It is happening all across America – rural landowners wake up one day to find a lucrative offer from an energy company wanting to lease their property. Reason? The company hopes to tap into a reservoir dubbed the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas." Halliburton developed a way to get the gas out of the ground-a hydraulic drilling process called 'fracking' – and suddenly America finds itself on the precipice of becoming an energy superpower.
Water bursting into flames, people felled by mysterious afflictions, corporate malfeasance: Josh Fox’s GasLand is neither a horror film nor a paranoid thriller, but it’s one of the scariest movies of the year. A low-budget, first person independent documentary, the movie is about the allegedly extensive and officially ignored environmental impact felt across a swathe of middle America following the drilling and extraction of natural gas reserves. It will make you think twice about basic fundamentals we take for granted, and remind you how persuasive the cinema can be.
Fox, an amiable if halting presence, comes to the story via a letter sent to him in May 2008 at his rural home in the woods of Pennsylvania. A corporation wanted to lease his family’s land, for approximately US$100,000, to drill for natural gas. Fox, uncertain of the effects the drilling campaign would have on the pristine environment if he and his neighbours accepted, decided to research the field, traveling first to the nearest current drilling, in another part of Pennsylvania, and then on to the states where the industry has spent more than a decade pockmarking the landscape with facilities.
Fox discovers that natural gas collection relies on hundreds of wells per field, and that each must be repeatedly 'fracked" – a process known as hydraulic fracturing where millions of gallons of chemical-infused water is pumped underground so that rock is fractured and the gas flow is improved. The same process also impacts the natural water table, and Fox is soon meeting people who can’t drink from wells because they’re contaminated, those who attribute extreme ill-health to fumes and spill-off from mining facilities, and people whose tap water becomes a small fireball when exposed to a cigarette lighter.
The film is convincing because incendiary water is more persuasive than a wage drone in a suit issuing a denial; the scientific wherewithal isn’t clear if you believe the film’s opponents. But even with rational skepticism, the results of water samples taken by Fox from various contaminated wells and the sheer scope of what he records is hard to fully discount. It’s interesting to note that as Fox conducts his interviews, the narrative you think of comes from a fictionalised film – Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich – where a corporate cover-up has condemned everyday communities to dangerous ongoing effects.
You think of Erin Brockovich partly because that movie offers a clear narrative and resolution. That’s the nature of Hollywood storytelling, but Fox struggles to get his factual viewpoint beyond the initial shock and fear. As an amateur reporter he gets a laugh by neatly cutting between numerous phone conversations where functionaries and their machines fob him off, but he does it twice in GasLand and the second time falls short because it’s clear he’s struggling for traction. (By contrast he never asks anyone how victims feel having in some cases happily accepted payment to allow this process to commence.)
The facts he does have are generally matters of public record, with the key compromise being the exemption of hydraulic fracturing from the critical Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005. That removed any oversight from organisations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, with responsibility attributed to then U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, who from 1995 to 2000 ran Halliburton, the world’s second largest oil and gas driller. When Cheney is summoned on archival footage (like the Voldemort of left-leaning filmmaking), Fox doesn’t dwell on him, because it makes for an uncomfortable comparison with the accomplished post-2000 works of Michael Moore.
Fox presents himself as a naturalist, akin to a modern day Henry David Thoreau, and that innocence is sometimes at odds with the muggy, ill-defined air of paranoia that lingers amid scenes of surreptitious phone conversations and roughly framed shots of squat storage installations that could be harmful. GasLand is a better warning than a film, if you believe the two can be divided, but as a warning it is loud and timely: natural gas drilling programs are about to be commercialised throughout Queensland and then New South Wales.
'Fracking", in America, places 596 different chemicals in the water, many of which are highly dangerous to humans in even minor doses. GasLand works by effectively reminding you of that in slightly different ways again and again. It’s not subtle, but it’s effective.