There are other movies currently in theatres with more elaborate and decidedly more expensive special effects than the showstopper in Gasland. But when it comes to making an impact on viewers, none of those sights can quite compare with that of a bright orange fireball shooting out of an ordinary water tap.
That’s because it’s not a trick. Instead, the prospect of flammable water has become a reality in households across America. Though oil and gas companies refuse to concede there’s a connection, this alarming documentary by Josh Fox, a favourite at Sundance and Hot Docs earlier this year, draws a convincing link between widespread cases of environmental contamination and a huge domestic boom in natural-gas drilling.
The latter came in the wake of a provision in the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 that exempted hydraulic fracturing, a practice that allows energy companies to access enormous reservoirs of gas thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface, from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Thus were drilling companies able to circumvent decades’ worth of environmental regulations and rapidly construct thousands of new wells.
When an energy company approached him to buy the right to drill on his land in rural Pennsylvania, Fox was moved to action. A trip to learn about the impact of wells in nearby Demick, Penn., prompts a wider investigation, not that he’s necessarily comfortable with this role of ecological gumshoe.
“Was I actually going to become a kind of natural-gas-drilling detective?” Fox asks himself in his narration for his film. “Well, okay, I guess.”
The banjo-playing filmmaker’s laconic sense of humour proves to be one of Gasland’s great virtues. Somehow, a more earnest treatment of the subject wouldn’t have done full justice to the almost absurdly horrific nature of his discoveries.
As well as the many people with flammable and, as you may have guessed, undrinkable water, Fox meets farmers whose animals are losing their hair and whose children are suffering from asthma. Others complain of headaches and worse.
“The neurological effects are very insidious,” says activist and scientist Dr. Theo Colborn of the chemicals involved in “fracking.” Colborn also notes that the public doesn’t even know precisely what they are, seeing as these companies are also exempt from even disclosing the chemicals they were introducing into the environment.
Fox justly fears that what’s already happening in Wyoming, Colorado and Texas — and which turned Louisiana toxic long before any oil from the latest spill in the Gulf came ashore — will soon befall Pennsylvania and New York. Potentially at risk is the same watershed that supplies most of New York City’s drinking water.
Such is the urgency of the issue that there have been some major developments since Fox finished Gasland. In April, New York State environmental officials imposed stricter regulations on drilling. However, environmental protection agencies in other states have been less responsive to worries about the impact of the wells, and to the health complaints of those already affected.
Anyone versed in the muckraking movies of Michael Moore will be familiar with Gasland’s gallery of angry, ailing regular folks and industry officials who’d rather keep stonewalling than address public concerns (or, indeed, drink the same tap water they’ve declared to be perfectly safe).
But unlike so many well-intentioned but ineffective docs that arrived in the wake of Bowling for Columbine and An Inconvenient Truth, Gasland has real punch.