New Film Brings Awareness to Hydraulic Fracturing

Margaret Smith

Imagine walking over to your kitchen sink and turning on the faucet. Now imagine looking down and seeing gray, bubbly water coming from the spout, tinged with the smell of slightly rotten egg. It's safe to say your thirst is probably gone by now. It's a scary thought, yet scenes like this are now a reality for many Americans as hydraulic fracturing, also know as hydrofracking or fracking, is becoming more and more popular with gas companies. Fracking is a natural gas extraction method where gas companies blast a mixture of water, sand and unknown chemicals deep within shale rock. The intense pressure combined with the fracking fluid opens up cracks within the rock, allowing drillers to easily extract methane gas. Gas companies maintain that fracking is harmless and say that there have been no cases of drinking water contamination that can be tied to fracking. As more people find their drinking water contaminated, however, the debate rages on. Filmmaker Josh Fox explores this debate with his 2010 Sundance award-winning documentary Gasland. Premiering Monday, June 21, on HBO, the film looks at fracking and the affect it has had on average people. Fox illuminates fracking's dangers using shocking scenes, and at one point in the documentary, a man even sets fire to the water coming from his kitchen sink. Fox got the idea for Gasland in 2006, when a natural gas company sent him a letter asking if he would lease the rights to drill on his land -- for $100,000. Fox and his family live on the Upper Delaware River Basin, on the border of New York and Pennsylvania. Most hydraulic fracturing occurs in the Marcellus Shale, which runs from Ohio and West Virginia all the way to Pennslyvania and southern New York state, and Fox's land is on the edge of that and rich in natural gas resources. Fox didn't take the money, though. Instead he denied the offer and decided to travel around the country to see how onshore natural gas drilling affected other communities and homes. His journey took him all the way from Colorado to New York and Pennsylvania, where the center of the hydraulic fracturing debate is today. "The film started with just a basic inquiry into what was happening with gas drilling," Fox told Reuters in an interview. "Quickly, though, I found out that it was a complete disaster for all the places that I visited." Fracking has been under public scrutiny for a while now, and various publications have been following the debate for the past year or so, including In These Times. Last fall, In These Times published a feature article about the subject, with author Polly Howell discussing some of the most dangerous fracking stories. Howells writes: In April 2009, in northwest Louisiana, 17 cattle died within an hour after drinking "frac" water that had entered their pasture. The Chesapeake Energy Company admitted its pipes had leaked "salt water" into the field, but did not acknowledge that its lethal "trade secret" chemicals were dissolved in the water. In a tacit admission of guilt, the company compensated the farmer for his losses. Why are the hydraulic fracking chemicals known as "trade secrets"? Mostly because gas companies aren't required to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracking. In 2005 when former vice president Dick Cheney was in office, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act. The Energy Policy Act exempted oil and gas companies from having to follow the Safe Drinking Water Act, allowing them to keep hydraulic fracturing chemicals a secret. Cheney the former CEO of Halliburton -- the company that developed the fracking method and recently, has been under intense scrutiny because of the BP oil spill -- and the bill has now come to be known as the Halliburton loophole. "The gas industry is very powerful, and their power in Congress is well shown," Fox told NPR. "… It's an unregulated industry." Most recently, Pennsylvania regulators ordered C.C. Forbes, a unit of oilfield services contractor Forbes Energy, to stop work on all Marcellus Shale wells after a dangerous well blowout on June 3 that spewed natural gas and wastewater into the air for 16 hours. The blowout will likely bring about harsher hydraulic facturing regulations in Pennsylvania, and according to the Associated Press, today a state board voted on new proposed standards. The toxic chemicals involved in hydraulic fracturing aren't the only thing that scares people. There are numerous other environmental concerns about the process, from the clearing of forests for land to the draining of local aquifers for more water. Fracking one well usually requires 3 to 9 million gallons of water alone. Perhaps the most hazardous environmental concern of them all, though, is the Marcellus Shale itself. The formation is known to be radioactive, and as more drilling occurs the likelihood of radioactive elements being released in the air increases. In the meantime, gas companies continue to drill. Hopefully Fox's "Gasland" will bring more awareness to the subject and in the future, bring hydraulic fracturing to an end.

Margaret Smith, a summer 2010 In These Times editorial intern, is a journalism student at Columbia College in Chicago.
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