What’s Going on in Your Backyard? Fracking Is Revisited in ‘Gasland II’

“Sometimes you can’t figure out what’s going on in your own back yard without figuring out all the places that your back yard is connected to.” And with that, Josh Fox again heads out from his own back yard in Milanville, Pennsylvania, looking for more places and more connections.

And so Gasland II begins much like 2010’s Gasland, with connections defined by similar experiences with odious oil and gas industry representatives. He begins this film with the 2010 BP oil spill, a means to set up both the industry’s need to seek out alternative fuel sources and its inclination to deceive. The film emphasizes the cover-up part of the BP spill, as Fox films images not captured by journalists whose access as restricted at the time (“This is what it really looked like,” he narrates mournfully, over shots of waters darkened by oil).

When his access is also cut off, Fox goes on to describe another part of the story, that is, the company’s use of chemical dispersants to erase the visible effects while increasing the scale and legacy of environmental damage to the area. He speaks with the president of Plaquemines Parish, Billy Nungesser, who laments the power of BP’s lobbyists in Washington, colluding with the federal and state governments so that local citizens and environmentalists “were fighting harder with the Coast Guard and BP than we were with the oil.” Nungesser and chemist Wilma Subra both point out the lie of the recovery, while media consumes outside the area see shots of a water surface that looks “cleaned up” and BP runs television commercials extolling their “commitment to the Gulf.” Here Fox defines the problem he will pursue for the rest of his film: “What really mattered was who’s telling the story.”

It’s a smart way to frame this increasingly complicated and multi-faceted story. But as Fox traverses the country — and even goes to Queensland, Australia — to find still more connections, the two-hour-plus film’s structure turns scattered. In part, this is a function of this film’s efforts to answer questions raised about the first film by pro-fracking forces. If Gasland II is not a point by point rebuttal (like Fox’s previously published Affirming Gaslandrebuttal), it does give experts like Cornell engineering professor Tony Ingraffea a chance to explain how, even if the cement that surrounds pipes is inclined to fail, apart from the purpose they’re put to, that doesn’t mean that putting them to the purpose of moving fracking chemicals is acceptable.

This point is made briefly by Marcellus Shale Coalition “consultant” Tom Ridge, who won’t call himself a lobbyist, during a frankly embarrassing 2011 interview with Stephen Colbert. And as soon as it’s made, Ingraffea, the man Fox likes to call “the Godfather of Cement,” comes back with context, bolstered by formulas and graphics scrawled on a white board, specifically, that as the numbers of wells using these pipes fail at a rate of 50% after five years, and so as the number of wells increases, so too does the number of failed cement casings.

As abstract as Ingraffea’s argument may be, the film works to integrate such numbers and studies with people’s experiences, and to keep focused on its premise, that the source of the story matters, as you try to sort out truth and lies. Along with his interviews with scientists and academics, Fox includes his sit-downs with politicians, mostly congressmen, who complain that lobbyists influence elections. As true as this may be and as understandable as the mix of outrage and resignation exhibited by Dennis Kucinich or Chaka Fattah may also be, these interviews say as much about what’s wrong as any of the graphs and calculations and water-on-fire shots.

As in the first film, these water-on-fire shots here help to express citizens’ frustrations. As Fox travels from Dimock, Pennsylvania and Dish, Texas to Baldwin Hills, California, each speaker has his or her own footage of contaminated tap water or methane flames shooting up into the sky above a processing facility. The common solutions for this dilemma are two: leave people to endure or not (Texas Representative Lon Burnham says, “We’ve got a lot of upper middle class white people with college degrees getting ticked off because they’re being treated the way third world people have always been treated by corporate America”), or move them.

Driven to desperation — their water is unusable, their properties are unsellable, their children are sicker by the day — many victims take the only option they can, which is to sign deals with the gas-drilling companies whereby the must move off their land, leave behind their homes, and never speak of what’s happened, owing to non-disclosure clauses. Again, Fox underscores the significance of who speaks, who tells the story. For even if the gas-drilling representatives of their lobbyists remain off screen, their money speaks loudly. Kucinich cites the effects of Citizens United specifically, as this Supreme Court decision allows such particular storytellers to remain undisclosed.

Fox goes one more step in this story of how stories are stifled. He films his own effort to record a public hearing in 2012, where the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment was to consider the EPA’s report on the links between fracking and water contamination in Pavilion, Wyoming (it was, he notes, “the first time EPA verified that fracking chemicals were in the water because of fracking,” and its eventual disavowal by the Obama Administration precedes Lisa Jackson’s February 2013 resignation as EPA administrator). The film includes footage of Fox being handcuffed and led outside the hearing room — despite his legal right to be in the room with his camera — and as he appears in canted frame, the exterior lighting and architecture creating a weirdly science-fictiony effect, he narrates his own story, his sense of “freedom” in the arrest and subsequent fingerprinting at the police station, his inability to film, to act, to speak, after three years of working on the film. At this moment, he says, his sense of freedom is at once ironic and horrific: “I didn’t have to do anything,” he says, his hands behind his back.

As Fox here articulates why people don’t act, how damage can be done without resistance from populations or even individuals, he also shows how stories are not told. And this is in the inverse, frightening, apparently implacable logic of the US political-corporate system at work. It isn’t only the material, chemical fracking pollutants that constitute the injury, the film insists. It is, ox asserts, “Our government, all those toxic dollars, all those contaminants, all of that influence outsizing the citizen’s voice in our democratic republic.” As the film pulls back to show a world globe lit up by all manner of fossil fuels, Fox suggests again the connectedness he set out to find: “I felt like I could close my eyes and open them anywhere in the world.” You’re left to ponder how this may be both an effect and a hope.

RATING 7 / 10
PopMatters