"They're the Birthers of Fracking." A Conversation with Josh Fox.

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 1 2013 5:24 PM

"They're the Birthers of Fracking." A Conversation with Josh Fox.

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A man holds a sign opposing the practice of fracking at the 'Forward on Climate' rally to call on President Obama to take strong action on the climate crisis on February 17, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Earlier this week, a group of House Republicans were treated to a screening of FrackNation—a KickStarter'd documentary that aims to debunk the Oscar-nominated, fracking-skeptical Gasland. I reported a bit on the screening (which ended with free DVDs for attendees) and reviewed the movie, paying notice to how filmmaker Phelim McAleer appeared to frazzle Gasland director Josh Fox. Early in the film, McAleer shows up at a Q&A with Fox and asks him why his movie didn't explain that methane has been in some water supplies for years, and that shocking video of water being lit on fire wasn't as shocking as it looked. Fox asks for McAleer's credentials and calls the question "irrelevent." McAleer, duly inspired, makes a movie.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

It's a bit much, says Fox. "I gave the guy, not knowing who he was, a long, academic answer," he explains. "I'd just gotten off the plane, and I just found out somebody robbed my house! I wasn't thinking about it in a media context, and unfortunately there was nobody else in the room taping. So they pulled a kind of Shirley Sherrod thing where they completely misrepresented the Q&A session."

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Since making Gasland, Fox has become a sought-after speaker and activist for the anti-fracking movement. With that comes criticism, and with that occasional, judicious pushback against the allegation that the water-on-fire scene is misleading. "I'd been asked the same questions before, and answered them before," says Fox. "I've been part of something like 250 debates around the U.S. and the world. At almost every one, some oil and gas shill says something like this. They're the birthers of fracking. This argument about biogemic and thermogenic gas is one of the things that the oil and the gas industry brings up as a distraction. Both biogenic and thermogenic gas can be released by drilling, and the industry says so."

I tried to get this across in my review. FrackNation doesn't debunk every question you've ever had about fracking. It introduces us to plenty of people who benefit from fracking, and exposes some fraudsters who claimed damage before being caught out. "I wouldn't blame a person for leasing if he's one mortgage payment away from foreclosure, and the lease can fix that," says Fox. "But these companies are exploitative. The government's not helping by providing a way out. These same people could lease their land for solar, we're one line change away in the solar power laws, to allow this. Instead, they're turning PA into Nigeria as we speak."

Meaning: The fracking business is expanding faster than its affects can be studied. "The impacts of fracking go far beyond methane migration," says Fox. "Chemical migration has been confirmed by the industry. That's not surprising—we're talking about wells up to three miles deep, with one inch of cement keeping the chemicals inside. We've seen industry documents saying 5 percent of wells fail immediately, and 50 percent to 60 percent fail over a 30-year period. And they have known about this problem for decades. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection did the same thing, they had video of cracking cement. they didn't publish for 16 months until Rendell said, 'You should do something.'"

The tension between agencies and communities—studies inconsistently analyzing the possible threats—is probably the most compelling part of FrackNation. McAleer drives to Dimock, Pa., (where he's conducted other interviews) to talk to a family whose claims suffered after the EPA rated their water safe. A family member drives to meet and berate McAleer; he plays footage of the family reacting angrily to an EPA administrator. That, says Fox, is much more complicated than the ugly snapshot would indicate.

"I remember when that EPA report came out about the 'water being fine,'" he says. "They didn't release the tests to the media, but the media ran with their press release. Meanwhile, I was driving three hours to Dimock, getting the test results from people: They found explosive levels of methane. I had a meeting with EPA. And in the meeting, they told me, 'Oh, we never said Dimock's water was safe!' So why did they come out and say methane was not a contaminant?"

Fox has released a quasi-sequel to Gasland already, a short film that answers the attacks and traces many of them to the natural gas industry. The attention paid to FrackNation doesn't surprise. "It's not hard to get a screening in Congress, especially when oil and gas companies have your back."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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