Gasland: Anti-oil, gas film compels with real people, false assertions

The Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland follows Josh Fox, a film director and possible Pennsylvania royalty landowner, through a cross-country trek to meet other landowners in heavily industrialized oil and gas industry states to see why he should (or mostly shouldn’t) sign the lease to allow Cabot Oil & Gas to drill for natural gas on his home’s 15 acres.

Gasland reviewThe documentary has an interesting storyline and instead of it being a documentary that only slams the oil and gas industry, (yes, it definitely does that), it also has a compelling story behind it tied to Fox’s birth year, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger’s rendition of “This Land is Your Land” as a social protest, and his deep tie to the large stream running behind his house.

As a broad way of review, if you knew nothing of how the oil and gas industry works and the history behind how they do what they do, you would be clearly irked, as was my husband who knows nothing, and think that oil and gas companies are the shadiest businesses around after watching even the first 20 minutes of the documentary.

Even if you know how the industry works and some of the background behind its practices, like me, you may be ruffled after watching the nearly two-hour film. For those that actually do hydraulic fracturing for their wells, this entire documentary may be rubbish, I don’t know.

Fox narrates a question posed something like this for the basis of the film: What would it look like if we embraced natural gas as the future of our energy?

While a very good question, this picture of what it could look like (or does according to Fox) is one-sided and doesn’t bring the industry’s side into it at all. In the documentary it appears that no one from Halliburton to Chesapeake Energy to Cabot Oil & Gas or T. Boone Pickens would respond to his request for an interview. Whether it happened like that or not, I don’t know, but it clearly is missing any kind of objectivity without the oil and gas’ side.

One of the biggest parts of this debate about the safety of hydraulic fracturing in the media and political realm today, is that those against the industry claim that it is exempt from all environmental laws protecting the earth such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Superfund Act, etc., while those in the oil and gas industry try to explain that it isn’t true.

I covered this word debate regarding “exempt” a bit in my previous post, but how I understand it, is the industry is not exempt as environmentalists and the media claim. The industry is still regulated under the same federal laws as other industries, but only the parts that are relevant to oil and gas operations applicable, and that the Safe Drinking Water Act is not applicable to hydraulic fracturing in this sense. This supposed “loophole” all stemmed from the legal battle between LEAF and the EPA in 1997 over who should regulate hydraulic fracturing in Alabama and whether it was breaking the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The chemicals involved

At first the documentary attacks the process and method of hydraulic fracturing by describing it as “a mixture of water and chemicals being injected into the ground” and describes it as a mini-earthquake. Fox soon after says it’s also a mixture of 596 chemicals in the fracing fluid. Even though I’ve never been on a frac job or worked in the field of the oil and gas industry, I know there are not 596 chemicals involved in hydraulic fracturing. He appears to get his number from Dr. Theo Colborn, an environmental health analyst who focuses her endocrine research on the hazards of low concentration chemicals and its effects on humans and the environment, who claims to have identified these 596 chemicals in water samples of fracing fluid. (which is since up to 944 chemicals on Gasland’s website)

At the time when this documentary was filmed, it is my understanding that the names of chemicals that made up the hydraulic fracturing fluid were not often released because they were considered a proprietary secret. Since then, large corporations have begun posting what chemicals are used voluntary, and in addition many states are now requiring them by law to disclose them as well.

Wasting all the country’s water

The second point that Fox brings up in his documentary is the vast amount of water used in the hydraulic fracturing process. It’s true that millions of gallons are used during the process when fracing a well, and Fox hypes that point up over and over as he adds up how many millions and billions of gallons of water that have been used since wells began to be hydraulically fractured in 1949. What he fails to point out, is how other industries use water as well. Put into perspective, as many oil and gas proponents have already done, it isn’t an insane amount of water as it seems on screen.

Energy In Depth, (EID) the industry’s watchdog association made up of oil and gas producers across the country and affiliated with the state’s individual oil and gas associations, writes on its site that golf courses use 1.5 million gallons of water every five days – whereas a frac job uses 1-5 million gallons per frac job (which is typically one to several per well, depending on if it’s a horizontal or vertical well).

Once you get past the first 10-15 minutes of the movie jumping around from image to image with a voiceover on top, the film itself is actually quite captivating, as much as it pains me to admit it. I found myself wrapped up in the dialogue and disturbing graphics and interviews with landowners, whether any of it was true or not.

Many of these points I bring up here were refuted with documentation by EID and I’ll discuss what they refuted. You can read their entire claims here. Some are simply observations from the top of my head that I’d like to discuss with oil and gas producers who regularly deal with hydraulic fracturing in an upcoming question and answer post because they, more than anyone, would know the facts about how hydraulic fracturing really works.

Who is responsible?

The one part of the film that I can’t get past is that in the documentary, no one involved in the oil and gas industry would drink the water offered to them from the homes of landowners whose water was clearly mucked up with something. All landowners, especially in Dimock, Pa. where the film begins, went on record for the documentary and said that the changes for worse to their water took place after drilling happened near or on their land. If nothing was wrong with their water according to oil and gas companies and the state agencies, why would no one drink it and water have to be hauled in?

If something clearly did happen to a landowner’s water supply – whether it can be clearly attributed to oil and gas drilling or hydraulic fracturing or not, who is responsible? It isn’t the fault of the landowners, obviously, but who takes care of them and their right to clean water if something happens? I haven’t found an answer yet, but I’ll keep looking.

Lighting water on fire

The films biggest draw for those watching the documentary is when homeowners begin lighting their water on fire. In researching hydraulic fracturing, I’ve come across these terms often: biogenic and thermogenic gas – and the difference in when one comes from oil and gas drilling or not. For many of the homes on the film, biogenic gas, naturally occurring methane gas underground, is to blame for being able to light the water on fire.

I’m not going to delve into a bunch of science because I hated it so much in school, but apparently there is a chemical makeup that is different between these two gases, with thermogenic gas appearing as a result of drilling and biogenic not.

The EID explains some of the differences and what the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission found for these homes in their Debunking Gasland website.

As Rhonda Reda, executive director of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program, explained at a recent Ravenna Tea Party for oil & gas in Ohio a few weeks ago, “No, your water can’t catch fire from hydraulic fracturing. There is a natural gas that occurs in your water. You can’t drink natural gas. It immediately dissipates. You need oxygen and an ignition source and that’s why you can see some faucets on fire, but you’re not drinking that and it is not from hydraulic fracturing.”

Chemical burns

Fox asserts near the beginning of the film that a “cover-up” is taking place and that he’s heard throughout his travels of employees of oil and gas drilling companies who often have terrible chemical burns on their hands and face after dealing with hydraulic fracturing fluids and the waste water that’s salvaged afterwards.

I found this statement fascinating, as I’ve never heard of chemical burns as a result of handling fluids ever, nor could I find any correlating evidence that this had happened. I imagine that with all the media hype hydraulic fracturing is getting in general, that if there were chemical burns as a result of this process, the media would be all over it. Am I missing something here?

Weston Wilson

I’m not quite sure what to write about the infamous “whistle-blower” at the EPA, Weston Wilson. He has long fought the results of the 2004 EPA study that cleared hydraulic fracturing as being unsafe or that it contaminates water supplies, and he goes on record again for this documentary that hydraulic fracturing is unsafe, that the EPA got it wrong in 2004 and those on the committee were terribly biased and that “the oil and gas industry has had 100 years of purchasing those they’ve contaminated.”

This statement irked me as it makes the entire industry sound cavalier and unaffected by the industry in which they work. As a whole, I think most producers produce and drill in the areas which they live. Granted, many do go across country and lease in other states, but I think the majority also drill in their own communities. Oil and gas companies have a million reasons with which to drill safely and responsibly, one of the biggest reasons being because it would affect their own homes, families, friends, neighbors, etc. if a well was jacked up that they drilled in their hometown.

If the oil and gas industry is as money-hungry and ruthless as this documentary makes them out to be, then we have millions of moral-less and soulless people in our country, and for the hundreds that I’ve met and worked with for my job here, I can say that is absolutely not true.

These oil and gas producers care about what they do and are proud of the way they complete their job safely and responsibly.

Flowback pits

Fox stands in front of a pit in Wyoming wearing a gas mask and playing his banjo. Why his banjo is such a prominent feature in the documentary, I don’t know. But nonetheless it sets the tone for this section as he plays and has a voiceover for how terrible these pits are. The film shows a large pit filled with dirty water and covered with flag banners like you would see at a used car dealership. Fox wears a gas mask throughout this portion of the film and narrates how the “toxic wastes” are seeping back into the land to contaminate the earth and water from the pits, as well as causing air pollution and endangering animals and entire species.

I was glad to see that EID refuted this in their document, but I also know from reading some of the regulations myself that each state has strict laws and mandates for how all parts of a well should be built, cased, sealed, drilled, plugged, reclaimed and importantly for this point, how the pits should be built and maintained, including using steel storage tanks to store the waste water when possible.

Other points

There are so many other points that I could discuss about this documentary, but I’ll just sum them up instead for lack of space.

– Fox claims hydraulic fracturing inserts large quantities of toxic chemicals directly into the water tables, which he continues to assert on his counter-attack document to the EID’s Debunking Gasland website. If you’ve learned nothing about hydraulic fracturing so far in the past few posts, it’s that it definitely is not injected anywhere near water supplies.


– The film shows how hydraulic fracturing is popular in southern states such as Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, and then the film voices over, “and now they are coming east.” Hydraulic fracturing is not taking over the country. It’s already used across the country in all 27 states that produce oil and gas and is used on 90 percent of wells drilled. It’s a fact of life in the drilling world and one that’s been well documented and practiced more than one million times since it was first started in 1949.


– The last part of the film focuses on air pollution, which I have not had the time or resources to appropriately research. Since the biggest debate today remains on safe water to drink, I’m going to ignore the air pollution parts until I can further research it and know what I’m talking about.


– Fox attributes a 35-mile stretch of dead fish in Dunkard Creek, Pa., to natural gas development, even though it was investigated and discovered prior to the taping of his documentary that it was not a result of any oil or gas development, but because of an algal bloom that led to the fish kill. You can read the state’s interim report here by Louis Reynolds.


– Fox suggests that hydraulic fracturing shouldn’t occur because some of the chemicals are left in the ground that can’t be recovered. Chris Perry, a geologist from the Ohio Department of Mineral and Resources Management, explained at the same tea party Reda spoke at several weeks ago how the ground is the perfect place to store “hazardous” or unwanted materials. In discussing the chemicals found in hydraulic fracturing fluid he said, “Most of these chemicals are very common and found in materials used in your house, and very few are considered hazardous.

“The fact that they are thousands and thousands of feet underground, even if they were hazardous, puts them far out of reach as them being accessible to us or for us to ever be exposed to them. Typically deep geological formations make an excellent place to get rid of things that you don’t want,” Perry said.

He spent a lot of time studying where to store nuclear wastes deeply underground earlier in his career and said, “Myself and other geologists feel it is an excellent place to put those things to protect people for a long, long time.”

Final thoughts

Throughout the course of a week or so that I’ve taken to digest the documentary and come up with some rational conclusions, I’ve decided that no energy source is going to perfect. With that said, there are also no industries where accidents do not occur and where rules are always followed, and I’m not saying it as an excuse, but as a fact.

I believe the oil and gas industry as a whole has a very good handle on how to safely extract and drill for oil and gas in our country. They’ve been drilling for hundreds of years and now have the technology and innovations to keep making it safer. The country’s need for fossil fuels is not going to diminish quickly for alternative sources such as wind and solar, no matter how hard everyone tries to become green today. I believe it’s not only economical, but also a safe method of drilling that should not be shut down by environmentalist groups and an ill-informed public based on very slanted documentaries.

While some things in this documentary may be true and many false, I don’t believe that the industry as a whole is negligent. If there are problems with the drilling process or something happens to the water or land where oil or gas is drilled, however, I do think that the oil and gas companies should take responsibility and take care of the landowner. This documentary is slanted enough and with enough false assertions to make me questions its legitimacy, although it did raise a few good points.

Josh Fox’ goal is to shut down the oil and gas industry by banning hydraulic fracturing. While I don’t think this is necessary, I do think that the oil and gas industry has room for improvement and can continue to improve its 1) drilling methods and techniques to find safer alternatives that don’t use toxic chemicals when possible, like Halliburton has created with its CleanSuite technology; 2)the industry can amp up its efforts to educate the public on how the process really works for operating, drilling and using hydraulic fracturing on wells so that documentaries, environmental protests and city hall meetings aren’t their only source of information and 3)that the industry as a whole can address who takes responsibility when something does happen to groundwater.

You can watch for yourself and read the debating “debunking” documents released by both the EID and Gasland producers to decide for yourself what the truth is with hydraulic fracturing, as Fox urges watchers to do at the end of his film. It is showing on HBO throughout this year and showing at other random locations across the country for those that decide to host a screening. Let me know what you thought of the film!


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