In 2010, the documentary film “Gasland” exploded onto the public consciousness, exposing many people to the next wave of energy extraction: fracking. The practice was taking place across swaths of the United States overlying shale rock formations, as companies had found a new way to access the natural gas and oil below, blasting millions of gallons of water and hundreds of gallons of chemicals to break up the rock and allow the fuels to reach the surface. The industry assured property owners and city governments that the practice was controllable and safe. Yet “Gasland” showed many communities transformed into industrial zones, their water leaching explosive methane.
Since then, the practice has only increased, reaching more states and countries. Many of the environmental and health risks raised in the film around water contamination, however, remain unaddressed. Instead, some companies launched attacks against “Gasland,” accusing it of promoting false and misleading information. These attacks have been part of a broader argument over whether fracking and drilling have led to cases of water contamination, with many companies still adamant that no such evidence exists, despite Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data showing contamination in West Virginia, Wyoming and Texas.
Against this backdrop, New York looks poised to green-light fracking in five counties. In response, Gasland director Josh Fox released the documentary “The Sky is Pink,” examining the gas industry’s dismissal of public concerns over fracking and measuring it against the industry’s own internal studies documenting the potential for leakage and contamination.
Fox talked with Truthout about the film, the similarities between the gas industry and tobacco, and why he thinks fracking in New York is a really bad idea.
Christine Shearer: Could you tell us a bit about your new documentary, “The Sky is Pink”?
Josh Fox: “The Sky is Pink” is a reaction to the crisis moment we find ourselves in in New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released what is being called a “trial balloon” drilling plan that would open up a huge portion of New York state – five counties – to drilling. That is largely seen as a doorway for the gas industry to walk into the rest of the state. I knew I had to come forward with new information we have from gas industry secret memos and gas industry publications from a while back, as well as internal documents leaked out of gas industry conferences sent to me, that show that they know full well that their wells are leaking, and they are leaking like crazy. That means they are leaking gas into aquifers, and I thought people had a right to know about that. The gas industry has gone out into the media consistently with a disinformation campaign saying this is all naturally occurring methane when in fact their own data, memos and Power Points show that they know the problem very well, and they can’t fix it, and they can’t prevent it.
The film is called “The Sky Is Pink” because it is talking about the fracking “debate.” There is a tactic of misinformation that has been employed for a very long time, going back to the tobacco industry in the 1950s. A PR firm called Hill & Knowlton decided to push out bogus statements and bogus science saying cigarettes are not bad for you, that medical reports about how it leads to diseases like cancer were not true and were exaggerated, and they created doubt in the public’s mind. As long as there was doubt, people continued doing the things they were addicted to. The same strategy has been employed by the gas industry, and in fact, the very same PR firm employing this strategy, Hill & Knowlton, was employed by the American Natural Gas Alliance in 2009. And the idea here is, “We’re going to seed doubt; we’re going to say this is naturally occurring methane; we’re going to say the science is in question,” when in fact they know full well that the science is not in question. It helps maintain our addiction to fossil fuels.
And there is another connection to tobacco: these things are very harmful to health. Health impact studies have shown that living near gas drilling is very, very harmful. There is a likelihood of moderate to high health effects from living around this development. So, the film is talking about both the New York plan and the fact that the gas industry has spent millions of dollars on a disinformation campaign that is by-the-book adopted from the tobacco industry.
CS: Your 2010 documentary “Gasland” includes the now widely known scene of a resident near a drilling site lighting his tap water on fire, the implication being that gas had migrated up to his water from the drilling. So, the gas industry responded – and they responded in many ways to your documentary – but the main response to this particular scene was that the gas was biogenic, that is, naturally occurring, not the deeper “thermogenic” gas they were drilling for, and therefore not the gas industry’s fault. But you argue in “The Sky Is Pink” that drilling for thermogenic gas – which is what fracking is used to reach – can also release biogenic gas, and therefore, the drilling could have caused it regardless of the source, correct?
JF: First of all, it’s important to note that there are many families in “Gasland” who can light their water on fire. Lighting their water on fire right after drilling is very common, from Pennsylvania to Canada to Wyoming to Colorado. So, they zoomed in on one case, cherry-picked this one case, in which the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) had said it was biogenic gas. Now, when it occurred at the next-door neighbor’s house, and this happened six or seven months later, the COGCC said, “Wow, this is clearly the gas industry’s fault.” And they validated that. The gas industry doesn’t want you to know that. But in their own reports, like one from Schlumberger, the number one-fracking company in the world, there are diagrams showing that shallow gas can migrate up to the aquifer if you drill through that pocket of biogenic gas. Plus, the gas industry drills for biogenic gas; they drill for huge pockets of it, and they drill for it in Colorado. So, it’s a red herring. It’s one of those bogus scientific statements that does not actually hold up. But it sounds good in the media.
When I first heard about this, I thought it was totally ridiculous. I mean, how could anyone believe this? Water does not usually catch on fire; that is just not what happens. But this is not about the public believing that they are right; it’s just about casting doubt on the reporting and science that exists. Because as long as there is doubt, then the gas industry says, “Well, we don’t have to regulate this.” So the whole biogenic/thermogenic “controversy” is drummed up, made up. So, doing this is a way of obscuring the public understanding of what is really happening out there.
But if you look at the incredible investigative track record by The New York Times, by ProPublica, into the thousands of reports of water contamination and other issues, if you look at the EPA report showing 50 times the level of benzene in the water in Pavillion, Wyoming, if you look at the EPA report showing, on the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) report, huge amounts, flammable amounts, explosive amounts of methane in the water in Pennsylvania, in Dimock, if you look at the recent ruling of $1.6 million against Chesapeake Energy for families whose water was contaminated, there is a long history here that shows, okay, this is what’s happening. There’s no way you can credibly deny it at this point.
However, when you have somebody like Tom Ridge go on The Colbert Report and say, “This is naturally occurring” – this is a man who was governor of Pennsylvania, who was the Department of Homeland Security’s first secretary, people will listen to that, and they won’t realize that he was paid $900,000 to be the chief Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesperson for a year. So, even though people are saying something ridiculous, they are employing people who have some credibility to say it.
CS: One of the ways this gas leakage can occur is well casing failures. You looked into the industry’s own studies on well casings. Could you tell us what a well casing is, and what you found in the studies as far as the potential for problems?
JF: A Marcellus well has to be very deep, sometimes a mile deep and two miles outward. So, when you drill a well, you stuff a pipe down a hole. The pipe does not fit exactly down the hole. There’s an area around the sides of the pipe that can also be a conduit, if you want your gas to come up the pipe. Now, they have to shield that hole with cement, around the external part of it. So, you have this rocky, jagged hole and that pipe stuck down it, and you put cement down the wellbore and it is supposed to come all the way back to the surface, which, in some cases, covers a distance of up to three miles, and it’s about one inch of cement, approximately. So, that one inch of cement has to go all the way up the pipe, and it’s extending horizontally as well; and there’s gravity involved. And it has to perfectly shield that outer edge.
Now that’s an incredibly difficult process. Schlumberger reports that six percent of the cement fails immediately upon installation, and you see that all the time – the drilling happens and boom, the clean-up crew is there immediately. It happens in a matter of days and weeks. And then they report that cement breaks down over time at an alarming rate – 50 percent of these cement casings fail over a 30-year period. They also report that 20 percent of oil and gas wells around the world are leaking. This is a problem they have known about for decades, and there is literally no way to prevent this from occurring because you can never assure that a cement job won’t fail. Cement failure caused the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the massive gas leak – ongoing – in the North Sea. It’s a common and well-known problem.
CS: And there is the potential for not just gas to migrate upward, but also underground contaminants and the chemicals used in fracking, some of which are federally listed as hazardous?
JF: Well, yeah, you could imagine that things that are down there are highly pressurized, normally occurring radioactive material (NORM), fracking chemicals; you are creating a conduit; you are creating a straw between the lower layers and the aquifers.
CS: There was also the recent 2012 groundwater study by hydrogeologist Tom Myers suggesting changes to shale rock from the fracking process could result in upward migration of fluids from fracking in as little as hundreds to tens of years. So, faults and fractures are another concern beyond well casing failures?
JF: Yes. When you are drilling, you are drilling through the aquifer. The gas industry is saying, “We are drilling 8,000 feet down, well below the aquifer.” Well, you can’t drill as if by some sort of magical, teleportation device that goes down 8,000 feet; you go through the aquifer, and you will have problems with leakage. Interestingly, one of the industry reports says that surface casing, these extra layers that are being required by the “top regulation,” “best management practices,” the extra casing does not matter at all because migration might happen further down and then come up through permeable rock into the aquifer below the surface casing.
The industry is trying to belittle these problems and peoples’ concerns, but you can’t, because there are these memos. It’s just like tobacco and the memos showing all along they knew it was harmful and addictive. And the gas industry knows the problem very well; they cannot hide the problem because they have been writing about it for decades, but they have been trying to belittle us, and say, Oh the problem is not fracking, but well casing failures. So you say, well, okay, if it’s casing, take a look at the problem; it’s a huge, huge problem. And they are refusing to admit that there is no fixing this.
CS: I interviewed Myers about his study, and he told me he reached out to oil and gas companies to help him collect data to improve studies on drilling and aquifers – which, if companies are certain that impermeable shale will protect aquifers, why not collaborate on studies to establish this – but instead, the industry-funded Energy In Depth responded by “debunking” his study. It was starting to remind me of fossil fuel tactics on climate change, where the goal is not to improve overall understanding and the science, but instead sow doubt about the studies, do their own, and create the appearance of debate. “The Sky Is Pink” suggests that there is some overlap there, between the industry response to climate change and fracking.
JF: It’s the same playbook. On “The Sky is Pink,” we have 25 or so different web sites that were researched for the film, and there is a whole section on Hill & Knowlton and their history of misleading the public. They are the best at misinformation, so if you want to deceive people, that is where you go, and that is exactly what where America’s Natural Gas Alliance went.
CS: Creating the appearance of debate on climate change for so long was such a severe thing to do, because we are talking about the fate of the entire planet. But not being upfront about the potential for drilling leaks is pretty serious as well, because we are talking about the potential to contaminate entire aquifers, and we do not know all of the chemicals that are being used.
JF: Look, this is really important. It’s really quite a phenomenon. People all across the country are waking up to this and going, Oh my god, if I don’t take action, my neighborhood, my town, my land will become a drilling zone. That group of people also has to connect with the people working on climate change for a very long time because, as we know, fracking accelerates climate change because it vents off enormous quantities of methane into the atmosphere.
In the first several weeks of the fracking process, they are literally venting off methane in huge stacks up into the sky. And, interestingly, when your water becomes contaminated and your well starts to blow off, the first thing the gas industry does is put a vent on your water well. That means the methane is venting into the atmosphere. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere over the short run than CO2. That means using gas for electricity generation, drilling for gas, is on par with coal, which is the most carbon-intensive of fuels, so it puts gas as on par with, or worse than, coal for its impact on climate change.
Water is, of course, one of the most fundamental issues that we have: the majority of our bodies are water, we are walking and talking water. Climate change is also a big issue and the climate movement has reached out to the fracking movement and done an amazing job of helping champion the issue of fracking. I think we have to do the same for climate from the fracking side.
CS: There is also the issue of all the water used and wastewater produced by drilling and fracking, which “The Sky Is Pink” notes has, in the past, been “treated” and then released back into drinking water supplies. Is that still occurring?
JF: It has been occurring up until even very recently. The Delaware Riverkeeper discovered that fracking waste was being put into inadequate facilities and then dumped into the Delaware River. So it’s going on, and it’s extremely difficult to treat. You can’t put it in an ordinary treatment facility. There are biocides, which are radioactive; there are all sorts of qualities to Marcellus industrial waste that cannot be handled by a normal treatment facility. And in fact, what happened in Pittsburgh was, the biocides in the gas drilling waste killed the biological component of the water treatment facility, disabling it, and the waste was released into the public drinking water, the Monongahela River, and Pittsburgh had to go without that water for several months because it was not clean. And the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has no plans for this wastewater anywhere.
CS: ProPublica recently did a study on the underground injection of wastewater into what are called Class II wells, often used to dispose fracking wastewater, which ProPublica found also has the potential for the fluids injected to eventually migrate upward.
JF: Many of these injection wells are very old. I talked to folks in Ohio who said there is an injection well near them that is literally bubbling over with a pool of waste all around it. So, I mean, you have millions of gallons of toxic waste and you inject it underground. And that’s where you come into the same industry argument that it’s being injected under impermeable layers of rock. Well, there’s the casing failures, the casing cracking under pressure, causing earthquakes – that’s another big issue with injection wells. So, yeah, the problems you have with hydraulic and gas wells and other wells you also have with injection wells.
Drilling is not safe. Having an extra level of well casing, for example – it’s like saying they are going to have filters on cigarettes. We have to move beyond digging the ground for energy and burning fossil fuels. We need new technology which harvests energy – the sun, the wind, the geothermal heat in the earth, the tidal power, the hydroelectric power. We know full well that all of this can do everything that fossil fuels are doing. Everything. And if you look at the work of Stanford professor Mark Jacobson on the cover of Scientific American – not exactly a liberal, left-wing publication – it’s saying, We can do this.
What we’re seeing is that the gas industry is embracing ever more extreme and dangerous techniques. It’s a paradigm shift. It happened while you were sleeping. You turn on the light switch, appliances – it feels the same as 20 years ago; the difference is where it’s coming from. It’s coming from the tar sands, which are destroying a forest the size of Florida in Canada; it’s coming from mountaintop removal mining- and for once, they did not use a euphemism: they are literally blowing off the tops of mountains to get the coal. It’s coming from fracking; it’s coming from deepwater drilling that caused the catastrophe in the Gulf. These things are extreme energy which is extremely dangerous and extremely unpredictable – actually, maybe I should say it is extremely predictable in that it will fail, and at the alarming rate mentioned in “The Sky is Pink.” So, we need another paradigm shift. We need to shift to renewable energy, and we need real leadership. Not politicians. Politicians make compromises; they create regulations that are essentially permissions. We need leadership: leadership is vision, a vision of the future that does not involve this kind of contamination and these kinds of lies.
CS: In response to the kinds of concerns raised in “The Sky is Pink,” there have been calls from doctors for a health assessment study to determine whether fracking should be permitted in New York, but it looks like it will be permitted in some counties without that prior assessment and without a plan for disposing of all the wastewater.
JF: Well, the [New York] DEC plan fails in so many ways, and we just found out today from the Environmental Working Group, which just released a major report saying that it looks like the DEC was allowing the gas industry to write the regulations, which I think will be another scandal in itself. But what “The Sky is Pink” focuses on is, there’s no wastewater plan. As in Pittsburgh: no due diligence; no plan. I’ve had state assemblypeople come up to me in the halls in Albany and say, Look, this is a memo that says they are going to truck the wastewater across an expressway and dump it on the other side of town. So, there is no plan. Millions of gallons of wastewater – up to trillions projected for all the wells. No plan. They passed a health assessment bill in the Assembly; it was blocked by the Republicans. And obviously, there is no way for them to resolve the casing issue. So, there are three fatal flaws right now, and the DEC and Governor Cuomo have decided to rush ahead with this in the face of enormous activism, and if they do drill, Cuomo faces an enormous legacy issue, because those wells are going to leak.
CS: There were reports of people appearing on Homeland Security terrorism lists in Pennsylvania for attending public showings of Gasland, and Range Resources has openly said that they employ “psy-ops folks.” Do you know much more about these kind of militaristic responses to public opposition to fracking?
JF: I worry about this from time to time. Funnily enough, around the time that Tom Ridge took the job as spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, memos were leaked from the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security saying, yes, they were treating people who were concerned about gas drilling as “ecoterrorists.” They used the word “ecoterrorist,” and they say “criminal activity.” Now there is no evidence of that at all. These are moms and dads and schoolteachers: they are not the bomb-throwing crowd. And it was a big scandal in Pennsylvania. The activists – I would not even call them activists – the communities that were concerned about drilling in their neighborhoods were worried that they were being monitored and their emails being read and they were being looked at in a way that is improper by the government itself. So, thankfully, those memos were exposed, and we found out that there was a program, and who knows what else was going on.
It does scare you because, what happened was, an activist got a hold of one of these memos and posted it. She then got an email from the head of security in Pennsylvania saying, Don’t post that because it will get into the hands of activists, and we want to continue to funnel information to the Marcellus Shale Coalition and other gas industry people. I mean, come on. It takes a pretty “good” detective to confuse a gas industry rep with an activist. So then she [the activist] posted that email and the security head ended up resigning. But, you know, they essentially admitted that they were in a conversation with the gas industry funneling them information about our activities.
CS: And of course you were arrested after trying to enter and film a House Science Committee hearing on hydraulic fracturing.
JF: Yes, it shows the level of collusion between industry and government. I was trying to do my job as a reporter. I was attending a health care hearing in [Washington] DC on the case that we had been working on for three and a half years: these amazing cowboys out in Pavillion, Wyoming. And the EPA showed that they had 50 times the level of allowable benzene in their groundwater, which is a carcinogen. The Republicans were holding a hearing to grill the EPA and challenge their science. It was obvious that this was an attack on the EPA. So, I had to be there to cover the hearing; there was no question.
So, we appealed to the committee to let us in. Now, that’s just protocol. A public hearing is a public hearing. The law is: you can tape it. That’s the First Amendment; that’s the Constitution. But in the House, they have a protocol which is basically, We want to come, do you have space for us? There was no one else there; no one else was interested; no one coming. So, I wanted to go, and they consistently refused me based on what they knew was a wrong position. So, they said, You cannot come in, and I went in and began setting up my tripod and started rolling and they threatened to arrest me and said, We made an appeal, a personal appeal to the chair and have not heard back. And then the word came down, Cuff him and get him out of here.
And there is video of that online: it was all over the place. It was kind of a shock to me. And the video that you saw was actually Congressional staffers with their iPhones taping the whole thing. So apparently, it was only me that was violating whatever the principle was. Anyway, they dismissed it; they recognized that they had no case; this was a First Amendment issue. So the only record of that hearing is the crummy little webcam that they put up and you can barely watch it and therefore we lost that information. But these are the usual lengths to which they’ll go to keep on doing what they’re doing without the public really understanding. The oil and gas industry has been lobbying for decades to silence opposition. What this means is there are politicians who are for sale and willing to degrade the public health of America because the oil and gas industry is giving them money.
CS: So what’s next for you? And what do you recommend to folks dealing with either the practice of fracking or the potential for it right now, who don’t support it?
JF: First of all, they should go to New Yorkers Against Fracking and immediately sign the petition there; tell Governor Cuomo not to frack. Stop what you’re doing, takes five minutes.
For us, we’re hard at work on “Gasland 2,” coming soon on HBO. “Gasland 2” is really going to blow people away, no pun intended. It’s a sequel, so we have bigger and better explosions; that’s a typical requirement for a sequel. It also really focuses on the issue of government – how fracking does not just contaminate the water supply, but also government. All the money that’s spent, all the influence that’s peddled: this is the contamination of the political system. We also look at the climate change issue, and the situation that is unfolding internationally, so hopefully people will stay tuned for “Gasland 2.”