‘Gasland’: As Bad Stuff As You Can Get

Since I left Halliburton to become George Bush’s vice president, I’ve severed all my ties with the company, gotten rid of all my financial interest. I have no financial interest in Halliburton of any kind and haven’t had, now, for over three years.

Dick Cheney, Meet the Press, 14 September 2003

“Maybe I’ll start at the beginning. This is Dick Cheney,” Josh Fox narrates over a staticky TV image of the former chief executive officer of Halliburton. “Un, no,” he stops. “Maybe I’ll start at a different beginning.”

The second beginning of Gasland is set in Fox’s back yard, in Milanville, Pennsylvania. Here, along the Delaware River and the New York border north of Narrowsburg, New York, a natural gas company has found the Marcellus Shale, which Fox describes as “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” When he’s offered something like $100,000 for the rights to drill on his land, Fox decides not to take the money, but instead to find out the effects of such drilling, so far unregulated — and to make a film about all of it.

Premiering 21 June on HBO, Gasland draws connections between its two beginnings, Cheney and Fox’s land, by noting Cheney’s hand in the 2005 energy bill that exempts natural gas manufacturers from the Safe Water Drinking Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Superfund Law, “and about a dozen other environmental and democratic regulations.” But the documentary makes another important point by starting first with Cheney on TV, namely, that the intersections between individual and collective histories tend to be framed by and as media images.

Structured as a literal journey across the United States, Gasland begins yet a third time with historical connections, between the Nixon administration’s environmental regulations to Fox’s idyllic childhood in a house built by “hippie” parents. His own style, apparently inspired by his background, infuses the film as he speaks to the camera, plays his banjo while waiting for unreturned phone calls, drives for hours and days, in snow, heat, and rain.

As Fox journeys, the film makes the legislating of the 1970s look remarkably conscious and intelligent compared to the shortsighted and willfully ignorant deregulating of recent years. Gasland makes the convincing case that Cheney and his cohorts have worked deliberately to ensure profits for oil and gas corporations at the cost of the environment, in particular through the nightmarish natural gas drilling technology called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The film, winner of 2009’s Sundance Documentary Special Jury Prize, uses animated maps and charts as well as long lists of chemicals to lay out the basic illogic of the process, which includes injecting some 596 chemicals into the earth in order to “break up rock and free up the gas.” As these chemicals, along with the gas itself, find their way into surrounding water sources (most inexorably in the form of “oil and gas waste water,” which drilling companies call “produced water” and re-disperse into the environment), the effects have been increasingly toxic.

Suggesting he’s “become a natural gas drilling detective,” Fox interviews multiple landowners who see themselves as victims of this process throughout the western and southern US, where natural gas drilling has been going on for years. One family, he notes over a shot of feet in a kitchen, “didn’t want their faces to be on camera, so I ended up taking pictures of their feet,” while others don’t speak at all, because they have signed nondisclosure agreements with the gas companies.

Those who do appear on camera describe consistent rafts of troubles, including headaches and asthma, exploding wells and flammable tap water (these demonstrations are very dramatic). Some homeowners with wells nearby point to ailing livestock and cats losing their hair (a woman says, “They told me I clean with too much Lysol”), while others provide Fox with jars of brown sludgy liquid drawn from their faucets: “It’s bad stuff,” a woman says, “It’s about as bad stuff as you can get.” (Fox sends these jars out for analysis, and the results are, of course, like something from a science fiction horror movie.) Though some citizens have complained to the government, they’ve mostly received letters saying that there is no proven link between the wells and their ruined water supplies. Mike Markham and Marsha Mendenhall, in Wyoming, have installed two 500-gallon tanks in their yard, for water that he hauls in from town each week. “I was a little disappointed in the state,” she says. “Obviously we have a problem here.”

Her understatement is typical, as one family after another do their best to survive increasing daily hardships as well as an increasing sense “that there was a cover-up taking place.” Weston Wilson, a former EPA environmental engineer who underscores that he doesn’t speak for the EPA (he’s introduced as “The Whistleblower”), explains why this sense of distrust is correct. “This is America,” he points out. “We shouldn’t be assuming that the corporation can keep a secret, especially when they’re practicing in our back yard. So the onus should be on the industry to prove to the government that their practice is benign and not that assumption. What you’ve been picking up from these citizens is what we should be investigating, but we’re not.”

This simple-seeming idea, that the government should be looking out for citizens, is especially resonant as images of the havoc wreaked by the BP oil spill appear daily on US TV. The fact that the equally disturbing images in Gasland are not so available makes the film’s point: individual experiences are made collective — that is, visible — on TV. And collective experiences, as belief that local environmental traumas are never just local, but always symptomatic and ever in need of concerted, organized resistance.

RATING 8 / 10