Gasland

Gasland is a 2010 American documentary written and directed by Josh Fox. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2011, the film focuses on communities in the United States impacted by natural gas drilling and, specifically, a method of horizontal drilling into shale formations known as slickwater fracking.

Fox narrates his reception of a letter in May, 2008, from a natural gas company offering to lease his family’s land in Milanville, Pennsylvania for $100,000 to drill for gas. This claim has been challenged by Energy In Depth, which has stated that the lease to which Fox refers in the movie was never offered and did not provide a $100,000 offer. Fox then set out to see how communities are being affected in the west where a natural gas drilling boom has been underway for the last decade. He spent time with citizens in their homes and on their land as they relayed their stories of natural gas drilling in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Texas, among others. He spoke with residents who have experienced a variety of chronic health problems directly traceable to contamination of their air, of their water wells or of surface water. In some instances, the residents are reporting that they obtained a court injunction or settlement monies from gas companies to replace the affected water supplies with potable water or water purification kits.

Throughout the documentary, Fox reached out to scientists, politicians and gas industry executives and ultimately found himself in the halls of Congress as a subcommittee was discussing the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, “a bill to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to repeal a certain exemption for hydraulic fracturing.” Hydraulic fracturing was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Production

Gasland was conceived, directed, primarily filmed and narrated by Fox. This is his first documentary and second film; his first was a narrative feature entitled Memorial Day. The executive producers of Gasland are Debra Winger and Hunter Gray; producers are Trish Adlesic, Fox and Molly Gandour; co-produced by David Roma; cinematographers are Fox and Matthew Sanchez; editor is Matthew Sanchez; supervising sound editor is Brian Scibinico; animators are Juan Cardarelli and Alex Tyson; consultants are Morgan Jenness and Henry Chalfant and researchers are Molly Gandour, Barbara Arindell, Fox and Joe Levine.

The documentary was made in about eighteen months. Fox began the project as a one man crew, but was joined by three other cameras at different points. Matt Sanchez is credited with the structure of the film and together with Fox edited roughly 200 hours of footage to about 100 minutes.

“Biogenic” and “thermogenic”

Dave Neslin and the State of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources issued a statement regarding “errors in the film’s portrayal of the Colorado incidents.” Neslin, now of David Graham and Stubs LLP, was approached but not included in the film. His statement focuses in part on a distinction between biogenic and thermogenic gas:

Biogenic gas is made by microbes, near the surface and often in marshy areas, and is predominantly methane (CH4).

Thermogenic gas is made by heat and pressure, and contains a mixture of light and heavy hydrocarbons. Shale is often in large slanted formations, so may be deep underground or at the surface.

Since the gas is sampled at some unknown distance from the source of the contamination, the mixture of gases in the sample is often not conclusive. In this case, carbon dating and similar techniques are used to determine the age of the sample. Biogenic methane is young: the molecule was recently put together. Thermogenic methane is old.

Thermogenic argument

Regarding the Ellsworths—The COGCC concluded that a well belonging to Weld County landowners Jesse and Amee Ellsworth, also featured in the film, contained thermogenic methane that was attributable to oil and gas activity in the area. The report states that Mrs. Ellsworth and an operator in the area had reached a settlement in that case. The Ellsworths live in the “red zone”;[12] in an area on the map where there is a large cluster of red dots, where each dot represents a well.

The biogenic argument

Regarding Mike Markham—In a scene from the film, Weld County landowner Mike Markham is shown with the film’s director Josh Fox igniting gas from a well water faucet in his home with a cigarette lighter, which the film attributes to natural gas exploration in the area. In 2008, The Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) investigated a complaint made by Markham alleging that nearby natural gas operations impacted his domestic water well. A Colorado Oil and Gas Information System (COGIS) report stated that Markham’s water “appears to be biogenic in origin.”

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission uses the origin of the methane, either biogenic or thermogenic, to determine whether or not the groundwater contamination can be attributed to natural gas drilling. According to the agency, natural gas drilling does not lead to the presence of biogenic methane. The 2008 COGIS report concluded that “there [were] no indications of oil and gas related impacts to [Markham’s] water well.” Markham’s water well was drilled through four different coal beds containing biogenic methane gas.

Regarding Renee McClure—COGCC similarly reported that the water well belonging to Weld County landowner Renee McClure, also featured in the film, “showed naturally occurring biogenic methane gas” unrelated to oil and gas activity in the area.

Reply to the biogenic argument

Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, D. C. Baum Professor of Engineering at Cornell University, whose research has involved fracture mechanics for more than 30 years, has said that drilling and hydraulic fracturing can liberate biogenic natural gas into a fresh water aquifer. That is, just because gas is biogenic does not necessarily indicate that it reached a well by natural means.

Reception

Robert Koehler of Variety referred to it as “one of the most effective and expressive environmental films of recent years… Gasland may become to the dangers of natural gas drilling what Silent Spring was to DDT.”

Eric Kohn of IndieWire wrote, “Gasland is the paragon of first person activist filmmaking done right… By grounding a massive environmental issue in its personal ramifications, Fox turns Gasland into a remarkably urgent diary of national concerns.”

Stewart Nusbaumer of the Huffington Post wrote “Gasland… just might take you from outrage right into the fire of action.”

Gasland currently holds a 97% rating on the film site Rotten Tomatoes based on 37 reviews. Mark Kermode of BBC Radio 5 Live gave it a generally positive review, criticizing its similarity to other recent oil documentaries, yet praising its “extraordinary visual kick”. He said “it is a very interesting story which is made better by the fact that the visuals of it are very poetic, very lyrical”, and felt that its themes and ideas were relevant and well presented.

The Denton Record Chronicle said “Fox decides that his own backyard in Pennsylvania isn’t his exclusive property… Set to his own banjo music and clever footage, Gasland is both sad and scary… if your soul isn’t moved by the documentary, yours is a heart of shale.”

Bloomberg News critic Dave Shiflett wrote that Fox “may go down in history as the Paul Revere of fracking.”

Chicago TimeOut gave Gasland four out of five stars.

In Australia, film critic Julie Riggs called the documentary a “horror movie, and a wake-up call.”

Fort Worth Business Press writer John-Laurent Tronche talks about the growing number of documentaries “that aim to shed a light on what they call a dirty, destructive practice: shale gas exploration. And although oil and gas supporters have labeled the motion pictures as radical propaganda, a local drilling activist said they’re part of a larger, critical look into an ever-growing industry.”

Negative

Energy in Depth (EiD), launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, has created a web page with a list of claimed factual inaccuracies in the documentary, and produced an associated film titled TruthLand. In response to the EID’s list of claimed factual inaccuracies, the makers of Gasland offered a rebuttal.

In an article for Forbes magazine, Dr. Michael Economides, a professor of engineering at the University of Houston, commented on the Gasland scene of “a man lighting his faucet water on fire and making the ridiculous claim that natural gas drilling is responsible for the incident. The clip, though attention-getting, is wildly inaccurate and irresponsible. To begin with, the vertical depth separation between drinking water aquifers and reservoir targets for gas production is several thousand feet of impermeable rock. Any interchange between the two, if it were possible, would have happened already in geologic time, measured in tens of millions of years, not in recent history.”

In January 2013, independent filmmaker and investigative journalist Phelim McAleer released his Kickstarter-funded FrackNation, a documentary highly critical of Gasland, claiming that Fox knowingly hid relevant information on naturally occurring “burning springs”.

Awards

Won

  • 2011 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming (Josh Fox)
  • 2010 Environmental Media Award for Best Documentary Feature
  • 2010 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize
  • 2010 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival Artistic Vision award
  • 2010 Thin Line Film Festival Audience Award
  • 2010 Yale Environmental Film Festival Grand Jury Prize
  • 2010 Sarasota Film Festival Special Jury Prize

Nominated

  • 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature
  • 2011 Writer’s Guild Award for Best Documentary Screenplay.
  • 2011 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Cinematography for Nonfiction Programming (Josh Fox)
  • 2011 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming (Josh Fox)
  • 2011 Primetime Emmy Award for Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Programming (Josh Fox)