Josh Fox is angry. A few years ago, he received a note in the mail saying he could lease his family's land in Pennsylvania for about $100,000 to natural gas companies. Soon, he discovered that some drinking water in a nearby town had been contaminated, and that people around the country with gas operations in their backyards were getting sick and scared, amid a boom in drilling.
So he set off on a cross-country journey to drilling hubs like Wyoming, Colo., and, of course, Texas, home to the Barnett Shale near Fort Worth, "one of the first places this all started." The result is a film called Gasland, which premiered last week on the HBO network, and won an award at last year's Sundance film festival. In Texas and elsewhere, Fox found "just heartbreaking stories of people just losing their ability to be in their home because of the industrialization process that was all around them," he says.
The drilling surge reflects an increased appetite for natural gas, a fuel used heavily in generating electricity. Natural gas accounts for 42 percent of Texas' electricity generation and 23 percent of electricity use in the rest of the country. A recent MIT study projected that the use of natural gas would "increase dramatically" in the coming decades. Meanwhile, T. Boone Pickens and others are promoting it as a fuel for cars.
The popularity of natural gas stems from its domestic production — an answer to the worries about dependance on foreign oil — along with its relatively low greenhouse gas emissions and cost. New drilling techniques have vastly expanded the country's usable supplies of gas and brought prices down. The process — called "hydraulic fracturing," or fracking — involves blasting a mix of water and chemicals into the ground, to break up shale rocks far below and force out trapped gas.
But fracking can contaminate drinking water, Fox and others assert, and the process is exempted from federal regulations like the Safe Drinking Water Act. He says he spent about a month total in Texas, over several different trips, during which he visited Andrews, Meridian and Fort Worth, as well as Robertson and Freestone counties.
"It was devastating to drive around Fort Worth and have Don Young [of the website Fort Worth CanDo] say to me, 'This was a park kids used to play in, now it's a gas well. This was best drive-in theater in Fort Worth, now it's a gas well,'" Fox says. A clip with Young should appear in the extras on the DVD.
Another Texan Fox came across in April 2009 was Al Armendariz. Back then, Armendariz was a professor at Southern Methodist University who had just done a study showing that the 10,000 wells in the Fort Worth area produced more emissions than the city's entire passenger car fleet.
"The [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] had no idea how many gas wells were being put in and were on the ground around the city of Fort Worth," Armendariz says in the film.
These days, Armendariz heads the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency that covers Texas. He has essentially declared war on what he sees as the laxity of Texas air-pollution regulators.
"He's on this — he's doing a great job," says Fox, who noted that Armendariz showed up for one of the film's screenings in Fort Worth (it has also screened in Denton).
The Environmental Protection Agency is holding hearings on hydraulic fracturing around the nation — including one on July 8 in Fort Worth.
For Fox, the oil spill in the Gulf carries as an "eerie feeling of deja vu." Blowouts happen in gas drilling too, and the tussle between the oil companies and their regulators "felt like a very similar kind of story in terms of the power of extractive energy — fossil fuel energy — to lobby Congress to get out of our safeguards." In addition, "the proprietary nature of the dispersant that they're using in the Gulf [is a] very similar case to the proprietary nature of fracking fluid."
"When you see people like T. Boone Pickens out there saying, or even John Kerry saying natural gas is the solution to the oil spill, this to me is total insanity," Fox says.
So what is the solution? Fox argues that renewable energy sources like wind turbines and solar panels, as well as energy conservation and "smart-grid" projects, will go a long way toward getting us off gas. He found it refreshing to drive from the gas fields of Andrews, Texas — where signs pockmarked with bullet holes warned of poisonous gases — and come across some of the mammoth wind turbines of west Texas, which are shown at the end of the film as the credits roll.
"People say they're ugly," he says, "but I don't think they're ugly, and certainly not anywhere near as ugly as way the oil and gas fields look."
As for the response to the film, Fox describes it as "absolutely amazing."
"People are seeing how industry was completely deregulated," he says. "Safe Drinking Water exemption, Clean Water Act exemption, Clean Air Act exemption, Superfund exemption. And they're seeing who was behind that — Dick Cheney, George Bush, Republican Congress, Joe Barton of Texas. The Energy Task Force — Ken Lay was on that task force. So a familiar cast of characters, familiar stories."
In a few weeks, Gasland will launch a national registry on its website, for testimonials (which now are appearing on the Facebook page). Meanwhile, he is advocating for a five-year moratorium on gas drilling, leasing. More realistically, he wants Congress to take action and pass a bill called the Frac Act, to revoke the exemption for fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA is currently studying the issue.
"Once you've contaminated an aquifer," Fox says, "you can't go back."