In September 2006, a natural gas drilling company offered Josh Fox $100,000 – a good price at the time – for his family’s property in the pristine Delaware River Basin area in upstate New York. Many neighbours saw the offer as a windfall and accepted, but Fox was less ready to take the bucks and run. The verandah of his family’s rustic cabin overlooks unspoiled forest and a sparkling river – the site of many a childhood adventure, and of the lovingly shot footage with which Fox opens this extremely disturbing documentary.
Armed with a camcorder, he sets off on a journey of investigation across 24 States, seeking out folk who have land adjoining natural gas drilling activity. It soon becomes apparent that gas is far from ‘clean’ – at least, when the fluid hydraulic rock-fracturing process known as ‘fracking’ is used to access shale rock reservoirs deep underground.
Fracking uses a toxic cocktail of non-biodegradable chemicals to assist the drilling, and results in extensive fracturing of subterranean rock. While the gas companies claim that the technology is safe and the environmental impact minimal, the folk Fox interviews tell a very different story.
Dramatic footage is shown of property owners holding cigarette lighters to water taps, which explode in flame as gas is ignited that has seeped into the water supply through fractured bedrock. The artesian water, once potable, is now foul-smelling and contaminated with toxic fallout from the fracking process.
Many people whose health and livelihoods have been ruined refuse Fox’s interview requests because they have been paid settlements by the gas companies, which come with legally binding confidentiality agreements precluding them from commenting publicly on the fracking-related ills that have befallen them. Fox nevertheless mounts a compelling case against the gas companies, allowing his camera to do the talking (along with victims who have refused to sign confidentiality agreements). He confronts us with balding farm animals, residents with undiagnosed symptoms and failing health, poisoned wells with effluent floating in the water – all coinciding with the commencement of fracking in the near vicinity.
The story gets even darker as it is revealed that during the Bush era, legislation was changed to exempt oil and gas exploration and production companies from environmental and water safety regulations. The Environmental Protection Authority is aware of the potentially catastrophic impact of fracking, but is now powerless to act against the perpetrators. And the driving force behind these appalling legislative exemptions? None other than Bush string-puller and bastardo supremo Dick Cheney, former CEO and owner of oil services giant Halliburton.
Unfortunately, the crucially important content of Gasland is compromised by its execution. The camerawork is amateurish, mostly hand-held and positively vertiginous, jumping around all over the place. Shots go in and out of focus, alight on the subject and flit away like a restless fly, zoom in pointlessly up interviewees’ noses. The grainy look of the documentary may be stylistic in intent, but it comes across as shabby rather than grungy. This is a great pity, because the appeal of the film is probably going to be limited by its technical shortfalls. Try to forgive Fox his cinematographic skill deficiencies. If ever a documentary should be seen, it’s this one.
His parting message is an ominous one: fracking might be threatening his back yard today, but tomorrow it could be yours. The technology is already being used in Australia, and here we’re becoming ever more reliant on artesian water supplies. The time to act, if not panic, could be sooner than you think.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives