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Gasland Redux Long on Propaganda, Short on Facts

A follow-up documentary on natural gas drilling by propagandist Josh Fox premiered on HBO last week, offering some half-truths and outright distortions about the oil and gas industry, as well as President Obama's energy policies.

With more money available to Fox to zero in on what he perceives as problems within unconventional drilling and, specifically, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), Gasland Part II offers a jumbled, fear-mongering journey to drilling sites where there have been claims of water contamination from gas drilling operations.

The first documentary three years ago earned an Academy Award documentary nomination, but many of the assertions made by Pennsylvania homeowners in the film, which focused on gas drilling issues in the Marcellus Shale, offered no follow-ups and offered no responses from industry or regulators challenged by Fox. The second film is much the same.

Steve Everley of Energy In Depth said the "main challenge" that Fox faced with the latest film was to "regain the public's trust by discarding hyperbole and laying out the challenges and opportunities of shale development as they actually exist in the actual world. In short, do everything a documentary filmmaker should do, but which he chose not to do in Gasland." Energy In Depth was launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America in 2009.

"Unfortunately for those who attended the premiere of Gasland Part II this past weekend (we were there), Josh eschewed that path entirely, doubling down on the same old, tired talking points, and playing to his narrow base at the exclusion of all others," said Everley. "This isn't Gasland Part II, folks. It's Gasland Too. Sure, the sequel has some new cast members and a few new claims. Somehow, Fox discovers that shale is actually worse than he previously thought: Earthquakes. Methane leaks. Well failures. Hurricanes. Heck, viewers were probably waiting for swarms of locusts to appear -- fracking locusts, to be sure."

In the media blitz to promote the film, Fox has appeared on various talk shows where he mostly has gone unchallenged. He recently told NPR in an interview that his goal is for the world to give up fossil fuels.

"It is imperative as practical people, as moral people, as decent people, as people concerned about public health that we turn around 180 degrees in the other direction," he said. "And that's, of course, what I'm advocating." He told another interviewer, "The first film was about people lighting their water on fire. This film is about the oil and gas industry lighting our democracy on fire."

There is a lot of advocacy but little objectivity in the new film. One section of the film disparages drilling in the Barnett Shale in North Texas, pointing fingers at alleged missteps by Range Resources Corp. Parker County, TX, homeowner Steve Lipsky is shown lighting his garden hose on fire. However, that depiction was a hoax. Last year the 43rd District Court in Parker County found that Lipsky had attached the hose to a natural gas vent in front of the film crew (see NGI, Feb. 20, 2012). The court's finding is not in the film.

Lipsky did not return a call for comment. However, Range responded.

"State regulators extensively investigated the Parker County matter and clearly determined that Range's activities in no way caused or contributed to the long-standing matter of naturally occurring methane in that community," Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella told NGI. "In fact, the next-door neighbor's water well flared when he drilled it, years before Range's activities. There are reports dating back decades in the region showing naturally occurring methane in Parker County."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had claimed that Range's drilling and production activities in the Barnett had contaminated at least two drinking water wells but last year EPA's "central office eventually looked at those same facts and fully withdrew their order," said Pitzarella (see NGI, April 2, 2012).

"None of this should take away from the tremendous, undeniable economic, social and environmental benefits that the nation has realized from shale gas," he said. "But we're not perfect, and we recognize that we have a responsibility to do things right, to work with communities, and to rely on technology and innovation to drive new and better best practices...

"I would add that no one in the industry denies that, just like any human activity, there may be human or mechanical errors that can impact water or soil," Pitzarella said. "It can happen, but it's straightforward to make a determination and to repair the issues. None of these very rare instances have made anyone sick or had lasting environmental impacts."

Another part of the film depicts at length the ongoing water issues in Pavillion, WY, where Encana Corp. took over an operation that had been in place for years. EPA in 2011 issued a draft report on chemicals found in test water wells, which Encana blasted as not factual (see NGI, Dec. 19, 2011).

Last month EPA turned over water testing surveillance to Wyoming officials (see NGI, June 24). Fox claims the EPA withdrew because of industry pressure and claims that "Encana denied responsibility." However, the film fails to mention that Encana didn't begin drilling in the area until after the water complaints had begun, and Wyoming long had asked for the right to oversee the operations.

Encana spokesman Doug Hock told NGI that the company was pleased that EPA had agreed to discontinue the investigation. "And, we applaud the fact that further efforts in Pavillion will focus on the few specific complaints about perceived changes in domestic water well quality. As we've noted before, groundwater palatability problems in Pavillion field are documented by the U.S. Geological Survey [USGS] back to the 1950s, before any oil and gas development" (see NGI, Oct. 22, 2012).

Most of the domestic water wells in the Pavillion area "including most of the wells sampled by EPA, exceed palatability criteria. As stated in its recent release, EPA's report is inconclusive and cannot be relied upon. After three years of investigation and five rounds of sampling, the EPA and USGS results have failed to find a connection between hydraulic fracturing and domestic well water quality complaints in Pavillion field."

The film also spends some time on the 2010 Macondo well blowout in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico (GOM), and in one interview with Fox, chemist Wilma Subra claims that the GOM had been "lost as an ecosystem."

"The evidence shows that the Gulf of Mexico environment is returning to its baseline condition and continues to have a vibrant ecosystem," BP spokesman Jason Ryan told NGI. "Any assertion that the Gulf of Mexico has been 'lost as an ecosystem' is completely false and ignores the extensive information and scientific data that is readily available."

Ryan pointed to National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data that indicates commercial and recreational fishing landings continue to outpace pre-spill levels.

"According to NOAA data, commercial seafood landings in the Gulf in 2011 reached their highest levels since 2000 and recreational fishing landings in the Gulf during 2012 were 3% higher than the annual average from 2007-2009."

BP, he noted, has spent more than $14 billion and 70 million personnel hours over the past three years "on response and cleanup activities and have made significant progress cleaning the Gulf shoreline. As a result of this progress, the Coast Guard has ended active cleanup operations in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. No company has done more to respond to an industrial accident. The extensive cleanup effort, early restoration projects and natural recovery processes are helping the Gulf return to its baseline condition, which is the condition it would be in if the accident had not occurred."

In his film, Fox also interviews Stanford University professor Mark Z. Jacobson, who claims that wind power today is "able to to power the world five times over...By bundling resources together, the wind and sun can match demand with hydroelectric resources," he claimed. Fox then asked him why, if that was possible, is natural gas drilling needed? Jacobson said it isn't.

President Obama's support for natural gas drilling came under intense fire throughout the film, which opens with a voice over by the president, speaking about the benefits of gas and its ability to help combat climate change. Fox told an interviewer that the president has the "wrong answer" when it comes to natural gas.

"To go in the direction of embracing natural gas wholeheartedly and saying, 'we're going to frack here, we're going to frack overseas, we're going to frack a lot,' and convert the coal infrastructure to natural gas is entirely misinformed about how bad frack gas is for the climate. Frack gas is the worst fuel we can use for the climate in the short term, in the 20-year time frame, so we have to win back our president, who is clearly, earnestly concerned about this but has the wrong information on gas."

Energy In Depth's Everley called Fox's "emotion-filled remarks," including Jacobson's "100% renewables" plan as the way to stop gas development, "the perfect bookend to a movement that was always based on sensationalism over substance (Jacobson's plan is, quite simply, pure fairy tale). The call to action was more of a cry of desperation ('Please, keep us relevant!') by a filmmaker, and indeed an entire ideology, whose time has come and gone. As an early review of the film puts it, Gasland Part II 'runs longer than the earlier installment, but ultimately it has less to say.'"

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