a good idea, back in [2003]. There were these people who said, “Oh, yes, well, we should go along,” and 10 years later they’re like, “Oh, we made a big mistake.”

It’s this idea of safe fracking and that we can regulate it, this idea that like Gov. Frackenlooper said, “You can drink fracking fluid,” which he had to retract. There is no such thing as nontoxic fracking fluid. It doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as a leak-proof well. It doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as safe fracking. It doesn’t exist.

Unfortunately, governors that lie about the issue do exist.

MS: So what do you say to people who insist that there is no credible evidence of the dangers of fracking? What’s your best, most irrefutable data, your strongest argument, your best proof on your side?

JF: This is not even a question of proof. You look out there—and I’ve been to 25 states and all over the world investigating this issue—the contamination is clear from all the reporting. The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica, there are thousands of pages written on the contamination. Anyone who’s saying it doesn’t exist is living on a slightly different planet.

But the best evidence of why these things are happening comes from the gas industry itself. Their own reports, which are featured in Gasland II. We know it is happening, and the first film is evidence of that. All the reporting is evidence of that. All those people are evidence of that ...

And a lot of this has to do with PR. Who can win the PR war ... and all I’m trying to say is, “Look at this reporting. Look at what’s actually being wrought on these people.” And it’s not a small number of people. Finding contamination cases making the first Gasland was not difficult at all.

MS: The EPA released its first progress report in December 2012 on its two-year study of potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water, with a final draft promised by 2014. What do you think of that report so far?

JF: I haven’t seen the progress report. The EPA would be in conflict with their own findings on several occasions if they were to come out and give fracking a clean bill of health.

One of the first interviews I did was with Weston Wilson; we know him as Weston Wilson the Whistleblower, in Region 8 offices at EPA. He blew the whistle on a 2004 report by EPA which said, “Yes, we’re injecting toxic material into the ground but it is no risk.” [Laughs.]

A December anti-fracking rally in Colorado Springs - COURTESY IMAGE
  • Courtesy image
  • A December anti-fracking rally in Colorado Springs

He said it was an Orwellian world. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen, and you’ll see demonstrated in Gasland II, is that the EPA is subject to the same political pressures as any of our state agencies are. And that the industry has an incredible grip on our regulatory agencies.

In Pennsylvania, [in] the public accountability initiative report ... called “Fracking and the Revolving Door in Pennsylvania,” they examine all the people who are supposed to be regulating on behalf of the citizens, and they said it’s had a corrupting effect and that the industry has captured the regulatory agencies that are supposed to represent the citizens. It does not mince words. And we’re seeing the same situation over and over again.

Dave Neslin, of the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission [COGCC] ... first said we could have an interview and then chickened out when he saw our release form and walked out in the middle of Gasland I. His own agency has confirmed time after time after time in their 2010 groundwater report instances of groundwater contamination due to drilling and fracking all throughout Colorado. If you look at the 2010 groundwater report from the COGCC, it is very clear about all the contamination that’s occurring from abandoned wells, cement problems and other issues.

This man left the COGCC to work for a firm that represents Encana. Encana is a subject of EPA’s Region 8 investigation in Wyoming. It’s unconscionable. You can’t switch sides from representing the people to representing the industry, unless you’re motivated by one thing.

MS: The Obama administration is supposed to issue new fracking regulations any day now. [It did May 16, to criticism from both sides.] What do you expect from it?

JF: The Obama administration has clearly embraced natural gas ... there were natural-gas talking points in the State of the Union address. I don’t think they did that with good science, with an eye toward the brilliant reporting that’s happened. I don’t think they did that with the idea of good government in mind. And one of the things that we’d like to do is reach out to President Obama and say, “Your base is not with you on your position on natural gas, you need to do what we elected you to do.”

I was campaigning door to door in the Pennsylvania primary in Wayne County, Pa., knocking on doors for President Obama in April 2008. And many of my colleagues obviously preferred him to the opposition in the last election. But he needs to go ahead and represent the people who elected him.

They’ve gotta start paying attention. This issue is not going away. When we talk about Frack Colorado, Frack Pennsylvania, Frack California, Frack New York, what we’re talking about is tying ourselves into another 30 to 50 years of dependency on the same old oil companies that are doing the fracking. This is Royal Dutch Shell, this is Exxon. These are the guys who have been playing with our purse strings.

Once they start exporting natural gas, we’re going to be subject to the same international pricing pressures we are with oil. And those multinationals who are not Americans, they’re multinationals with investors from China and all over the world, those are the guys who are now going to be controlling how much you have to pay for your energy.

MS: I see Smokey the Bear has been co-opted by someone in an anti-fracking ad that reads, “Only you can prevent faucet fires”—

JF: Yeah, I love that. I bought one of those shirts.

MS: Have you heard any blowback from that? Is the Forest Service upset about it?

JF: You can’t frack the forest. I mean, come on. If we can’t prevent faucet fires—if they start fracking in the forest, you’re gonna have forest fires. I mean, I think it’s [laughs]—it’s one of my favorite things.

It was in Albany. I saw the artist who’d created that and she only had red and green T-shirts, and I said, “You made an activist T-shirt and you didn’t make a black one?”

And she said, “I’ll make you a black one.” And I said, “I’ll buy three.”

Smokey should come out against [fracking] for real. Smokey as a fracktivist makes a lot of sense.

MS: I was reading one review of the film—

JF: I don’t read reviews.

MS: Well, this person said, “Although the film is about fracking, its deeper subject is America in the early 21st century. What used to happen in the faraway Third World or indigenous regions, is now going on in the U.S. Call it karma ... seducing the populace with promises of ‘energy independence,’ a government that once vaunted democracy as its prime export now disenfranchises citizens.” Unless you don’t care to give away too much of the film content, can you elaborate?

JF: OK, the fossil-fuel industry has always considered a certain element of the population expendable. Those expendable people have been in Nigeria, in West Virginia, on the Western Slope of Colorado. Those are the people who are allowed by them and by a lot of governments to be poisoned and destroyed.

A scene from the movie "Gasland" - COURTESY IMAGE
  • Courtesy image
  • A scene from the movie "Gasland"

When you look at the map of ... shale plates all over America, the area of people being considered expendable by the fossil-fuel industry has expanded to a lot of new places. You’re seeing those people who are not used to being treated that way. You could call it exploitation models deployed in the developing world, you could call it an exploitation model deployed in West Virginia, but that’s their M.O. That’s the way they treat people. Like, “How did our gas get under their mountains?”

And let’s move them aside, and what you’re seeing is an equal and opposite reaction, like a Newtonian political equation. ...


And it’s a stand-and-be-counted moment. For the president, for all the other elected officials that are involved in this debate, I urge them, please, we are here to work with you, we want you to work with the people. And not with the fossil-fuel industries who had their way with so many at such great expense. These are human-rights issues. These are issues of democracy, and that’s what the new film speaks to. CW

Matthew Schniper is an arts editor at the Colorado Springs Independent and an award-winning restaurant critic and food writer. He also frequently writes about film and sustainability topics. He’s traveled through more than 30 countries and moonlights as a photographer and urban gardener. 

We’re Fracked!

The unique dynamics of hydraulic fracking in Utah.

By Rachel Piper

Though it hasn’t received attention from activists to the level that fracking has in Colorado or tar-sands mines have here (see p. 12), hydraulic fracking is something that’s quietly been happening in Utah for decades.

“The majority of wells in Utah are fracked, which I think is a big surprise to people,” says Steve Bloch, conservation director and attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Almost all the wells in the Uintah Basin are fracked for both oil and gas.”

Melanie Martin, an activist with Peaceful Uprising and Utah Tar Sands Resistance, says that while fracking is on their radar, local activist groups “have their hands full with a campaign to stop tar-sands mining from beginning in the U.S.

“Peaceful Uprising and Utah Tar Sands Resistance stand in solidarity with communities across the West and across the nation that are resisting fracking,” Martin says via e-mail to City Weekly. “It’s an incredibly dangerous practice that jeopardizes human health.”

Jim Springer, of the Utah Division of Oil, Gas & Mining, says that Utah has “strict regulations that govern the use of hydraulic fracturing. It’s been an effective process in the state for more than 50 years, and it’s never jeopardized the environment or public health.”

The remote location of most of Utah’s wells, Bloch says, is “for sure” one of the reasons that fracking flies under the radar in Utah. “We don’t see the same kind of high-profile role that fracking is taking in these other Western states, like the Front Range of Colorado, and cities like Longmont and Fort Collins that are looking to ban fracking, or back east, where they’re fracking in an area where people are getting their water from groundwells.”

Springer says, however, that Utah does drill near populated areas, especially in the Uintah Basin, “what makes it safe is it takes place at a depth far underground.”

Unlike some places in Pennsylvania and New York, Springer says, Utah has few places that would be classified as shale areas, so “most of our oil and natural-gas wells are well below any problem, usually in the neighborhood of more than a mile deep. There are thousands of feet of impenetrable rock separating the fracking fluid from any drinking water or aquifers.”

One of the biggest concerns raised by activists has been drill and well leakage. Josh Fox says that 5 percent of all wells leak immediately after installation, and 50 percent leak over the course of 30 years.

“Obviously, any time you drill a hole into the ground, into a natural-gas formation and so forth, there’s going to be a certain amount of that product that reaches the surface or goes into the air. That’s just a natural part of the process,” Springer says. “Sometimes, there’s leakage from wells. Sometimes that’s surface leakage; those are monitored and reported by the companies, and cleaned up. They present no long-term hazard. Oil is a natural substance.”

But Bloch points to Pavilion, Wyo., where the Environmental Protection Agency has preliminarily linked fracking to contamination of groundwater. A December report detected “synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids, benzene concentrations well above Safe Drinking Water Act standards and high methane levels” in the water table.

Springer says the division occasionally does receive complaints from locals saying that their drinking water has been contaminated. All reports are investigated, and “we have never found a case where that has been ... contamination due to the drilling.” For example, he cites an investigation into a complaint from a rancher that his well had been contaminated. The investigation found that the rancher’s septic tank was leaking into his water system.

“There’s not a single case of [fracking] being traced to groundwater contamination,” in Utah or the nation, he says.

“I think what happens is, this sort of thing gets brought to the public attention, it becomes an emotional issue, a lot of people don’t really investigate it or understand it ... and they leap to conclusions that are usually faulty,” Springer says.

Bloch says that Utahns in areas close to fracking are becoming more concerned about it as development continues to grow. “Folks want answers as to what the chemicals are, what the health risks are,” he says. “I think those are entirely legitimate questions to be asking; I just think it has to be viewed through the lens that there’s been a lot of fracking happening here for a long time.”