Gasbag

Documentary gins up fears, plays loose with the facts

Josh Fox / AP

Gasland Part II, the latest film from environmental activist Josh Fox, contains not only emotional appeals against natural gas extraction but also factual inaccuracies and omissions.

The sequel to the Oscar-nominated Gasland premiered on Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Farmers who had tickets to the film and support the extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," were kept out of the screening. The location underscored tensions in the debate over fracking: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg favors utilizing natural gas, while Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has wavered.

After Mayor Bloomberg commissioned a study by ICF International on the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, he dubbed natural gas "a low-cost, low-emissions fuel that makes good economic and environmental sense."

The ICF analysis directly rebutted a study by Cornell University scientists Robert Howarth and Tony Ingraffea that found dramatically higher methane emissions as a result of fracking than other studies of the issue. Howarth and Ingraffea are interviewed in the film, and their study formed a cornerstone of the documentary’s argument.

The ICF study showed the Cornell scientists simply altered some key assumptions regarding fracking and emission mitigation techniques. Virtually every other major study shows significantly lower methane emissions from fracking.

A week before the Gasland Part II premiere, the Environmental Protection Agency released data showing methane emissions from natural gas systems have declined significantly, even as total natural gas extraction has increased.

Fox routinely relies on outdated or debunked academic work in the documentary.

For example, he highlights anecdotal claims fracking is causing earthquakes in Ohio. These appeals to fear have been contradicted by Bill Ellsworth of the U.S. Geological Survey, who said the USGS could "find no evidence that fracking is related to the occurrence of earthquakes that people are feeling."

One of Fox’s strongest arguments against hydraulic fracturing focuses on weaknesses in the cement casings surrounding fluid injection wells. Cracks in those casings could allow fracking fluids to migrate into soil and groundwater.

Fox again invokes Ingraffea, who cites a document created by major oil companies that supposedly shows more than half of these casings will fail within 30 years of operation.

However, the document does not refer to shale oil and gas extraction at all. The caption accompanying a graph shown on-screen in Gasland Part II explains that the numbers refer only to offshore oil wells. Fracking is not used offshore, and the caption was not shown in the film.

The government tends to rely on governmental studies when using science to decide whether or not a policy is sound. Fox’s case is grounded in scientific findings that are misleading, outdated, or debunked, so he falls back on hearsay and anecdote throughout his documentary.

For example, Fox sets much of his film in Dimcock, Pa., and Parker County, Texas, where he claims drinking water supplies have been contaminated. However, according to EPA studies that have examined the issue and contra Fox, fracking did not contaminate the water.

Lacking evidence to make his case, Fox suggests the EPA’s findings were released at the behest of unnamed officials who were doing the bidding of major oil companies.

The day after Gasland premiered, the EPA criticized the State Department for inadequately accounting for the Keystone XL pipeline’s potential risks to groundwater. It is unclear which major oil companies Fox thinks the EPA was doing the bidding of in that case.

Fox’s conspiracy theory relies on statements from two landowners who say local EPA officials told them not to drink their water even after the agency released its findings. Both landowners say unnamed EPA officials told them other unnamed EPA officials ordered the agency to absolve the companies.

Fox insists intense lobbying efforts have blocked more stringent regulations, or an outright ban on fracking.

As the farmers with tickets were left in the cold, former Beatle wife Yoko Ono took in the film. Her anti-fracking group has been lobbying officials in New York to ban fracking despite failing to register as a lobbying group.

Ono is one of the more high profile figures in an ongoing lobbying blitz against hydraulic fracturing in New York state.

Gov. Cuomo has repeatedly delayed making a decision on allowing hydraulic fracturing despite the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s 2011 finding that that "there is no likelihood of significant adverse impacts from the underground migration of fracturing fluids."

Fox remains convinced citizens have little ability to sway the democratic process against powerful oil interests despite the years-long delay.

To make the point, Gasland Part II recounts a 2012 House committee hearing on hydraulic fracturing. Fox attended without the proper media credentials and was told he could not film inside the committee room. He was arrested after refusing to leave.

The film sells the incident as a violation of Fox’s First Amendment rights. Meanwhile, the landowners who asked pointed questions of Fox, Ono, and former Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D., N.Y.), an opponent of fracking, were denied entry.

"I felt censored, horrified at the aggression of the security personnel," said one of the landowners, Inga Grafe-Kieklak of Sullivan County, N.Y.

Fox’s critics say he is less concerned with convincing the general public fracking is a hazard than firing up the practice’s most vociferous opponents.

The first Gasland "was clearly designed to introduce the general public to the issue of ‘fracking,’ and by extension define it in the harshest, most hyperbolic terms possible," said Steve Everley, a spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

"The sequel, in essentially rehashing the same stories and events, seemed to be more of a call to action among folks already predisposed to hate oil and gas development. If the first movie was aimed at the general public, the second was purely an attempt to enrage his base," Everly said.