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Submitted by on February 3, 2011 – 10:00 AM9 Comments

Death Race 37, Sarah 19; 1 of 24 categories completed

GasLand, a doc about the dangers posed to the national water supply by hydro-fracturing (“fracking”), gets off to a precious, over-edited start, and Josh Fox’s grating monotone VO seems either amateurish or too studied. Eventually, it becomes clear that that monotone is almost a defense mechanism; otherwise, Fox (and likely the viewer) would get fed up with corporate malfeasance and outright evil, and start shrieking incoherently. That same flat delivery is what puts over the wittier first-person observations, as when Fox shows footage of an unattended, seeping sludge pit, marked incongruously with the colored flags usually found at a car dealership, and says he doesn’t know what the flags do — perhaps it’s the pit’s grand opening.

Fox gets insightful, likeable people to interview, and is super-skilled at putting them in three dimensions in just a few minutes — like the first guy who lights his water on fire for the audience (and isn’t that adjective depressing). He’s sporting a luxuriant mustache and a cheery attitude: yeah, it sucks that his tap water is flammable, but that being the case, it’s kind of cool that he can light it up and freak people out. It’s clear that the natural-gas industry doesn’t give a shit what it’s doing to the environment or the locals, and that they continue not to give a shit because they figure said locals don’t have enough power to interfere with their business. But these particular locals don’t seem like they’ll back down. It’s encouraging, which is nice, given that you’ve just seen more footage than you wanted to of livestock with their fur falling out.

The movie gets you on its side fairly quickly; you want to meet more of what Fox calls his “new friends,” and see how they’re doing. You especially want to send a little card to Rep. DeGette for her polite but ruthless interrogation of one of the natural-gas company reps in a Congressional hearing, which makes him look like a liar and a pussy, and is intercut with shots of Fox next to his camera, chewing gum and occasionally spiking a brow all “…right?”

HBO subscribers can watch it any old time; it’s on HBO’s On Demand channel. Fox’s physical resemblance to Elijah Wood in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind starts out unsettling, but then is kind of fun, and with subject matter this bleak, you have to take your amusements where you can. “Enjoy.”




  • cayenne says:

    I haven’t seen this one (want to, though), but it seems like the 2010 Outraged Documentary trend was “Big Energy vs. Plucky Communities that Fight Back”. For people who like this film & enjoy the trend, I saw two in this genre that were quite good: The Pipe and Windfall.

  • bottomofthe9th says:

    Please understand that this documentary is in the Michael Moore vein: highlighting a real problem, but hardly a comprehensive look at the issue, and a lot of half-truths.

    For example: there are a lot of reasons methane can get in your water, almost none of which are related to hydraulic fracturing. In some cases, it’s actually due to migration between a city’s gas pipeline and its water line. To the extent that gas drilling (which includes hydraulic fracturing but also the more “old school” aspects of drilling) has caused water contamination–and it has–it has been because of poor cementing jobs allowing methane to escape from the wellbore and into the water table. (In some cases, shallow gas formations have migrated into the water table with no drilling whatsoever.) Or, sometimes it’s due to careless disposal of “produced” water (which comes back up with the gas). But the fracturing itself takes place 3000+ (sometimes 10,000) feet below ground, whereas the deepest water tables are less than 1000 feet–so fracturing itself really does not contaminate water supplies. Drilling does.

    Don’t get me wrong–the industry (which, full disclosure, I work in) has been very careless in some instances, and drilling (not just fracturing) absolutely should be more tightly regulated. But I really don’t think it’s accurate to say that the industry as a whole doesn’t give a shit about water contamination–it may only be for selfish reasons, but they (we) do realize that their business model, of being able to drill thousands of wells per year, depends on doing so safely.

    However, I would add that to some extent the public has very unrealistic expectations about energy. Absolutely, we should strive to produce coal (you want to talk about dangerous…), oil, and gas as safely as possible–but keep in mind that at the same time folks are complaining about a) importing energy (which is a very silly and economically illiterate complaint, but nonetheless) and b) the high cost of energy. Adding safety measures increases production costs–and to be clear, I think that’s a worthwhile tradeoff–but to some extent the industry is in a no-win situation.

  • Morgan says:

    Dear bottomofthe9th, Thank you for saying what I wanted to say, ever so much more clearly.

    I work in fracking, and yeah, this documentary is hardly the unbiased word. I can’t tell you how much time, energy and money is put into safety, better practices, safety, water management, reducing our environment footprint, more safety, community investment… And sure, we’re in Canada and working in totally unpopulated areas, and safety is still the most important thing. And the second. Water management is probably third.

    Documentaries like this seem to make it harder to have sensible large scale conversations. I mean, we’ve “established” that oil sands, natural gas, coal, windmills and middle eastern oil are “evil”, so… Until the magic energy fairy shows up, isn’t it best to focus on doing things smarter and safer and cleaner?

    But then, I work for Big Energy, so what do I know…

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    We have to get the energy from somewhere, obviously. It’s not really an option just to stand in a once-unsullied stream in the mountains and wish upon a star; most viewers are clear on that. Nor do I think that Fox cut out a bunch of footage of these guys during the Congressional hearings in which they addressed the issues in a transparent and forthright manner, or got behind the idea that regulation and accountability are positives. I understand that governmental oversight isn’t a magic bullet — or a bullet of any kind, as bullets are known for traveling quickly — but I run a business that’s located in a Superfund site, and corporations who are willing to face that level of consequences are not the norm.

  • Lasaraleen says:

    One example of the way that the industry is under regulated and irresponsible:

    In many places frack water is being sent directly to municipal waste water treatment plants– plants that were never built to process water contaminated with heavy metals and the sorts of chemicals (no one really knows what chemicals, because the companies don’t have to disclose it). So this frack water is just being diluted and sent straight into the drinking water supply.

    Sure, we need energy, but at the cost of feeding ourselves heavy metals?

  • cayenne says:

    It’s also good to keep in mind that any documentary almost by definition reflects a biased position. You have to be really motivated by the topic to even consider making a documentary; just getting the money to make it can be like a unguided tour of the circles of hell. If the filmmaker wasn’t outraged by something, didn’t have an axe to grind, or politically aligned funding/granting organizations to appease, there wouldn’t likely be a film at all.

  • bottomofthe9th says:

    Disclosure of the chemicals is a good example of where the industry is, actually. Should the government (whether federal, state, or local) require it? Of course. But you have many companies voluntarily disclosing the chemicals they use, because they’re confident in their safety, and because they know keeping them secret is WAY more trouble than it’s worth.

    In general the oil and gas (actually coal has done a far better job) industry has done a terrible job at communicating its message, and this is just the latest example. A lot of it, I think, comes from being so in hock to one political party–to the extent that when you do have a message, you look like a shill–rather than engaging the public and politicians across the spectrum constructively. (But then, the auto industry has been enormously successful at PR, which didn’t stop Roger and Me.)

    We have our problems; you’ll get no argument from me on that. I just want to emphasize that this film isn’t a fair characterization of the industry, of drilling practices, or of the dangers of drilling. There’s another documentary, Haynesville–whose filmmaker is hardly a champion of the industry–that I’d recommend watching alongside this one. And to be clear, I’m glad Gasland was made, if only to give the industry the slap in the face it needs; I just hope folks are aware of its shortcomings.

  • Morgan says:

    I used to work as a minion for the senior executive of a major oil and gas company, and I can assure you, they do watch all these movies and spend a lot of time talking about them. So, there’s that!

  • Cat_slave says:

    How very interesting to read the comments from people working in the industry, especially as they are so articulated. Thank you.

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