PARK CITY, Utah — Josh Fox was a filmmaker living in Pennsylvania when he was offered $100,000 to let a company mine for natural gas on his land. Suspicious of the whole process, Fox investigated natural gas drilling and learned that hydraulic fracturing, the process through which the gas is collected, is terribly damaging to the environment. Fox’s film "Gasland," is about his investigation into the effects of hydraulic fracturing and the people who live with the consequences. Blast got a chance to sit down with Josh Fox at Sundance and talk to him about the dangerous consequences of natural gas drilling, why most people don’t know about it and what drove him to make the film.
Blast: What is Hydraulic Fracturing?
Josh Fox: It’s a technique pioneered by Halliburton and two other companies which causes mini earthquakes under the ground by blasting a mix of water and toxic chemicals at very, very high pressures, and that extracts the natural gas.
Blast: How did you find out about natural gas drilling?
JF: They wanted to drill in my area of Pennsylvania. I was asked to lease my land, which is like 19 acres, which my family got back in the 70’s. We built our own house by hand. I got this lease in the mail, which said I could lease my land for gas drilling and I would make $100,000 right then and potentially a lot more. I was very suspicious of it, but as it turned out most of my whole county was doing this and getting these letters in the mail. My area is a watershed area. It’s part of the whole system that provides 15 million people with water from New York down to Philadelphia and southern New Jersey. So I just started looking into it and found all these potential problems. Basically Dick Cheney and the Republican controlled Congress of 2005 exempted the natural gas industry and specifically the hydraulic fracturing drilling technique from the Safe Drinking Water Act. That was in addition to exemptions they already had from the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
So I said, wait a minute: these drilling companies can come in and do pretty much whatever they want? Then I went about 50 miles away to a town called Dimock, Pa. where there was drilling occurring. It was one of the only places in Pennsylvania near me where drilling was going on, and the place was a disaster area.
Blast: What did you find?
JF: Animals were dying, people were getting sick, and water was contaminated with Natural Gas. There were reports that people could light their water on fire. My mind was blown to pieces. Then I found out that we are actually in the midst of the largest natural gas drilling campaign in history in the United States. They are drilling in 34 states. There are these shale plates all over the country and reports were coming back and I was reading a little bit here and a little bit there on the Internet but I couldn’t get a lot of information. What I heard was that other places were having the same problems I saw in Dimock. People could light their water on fire, volatile organic compounds such as benzine toluene and zylene, which were being vented off of the sites and getting into water and people were having real health problems. I found massive industrialization of areas both rural or urban. Dallas-Fort Worth has 10,000 gas wells.
It’s unbelievable the transformation that has happened in Fort Worth over night. I felt like I was standing on the precipice of a cliff where my whole area, upstate New York, The Catskills and Poconos would be upended and also that very few people knew about this because people out west were screaming about it but no one was really listening. And then I basically took my cameras and myself as many places I could. I went to hundreds of drilling sites. I did hundreds of interviews with people in the affected areas from Dallas-Fort Worth to rural Wyoming and found the same story over and over again. Contamination, pollution, health problems — and nobody was listening.
Blast: How was the experience of talking to all these people who have been affected?
JF: The film is my road trip. It’s a road movie. It’s actually kind of fun. I play the banjo so I took the banjo on the road with me and the people who I met were unbelievably inspiring. When you can light your water on fire right out of the sink — the first thing you have to do is laugh. It’s totally absurd. It’s like the world turns upside down for a moment. And then the shock hits you.
Blast: That you were supposed to drink that.
JF: Bathe in it. Drink it. There was an instance where someones lawn was on fire but they couldn’t put it out with their garden hose. So to be here at Sundance is hopefully an opportunity to get this issue much more into the public eye. I think we have created a movie that’s really fascinating,and they’ve taken it here, which means it’s ok.
Blast: I read about the FRAC Act. Will that help?
JF: The FRAC Act is one page long and all it does is take out the exemption for hydraulic fracturing in the safe Drinking water Act. That exemption was $100 million worth of lobbying by the industry, it was aggressively pursued by Dick Cheney and the energy task force and what it effectively did was take the EPA completely off the job. When I talked to someone who worked at the EPA, he said that basically we are asleep at the wheel. No one is looking into this. And you know under the ground is a very complex, beautifully designed system that keeps things separated. It keeps bacteria out of water. It keeps heavy metals out of things we need to eat. It’s this amazing system. When you go ahead and start pulverizing it over and over again you intermingle those layers. You are going to get toxins in all the things that allow us to be alive. In addition to the fact that when they do the fracking, they use something called fracking fluid. There are 596 different chemicals that go into that mixture.
Blast: I saw that Radon was in there?
JF: Well, you know, there are 596 different chemicals and 900 different products. Half of those are proprietary, meaning they are like the special sauce for MacDonald’s Big Mac or whatever — you can’t know what’s in them. They can use toxic chemicals and not tell you what they are and then basically inject them into the ground. But the ones we do know are pretty bad. In the Pennsylvania’s DEP website it says 300,000 gallons of gluteraldahide are used per frack. Gluterahdahide is a dental disinfectant. It’s like the stuff that kills everything. You don’t want to drink it. It’s like drinking Drano. You are injecting that into the ground, into or adjacent to underground drinking water supplies. That creates a myriad of problems. And that is what I discover in the film. It’s like a detective mission. No one is talking about it.
Blast: What other harmful effects does the drilling have besides the affects it has on our water supply?
JF: When you create this level of drilling, you are creating a level of industrial air pollution that I cant imagine it won’t affect Massachusetts. It’s not far from the Berkshires. It’s not far from that area in upstate New York. In Dallas Fort-Worth where I mentioned, there are 10,000 gas wells drilling alone. The drilling process alone burns a lot of diesel; a lot of gas is released which creates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars and trucks in the Dallas Fort-Worth metroplex, and that is the fourth largest city in America. So it’s like building another Dallas Fort-Worth 50 miles away. That air pollution is going to migrate.
Blast: In these situations, you often hear companies like Halliburton using the argument that "there is no definitive proof we are harming the environment." What else could be causing it?
JF: It’s a chicken or the egg situation. You need expertise to determine that. Expertise only the EPA is qualified to give. You need really qualified hydro-geologists; you need surveys done; you need to find where things are migrating. If gas is migrating into the water supply, where is it coming from? It is a very hard thing to track. So when you take the EPA off the watch, then you have very few inspectors…most of the states’ Departments of Environmental Protection cant handle this. It is too big a job when you are talking about drilling campaigns of this size. You basically can’t have proof because you have no science. There is nothing happening. All the data stopped once that 2005 exemption went through. We ceased to know what was going on underground. So to say there has been no proof is because there has been no investigation.
Blast: Where is the proof coming from?
JF: We have the first level of proof, and that’s what people are saying on the ground. Thousands and thousands of people in these areas cant be wrong if they are in different, disparate areas not communicating with each other, and the only thing that they have in common is that companies are doing hydraulic fracturing. That’s one level of proof to me. That’s the human element. That’s number one. Number two is that we have their water tests. The burden of proof in 2005 shifted to the citizens. We need to look at their individually done water tests. We have all these independent studies. Someone has to look into that. Journalists have to look into that. I’ve looked into it; that’s what is in the film. We also have a few select cases where the EPA has started to get involved. There is only one place that I know of. In Pavilion Wyoming. During the Obama administration these guys out in Pavilion kicked and screamed and got (the EPA) to come out there. The EPA tested 44 water wells in one area and 13 came up with contamination of either fracking chemicals or methane. So there are the beginnings of what everyone expected to be true.
Of course when you are dealing with massive corporations with hundreds and hundreds of lawyers…even if you have the most concrete proof, they are going to contest it. In that case it’s one person or a class action suit of 20 to 50 people versus a mega corporation.
But if one guy can go out there with a camera in a couple of months of filming and uncover this many stories that are in the movie, what is the whole range of what is happening out there? You can’t administer a drilling campaign that drills 400,000 wells in America and 200,000 more projected in just the east coast alone without significant environmental damage being done. It’s a no-brainer.
Blast: It is so widespread and it is kind of baffling because until I heard about your film I had never even heard of natural gas drilling.
JF: Amazing. I don’t know why either.
Blast: The companies must be very good at keeping the whole thing quiet.
JF: They are. If you go on CNN or MSNBC, or you pick up a magazine, you see Natural Gas as a clean-burning solution to our fuel problem. They have done an amazing job of positioning themselves as a green fuel. But it’s a fossil fuel. It involves an incredibly polluting extracting process. It’s carbon emissions. It is all the same stuff that we are trying to get away from for all these different reasons. What you have here is a nightmare of total deregulation, air pollution, water pollution, health problems and the upending of our legal system in order to do all this stuff that contributes to climate change.
It makes no sense and for me personally and a lot of people involved in the film, it’s our homes on the line. If this goes through, I will not be able to live in the place that my family built because the risk of exposing myself to those things in the air and the water, I know what they are. I am one of the people that does know. I have talked to the people who have lived in the toxic clouds. The people who have the brain lesions and the sever neuropathies. Our land would be worthless. Nobody would buy it. It’s basically a nightmare.
Blast: The fact that you are not just talking about the drilling itself, but the fact that you are also talking about having to transport these dangerous chemicals to the sites and then dispose of them somewhere is just as scary.
JF: This is the other thing. The drilling process itself uses 1 to 7 million gallons of water per well dug or per well fracked. And you can frack each one of these wells 18 times and because it is this unconventional drilling, you have to frack it a lot. You have to bust it apart a lot to get the gas out. That water is all going to be toxic waste. If you do the math, with 450,000 wells, which exist now, you do 18 fracks a well, you have something like 40 trillion gallons of toxic waste. Where is it all going? There are very few water treatment facilities that can actually deal with that much waste. In the film we show them spraying it on roads. Dumping it illegally in certain places and injecting it back underneath the ground via injection wells. I have seen it in big open pits. I have seen it sprayed up into the air via evaporation sprayers which causes it to evaporate quickly in sunlight and that just rains back down onto the ground. These are the techniques being used to dispose of this fracking waste. Isn’t that great? Lets just take all these toxins and put them as many places as we can all over America. It’s mindboggling.
Blast: How can these companies do that kind of stuff? It’s so shortsighted and mercenary to say, "Well we’re making money now, who cares about 20 or 50 years from now." Did you talk to anyone who could talk about the mindset of these companies?
JF: I can’t conjecture as to what they are thinking, but I do know that this is short-term profit in expense of our long-term health and cleanliness of the whole country. I am astounded, and yet we have failed at coming up with sustainable models for anything. It just really calls all that stuff into question. The whole idea of energy independence is here. They are saying this is our domestic source of energy. Well I’ll tell you the only energy independence is renewable energy. That is the only way to go. And we have the technology right now. Instead of transitioning to natural gas we could transition to wind, we could transition to solar, we could transition to a whole portfolio of things that do not pollute the ground in the way that the drilling does. I don’t know what they are thinking in terms of long-term contamination. If history proves any example here, and you look at Louisiana where you have oil refineries and gas refineries for 60 years. All of that drilling and refining waste has been dumped into the Gulf of Mexico for decades. You have mercury ratings off the charts in the fish in the Gulf. When Katrina and Rita came through it dumped all that stuff right back onto land. The storm surge was full of all these chemicals, the waste of 60 years. Typically the companies get their resource and leave the site however they feel like it. It’s for the next generation to clean up. Their costs are externalized onto the landscape.
Blast: How has the whole issue over the environment become a partisan one?
JF: It’s not partisan. It shouldn’t be. This is a basic human issue.
Blast: Is it the best thing for the companies to make it a partisan issue because it gives them more cover?
JF: I don’t even think the Democrats are aware about what a major issue this is. You have a lot of Democrats talking about how great natural gas is. It has got the feeling of partisanship even though the proponents of natural gas are bipartisan. So at this moment of real economic hardship taking the easy money for states and people is one way out of the total chaos of this moment, economically speaking. But you are digging your own grave I think. You are making things way worse.
Blast: You have states taking money for the use of state land and it’s got to be tough for them to turn those opportunities down.
JF: We have got to do better. This is the same old refrain from guys saying it is a new technique that is not that invasive. It was the same refrain with mountain top removal and for the classic fossil fuels. The main thing here is that the drilling technique is claimed to be safe and it’s not. The chemicals are claimed to be safe and they are not. It’s like driving a car without seatbelts, without a windshield, without crash test ratings without a roll bar. You would never do this. If the airline industry reported as many problems as the gas industry no one would ever go near an airplane.
Blast: In his opening press conference Robert Redford talked about documentaries and how they are becoming more important because there is all this media out there now and kids aren’t reading as much so maybe they will respond to a movie. How important do you think documentaries?
JF: When you are making a movie, you are able to do things that are fun. You are able to present information in a way that is thrilling or humorous. Documentaries are the backbone of our journalism right now I think. I am not a documentarian. This is the only documentary I’ve made. It may be the only one I ever make. I am a narrative filmmaker. I felt that this project was forced upon me in a lot of ways because this is the way the world works now. This is the way you can get information out. You have to hear from these people. This is the way for me to tell their stories. The cowboys in Wyoming or the people living in suburbia in Colorado. It is amazingly compelling stuff. For them to be able to speak directly to an audience, I think, that is part of it.