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'Gasland': HBO Gas-Drilling Film Exposes Water Worries

Jun 21, 2010

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Frank James

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It's safe to say that the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has raised the burden of proof on the energy industry and its claims about the safety of its various extraction methods.

And with so many more people now having their doubts about the energy industry, there's probably a much larger receptive audience for a documentary about the problems created by natural gas wells being dug throughout the country.

So the scheduled showing by HBO of its movie "Gasland" at 9 PM ET Monday seems well-timed.

NPR's Ira Flatow recently talked with Joel Fox, "Gasland's" director who documented his personal investigation of the controversial "fracking" drilling techniques which many homeowners say contaminated their drinking water with dangerous chemicals.

He did this after being approached by an energy company what wanted to lease his Pennsylvania property for drilling.

Mr. FOX: It was, of course, a tempting offer, $100,000. And when the industry came in, they said, oh, this won't be a problem. It's just a fire hydrant in the middle of your field. We won't even drill, all these things. And say, well, look at all these money you're going to make. It seemed to me like an offer that was too good to be true, and I wanted to look into it.

So I traveled to a nearby place called Dimock, Pennsylvania, 50 miles away from me. And I found the place in utter dismay and disarray. Halliburton trucks all over the place. People - very scared, their water bubbling and fizzing, kids getting sick. One of the resident's water well exploded on New Year's Day 2009, just spontaneously combusted because I guess so much natural gas is pooling up inside the water well that the pump ignited it and it blew up into...

FLATOW: Did this only happen after the drilling...

Mr. FOX: After the drilling.

FLATOW: It wasn't there all this time?

Mr. FOX: No.

FLATOW: It was like natural gas pockets underground and...

Mr. FOX: Well...

FLATOW:...that might have existed and they happen to tap into while they were drilling their own well.

Mr. FOX: Residents insist that their water was good. There were pre-drilling tests that showed no methane or natural gas compounds, which are also some of the more volatile organic compounds that are carcinogenic...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FOX: ...benzene, toluene, xylene. You know, the residents on the ground and everywhere that I went where this is a problem, chemicals migrating into the water supply from the drilling process. I mean, the natural gas industry maintains that this was naturally occurring.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FOX: But...

FLATOW: Did they appear on - they never showed up - did you invite them to appear...

Mr. FOX: Yes, I tried to get interviews with all of the major natural gas companies. They turned me down at every instance. At one point I did get a chance to talk to a spokesman for Cabot Oil & Gas in Dimock and -you know, but that's about it. They basically said, no, we won't sit down with you.

Bloomberg's reviewer Dave Shiflett gave "Gasland" three out of four stars. New York Times reviewer Mike Hale appears to like it, too, though he questions some of Fox's choices.

Mr. Fox shows a general preference for vivid images — bright red Halliburton trucks, beeping but unidentified scientific instruments — over the more mundane crossing the t's and dotting the i's of investigative journalism.

In one particularly unfortunate decision, he includes audiotapes of an anonymous caller — even he doesn't appear to know who she is — accusing Halliburton of dumping chemicals in a Pennsylvania creek. He presents a despairing picture of conditions in the Susquehanna Valley without noting that there have been state investigations of unsafe practices there. As the film progresses, the lines between fracking and oil and gas production in general become blurred.

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