After Wall St., there’s probably no industry more universally despised than oil companies. Besides being notorious polluters – when extracting raw materials, as oil is refined into gasoline and other products, and when its products are burned – big oil is seen as greedy, grabby and grotesque.
The BP oil rig disaster off the Louisiana and Gulf States coast is merely the latest example of the industry’s capacity to unleash one disaster after another as yet another spill – this one as large as Rhode Island at times – threatens environmentally sensitive areas, sea life, water fowl and birds.
Because big oil’s arrogance and disregard for the environment and public safety, except in TV commercials, makes it such a self-destructive target, it draws great globs of media attention and fire. Yet sneaking through in oil’s slipstream, almost unnoticed in the haze of petro-fumes, is the natural gas industry which may be responsible for as much environmental harm to individual people as big oil is to the globe.
Josh Fox’s GasLand, screened at Toronto’s Hot Docs documentary film festival, looks at how the industry in the US – sitting on what is described as “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas” – passes itself off as a clean alternative to oil and coal while actually spewing contamination in its wake in people’s lives and homes.
What The Frack?
Winner of a Special Jury Prize for documentaries at Sundance this year, the film is a recounting of Fox’s own discovery that began when he was offered a significant amount of money to award gas exploration and drilling rights on property he owns in Pennsylvania. Essentially, he wanted to learn more about possible consequences, intended or otherwise, and off-shoots of drilling thousands of additional gas wells across the country.
Although told largely in the first person, Fox adds to his own credibility with a raft of case studies.
Fox explores the influx of hydraulic fracturing – called “fracking” in the business – which is a method of drilling natural gas that endangers water supplies in the immediate vicinity around wells. True, he has a vested interest in the dangers such drilling poses. But by grounding a massive environmental issue in potential consequences for his own life, GasLand becomes a call to action for what, he maintains, should be a national concern.
The film shadows Fox around the US visiting rural homes where tap water boils and burns. Yes, burns: In an amazing piece of footage, a man puts a flame to his faucet and then leaps back in fright as a massive fireball bursts from the tap. In effect, Fox is a modern-day Woodie Guthrie with a camera rather than a guitar
Caution: Cheney At Work
Since Halliburton invented fracking and still makes a fortune off of the process, there’s little wonder that when Dick Cheney was Vice President he created a kind of waiver for energy companies that enabled them to evade clean air and water laws. Fox places these waivers at the centre of GasLand, making it clear that, when the financial interests of business are involved, there’s no room for individuals caught in the line of fire.
Meanwhile, along with showing the plight of people stemming from natural gas drilling, he brings the government to task for ignoring the issues. A whistleblower from the Environmental Protection Agency laments, “We’re not present as a government agency to answer your legitimate questions.”
Fox’s well researched documentary has broad appeal because it examines an issue otherwise ignored in the mainstream media – which is what a good documentary does – because he tackles a crucial issue to a significant number of people including those not directly affected. He avoids polemics, using interview subjects to make wry, biting comments such as one man who said, “What took Mother Nature millions of years to build can be destroyed in a couple of hours with a piece of machinery.”
The question is whether the on-screen outrage and dismay will actually lead to a wider audience taking the problem seriously. At the moment, the natural gas industry is getting away scot-free as a “clean energy.” It may not be seen as clean by people who can ignite the water taps in their home as a result of drilling.
Lulu Demaine contributed to this review.
- Director: Joel Fox
- Producers: Trish Adlesic, Molly Gandour
- Executive Producer: Debra Winger
- Writer: Josh Fox
- Cinematographers: Josh Fox, Matthew Sanchez
- Editor: Matthew Sanchez
- Run Time: 79 Minutes