December 14, 2010

Un-fracking-believable: Gasland

Just think, you can cook without a stove!

If you became angry or frustrated while watching Inside Job, wait until you get a load of Gasland, the award-winning documentary exposing even more egregious shenanigans committed by Corporate America. All things considered (including his personal relationship to the story), filmmaker Josh Fox lays out an honest, objective examination of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", the controversial new trend in domestic natural gas production. Gasland is this decade's Erin Brockovich or A Civil Action, the significant difference being that in this documentary, and thus in real life, companies aren't committing crimes by breaking or going around government regulations meant to protect citizens. That's because relatively speaking, there are no such regulations in place.

Much as you might expect this be a right vs. left political issue, what with Halliburton behind both the fracking technology and the Dick Cheney-initiated "Halliburton Loophole" (which exempts oil and gas companies - all of them - from our country's long-standing clean air and water regulations), the uncomfortable truth is that this is bipartisan bad behavior. While conservative interests may comprise corporate boards and shareholder majorities, President Obama and environmentalists are championing domestic natural gas production as an alternative to our addiction to foreign oil.

Problem is, nobody has developed a safe way to retrieve shale gas from the earth's crust, so for the time being more natural gas production means more fracking (by all accounts an extremely messy process). And more fracking - well as you can imagine that means more really nasty pollution, and more people being able to light their methane-infused tap water on fire.

Gasland won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2010, and was recently short-listed for this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. I can't say it's a polished film (it's occasionally tangential and burdened with mumbling narration by Fox), but, alongside Inside Job and Restrepo, it's among the most important American documentaries of the year.

One of the memorable insights Fox shares at the end of film is that as he drove thousands of miles across the country to study the impact of fracking on local communities, every place started to look the same. Of course this is a common observation East Coasters make once they get west of Pennsylvania, but the stereotypical reasons (e.g., boring landscapes) were not cited here. Rather, the states blended together for Fox because fracking is happening everywhere: refineries and wells littered the country in places he never expected, and the stories and horrific symptoms from people he met were similar across thousands of miles. In other words, the problem isn't spreading - it's already spread, everywhere.

And, despite the fact that nobody yet knows the true effect fracking has on our air and water supply (only recently did the EPA initiate an official study on it), the practice continues unabated in one of the least regulated industries in the country. Completely helpless citizens are being poisoned and communities ruined, and not only is there no law against it, but the current laws were made to enable it. Worse, state agencies and departments that would normally be charged with looking into citizen's complaints are among the first to be cut as government budgets bleed out during the recession.

It's ironic then, or maybe it's not, that corporate interests helped lead to the recession, which has led to government budget deficits, which have led to agency and department personnel cuts, which has led to decreased regulation of corporate practices like fracking, which has led to greater corporate profits.

God Bless America.

Gasland comes out today on DVD (New Media/Docurama Films)
Add to your Netflix queue

Further reading:
"A Colossal Fracking Mess", Vanity Fair, June 2010
"Fracking yields fuel, fear in Northeast",, September 2010

Further viewing:
"Shaleionaires" - 60 Minutes, November 14, 2010

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