This is an interview with filmmaker Josh Fox about the documentary Gasland. When filmmaker Josh Fox received an unexpected offer of $100,000 for the natural gas drilling rights to his property in the Delaware River Basin, on the border of New York and Pennsylvania, he resisted the urge to accept. Instead, he set off on a cross-country journey to investigate the environmental risks of agreeing to the deal. The timely documentary won the Documentary Special Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Question: Josh, how does a theater director from New York City wind up with one of the most lauded documentaries at last year's Sundance Film Festival?
Josh Fox: My home is still in Pennsylvania, in the upper Delaware River basin. I do work a lot near New York City, of course, with my company, and we were in the process of kind of getting into film when this was all starting to happen. We rehearse a lot in Pennsylvania, also, and develop a lot of work here. My work in the theater is international through epic stories that we create with actors from other countries. So in the WOW Company, there's 150 actors and 31 different countries. So when I'm doing a collaboration, I'm interviewing my actors, I'm interviewing subjects, I'm learning about the culture that we're in, learning about that. And that always gets built into what we're making, because we're focusing on things that are really happening right now. So although I'd never done a documentary, the process of gathering information through interview - I'd done that a lot.
In the film, I really focused on my background in Pennsylvania, and my love of the place of where my house is. And so, I don't talk so much about my theater work because it's not relevant to the story. But, basically we did have this sort of infrastructure in place. I just finished Memorial Day, the film, when we got these leases, and so I had the cameras and the editing equipment. So when this sort of rolled up on my porch, or rather my dad came to me with this letter and said, "What do you think this is?" And then the debate started to rage between the environmentalists in my area and the people who wanted to lease on the industry, so I was kind of really poised to make something.
I originally started off thinking I was going to make a five-minute primer on what hydraulic fracturing was for my neighbors and sort of deal with the issue in a short video segment because, you know, there wasn't a lot of information. And most of the "good" stuff, the stuff that was well-produced, was coming from the industry. And what the industry was telling me was entirely different than the basic rudimentary research that I did online. They were saying, "Well, it's just a fire hydrant of fuel, we won't even drill. You won't even know we're here." I mean, you don't hear a car go by in this area for like an hour-and-a-half, so that's really inconsistent to say you won't even know we're here. And then they're saying this is the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas" and then telling landowners, "Oh, we probably won't even drill." So there were inconsistencies there that felt deceptive to me, so I was suspicious. But nothing prepared me for what I was going to find. I mean, nothing could ever prepare you for it.
The first place to go was Dimock, and if I think about it now, I mean, Jesus... there was no information about what's going on there. I was there in February 2009; there's been a lot of ink written about Dimock since then. But when I first showed up there, because it's 50 miles from me, it's the closest they were drilling to me... was 2009 in February, Norma Fiorentino's water well exploded on January 1, 2009. And that's when the people there started adding it up. Then people started to compare: "My water is totally discolored and it's destroyed my washing machine." "My water is bubbling and fizzing and they found out that they could light it on fire." And this other person said, "We've got heavy metal in our water after the DEP had come in and done tests." So everybody freaked out; their kids are getting sick, and they realized that their kids were drinking the water for a couple of months, feeling sick, and they all thought they had some kind of a bug. And then they find out that everybody has these problems with the water, so they stop drinking the water and start feeling better. You know, so when I arrived there, the atmosphere of fear in the air was palpable; I mean, you could touch it, you could feel it. Pat Farnelli took me around to different folks, and that was great, because I had an introduction, because no one wanted to talk to anybody. And it was very hard... eventually there was a level of trust that was built up. But when that guy hands me the jar of water - this contaminated, produced water - that one of his relatives was asked to dump into a stream, he just said, "Take this, find out what's in it, and get out of here." It wasn't a warm welcome, because the level of trust in that town was so betrayed and so trampled on, that nobody knew what anybody was doing...
Nobody trusted anyone, and they were telling me stories about DEP and Cabot Oil and Gas coming in, hand in hand, to do their water tests, and saying their water is fine and when they offer them water to drink, and they [the companies] won't drink it.
I spent a lot of time - well, about a month - going back and forth to Dimock. I talked with someone at Cabot Oil and Gas, and the first thing he told me, and this was in March, was that this was not their gas, this was some other gas, some kind of biogenic gas. And these reports persist about how water was already flammable before we got there. So he's telling me, "I've got a manual from 1937 on my desk that says that people could light their water on fire in this area before any drilling occurred." And then, lo and behold, two months later I'm on the phone with the Pennsylvania DEP and they're identifying that gas through isotopic processes of identification that it was coming from a production layer of gas, a thermo-genic layer of gas right above the Marcellus where they're fracking. And then, of course, they turn around and say, "Oh well, you're right." But then they say, "Oh, but it's not Marcellus Shale. It's the formation just above the Marcellus Shale." "Well, are you fracking and producing gas from that formation?" "Oh yeah."
You know, you can't pin these guys down. So the obfuscation and the deception and the spin is a myth. So when I got there, everybody was confused. DEP is telling them their water is safe to drink and yet here are people who can light it on fire and their children are getting sick and they're saying it's not safe to drink. And they're going off, buying their own water.
Question: Since then, has anything changed [in Dimock]?
Josh Fox: Yeah, there's more and more drilling.
Question: There's more drilling?
Josh Fox: More drilling, oh yeah. They've got three times the number of wells.
Question: Since you started filming?
Josh Fox: Oh yeah. They have 90 or 100 permits or something, for drill permits all around there. The drilling has expanded to Bradford County next door. It hasn't slowed down at all. Pennsylvania DEP has put some fines on Cabot and some drilling restrictions. But, Cabot is just one company; now we have Chief Energy moving in, continuing doing hydraulic fracturing and people in Dimock their water still has a very high level content of natural gas and other contaminants. So what's happening is, whatever regulations or restrictions that DEP has put in place since then, it hasn't slowed the industry down at all. And the drilling continues.
What we're calling for is a moratorium. We're calling for a five-year moratorium so that there can be an adequate ecological study that's modeled on the most affected areas with real hydrogeology by the EPA, and we're calling for an independent university to do a health study. Because the health problems, we're seeing those all across the country; and we think that it's going to take three to five years to do that health study. And we want a moratorium in place until that happens on drilling, leasing, permitting, and fracking. Currently, there's no study [going on]. The EPA was taken off the job back in the early part of 2001 and again in 2004 when they appealed to do more investigation under their Imminent and Substantial Endangerment authority, and they were shut down on that. And then in 2005, the industry was made exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, so they said to the EPA, "Well, we don't even have to report what we're putting into the ground."
So we're calling on all these processes to stop because they're incredibly harmful as far as the level of evidence on the ground - what people are saying to us. Citizens are saying that this has ruined our lives, this has ruined our property. We need a break because we need to figure out what's going wrong.
Question: And this is how this project came to you, literally, on your doorstep?
Josh Fox: Oh yeah. In the film, it just talks about the first letter. But there was a whole process: The Landowners Association [and] the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, which is very interested in leasing, which my father was dealing with for quite awhile. And they have leased; I think they have leased 80,000 acres of this county. So it's very distressing; we have leasing going on all around us. In the most affected areas, there has been health studies where there has been chronical damage, when you can see the spills of gas migrating, drilling mud and water; all this hard evidence that the DEP has assembled. No, no stop to the drilling, no stop to the leasing. Rather, it's the opposite. In fact, it's expanded.
I think this is going be a horrible legacy for Ed Rendell and for Pennsylvania. This is going to be a horrible legacy for those people if they don't come to their senses fast.
Question: What is fracturing or fracking?
Josh Fox: Hydraulic fracturing is, in the contemporary sense of the word, a new drilling technique; they've done fracking in the past but never at this amount of pressure and never with the sophisticated or chemical complexity that they are using.
They drill a well down to whatever formation they are targeting and they can target shale formations, type sands, coal beds - all sorts of rock formations. Gas that's trapped inside of rock formations that you have to fracture to get at that gas. They drill down to various depths (between 8-11K feet, sometimes shallower) and they inject millions gallons of fluid (between 2 and 7 million gallons per fracture) down into that formation at such high pressure that it actually fractures the rock.
If you're standing near one of these jobs you can feel the earth shake. The pressure is 9,000 pounds per square inch at 1,000 gallons a minute, rushing through there and forcing that rock formation open. And then, of course, the chemicals, the additives are for changing the consistency of the fluid, so they'll change the viscosity from a gel kind of fluid and then use another additive and make it very, very slippery like using hydraulic fluid for jet engines, so those are lubricants.
There are also various biocides to kill anything down there that might get to the surface that we've never seen before, because there are bacteria 8,000 feet under the ground that have never been to the surface. There are all sorts of different disinfectants, detergents, lubricants, corrosion inhibitors that are forced down into that pipe and when the gas starts coming up it comes up wet... which they then have to dispose of somehow. But most of the fluid, between 50-75% of that fluid, stays down in the ground locked inside the formation, with all those toxins it's just left there.
Question: Have you had the comparison to Erin Brockovich yet?
Josh Fox: Yeah, there's been some of that... I mean, the very first day that I was doing this, when I was in Texas talking to Charles Morgan, who has brain damage from either the noise puncturing his ear drums or the offgassing of those compressors - because nobody really knows why - I'm in his kitchen and I'm hearing him describe his health problem and I felt like I'm in the movie ERIN BROCKOVICH. And then I realized, this isn't a movie, and then I realized no-no this is a movie. Erin Brockovich, I think, I haven't seen the film in a while, and I'm not super up on it, but I'm pretty sure she was dealing with just one chemical in one county. 596 different chemicals in 34 states. This goes way beyond the issues of one little community. I'm worried about the fresh water systems in the United States.
Question: How did the partnership with HBO come about?
Josh Fox: They saw it at Sundance and they liked it... and we got them the DVD.
Question: And then there was dinner and drinks and that was it?
Josh Fox: It would have been great to have dinner and drinks. You know, we had a number of offers to put the film out HBO was obviously the best way to go - their documentary department is incredible, we really liked the company we were in. We loved them; we got along, which is always important. It was the fastest way to get it to the most people. It's a truly amazing thing. HBO was honored at a benefit by Riverkeeper for their investigative work and I think it's of note that when you have all these journalism departments of major newspapers moving towards entertainment, you have HBO moving towards information. It's really, really, really exciting.
Question: How long did it take you to compile all of this footage?
Josh Fox: The majority of trip that you see in the film happened very fast. I spent about a month going back and forth to Dimock, just trying to figure out what I was doing and then setting up the next trip and the next trip was a month. So, the majority of the film was shot between February and April 2009. The congressional hearings were on June 4, some of the stuff in City Hall in New York was in the spring. Into the fall we were still shooting because we were following the story up until the last moment because we wanted to get New York's reaction in the film and we wanted that to be current. We were updating it until we submitted it and we finished the film the day before Sundance.... It was a bitter rush to production from the moment I first realized what was going on and we're still racing against time.
Question: Were you threatened?
Josh Fox: On site, in a couple of places, they were like, "Get the hell out of here."
Question: From the landowners?
Josh Fox: One was the landowner, another was a gas company that I was investigating [an explosion] and they threatened me with arrest. There is contention about the facts, a lot of people want the money now and want drilling to start now - yell regularly at the environmentalists who sometimes yell back. There has been some bad behavior, I can't really say that I've been threatened, I've felt scared.
Question: When did you feel that?
Josh Fox: When I came back from Dimock, I was terrified. I felt terrified when I started to realize what this meant. I couldn't sleep, when I thought about my home being subject to this process, I still am terrified by it. I think Amee Ellsworth describes the experience in her home, of having her faucets catch on fire, as terror.
I have to say this really frankly, everywhere we've gone, we've been sold out. People are bringing their water samples to these screenings. They're showing up because no one is paying attention to them. We've done these grassroots screenings, and I have a feeling that on HBO that it's going to confirm the fear of a lot of people who are terribly nervous about what the leasing means. I've had people come up to me and say, "Ok we've leased about 200 acres. How do we get out of this lease?"
Question: How do they?
Josh Fox: I don't think there is an easy way for them to do it. It's absolutely horrible because the gas companies are not required to tell you what this process actually is. When you buy prescription medication in this country, you get a warning label that says, "May cause this, that or the other thing." When these men come to your door, they don't have to tell you your water could be contaminated, your air could be polluted, your land will be ripped apart your house will be ruined. Guys may be on your property all the time walking to and fro -- they are not required to tell you what the process is. In fact, most of the time they'll just say, "We're not even gonna drill here but we're leasing on spec so you don't have anything to worry about. Just sign the paper and here is your check."
Question: Should people in the Tri-State area be concerned?
Josh Fox: Absolutely! Incredibly concerned for a number of reasons, tourism and agriculture are New York's two chief industries. The tourism up here is really substantial; it's a multi-billion dollar industry. It would be smashed by this. There is no question in my mind.
The other reason New Yorkers should be worried is that the New York City watershed has been leased. They've been trying to get drilling going in the New York City watershed. This area is pristine, not just because it's beautiful and because people like to vacation here and fish and hunt and do all those other things - and there's also a huge organic farming industry and a huge wine industry in New York ALL those would be destroyed by this.
The amount of money that the state generates from those industries vastly dwarfs the amount of money they would get from natural gas development. And yet, natural gas would destroy those industries.
15.6 million people depend on the water that comes from the upper Delaware River, and the New York City watershed. It's a combined watershed; they are interconnected. New York City has the largest unfiltered water system in the world 6.8 million people get their water from it, 5.4 million in Pennsylvania including Philadelphia, 700,000 in Delaware, 2.9 million in New Jersey, including Trenton and Camden get their water from this area
Question: We're currently witnessing the worst environmental disaster in US history. As we watch the events in the Gulf Of Mexico unfold, what do you hope viewers will take away from Gasland?
Josh Fox: First of all, this blowout that we've seen from an exploratory well in the Gulf of Mexico; blowouts are happening in the natural gas world all over the place, and I'm extremely worried about our on-shore drinking water sources as a result. We have a plume Benzine in the ground water in Clarksfork, Wyoming, after drilling two wells; one of them blew out. There's no way that you can clean that. Once you've contaminated an aquifer, you can't clean it. You can't get at source of the pollution. You also can't see it because it's under the ground, unlike what's going on in the Gulf of Mexico. But these are very, very similar in the sense that we have unregulated extractive energy. They are not complying by the world-wide standards, the gold standards, of how to drill. They have no plans for clean-up; this is a very, very similar situation to suggest that we imperil our drinking water sources onshore as a result of the blowout of a different fossil fuel industry in the Gulf is crazy. Because it's not a solution; it's just imperiling a different water source with a different set of chemicals, but under very, very similar types of circumstances. And with the track record, I might add, that's just as bad as oil drilling for blowouts, contaminations, incidents, [and] sites that would merit a superfund clean-up. And what we're seeing around here all across the country when examining natural gas drilling is [that] it's hard to say anything is just as bad as the Gulf of Mexico, because there's nothing that's ever been as bad as that in the history of the planet. But the level of problems and contamination is incredibly significant and it's not a solution.
The second thing I would say to that is natural gas has been doing this brilliant PR spin job of saying that it's cleaner burning than coal, and therefore it's a solution to the climate change problem. They've been convincing our environmental groups that it's a transition fuel, that it's a bridge fuel. All this is nonsense; natural gas is on par with coal. It's exactly the same as coal in terms of its greenhouse gas emissions. There are studies that have just been completed out of Cornell; when you drill for natural gas, you vent off enormous amount of the product (raw methane) into the atmosphere. It comes out of the pipelines when they're cleaning them, it comes out of the wells when they're first struck, it comes out of the condensate tanks, which are boiling over [and which you see during the film]. When you take the life cycle of natural gas, and keep in mind that methane is 25 times the greenhouse gas of carbon dioxide, so it's 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. You're emitting as much as those hazardous air pollutants and greenhouse gases as you are when you burn coal.
So it's an utter lie that natural gas is better for the environment than coal. I mean, the environmental movement has to learn that fact and a lot of people have to learn that fact, because the truth is that it's the exact same as coal. We should not be transitioning from coal to natural gas; it doesn't make any sense. We need to be transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. We need to be funding renewable energy; the fossil fuel industries get three times the amount of government subsidies than renewable energy gets. That's crazy! We're subsidizing three times as much as much renewables the most powerful industry in the world, with billions and trillions of dollars in profits. So what we need to be doing is moving as fast as we can to a smart grid, and to a clean renewable energy economy; which was promised to us. Obama campaigned on a smart grid and green economy. We need those things to be kick-started in a hurry, and we can do it. There are plans out there. One of them at Repower America. We are going to be investigating this for our next project. The next project is going to be about renewable energy. Whether that's a TV series or a film, we're not sure. But we're wanting to get out there the state of where we're at with the state of renewable energy in the world right now. But we could be transitioning out of fossil fuels for our electricity generation in the United States in 10 years. It would be possible to do that; it would take an enormous effort, but we need to take that enormous effort. It would be probably much better time, energy and money spent than cleaning up what's in the gulf, cleaning up what's going on in America with natural gas.
Question: At then end of the film, you leave it up to the viewer to decide what happens, what should we be doing?
Josh Fox: Well, there's a lot of stuff you should be doing. The first thing you should do is sign up at gaslandthemovie.com. When we launch it in about five days, it's going to be an incredible resource of information. We're going to have there listed all of the grassroots organizations, the national organization, the national federal legislation that is moving, and the state and local legislation as it's coming out. So you need to write to your legislators; we're going to make that really easy for people to do. At gaslandthemovie.com, it's going to generate those letters; you'll be able to sign them and add to them and pass them along. People need to tell their friends about what's going on with this natural gas drilling around the United States.
Go to the demonstrations and the rallies that are coming up throughout the summer. A lot of them are going to be in the Northeast, related to the Marcellus Shale, but I'm sure that there will be others. Volunteer with your grassroots organization; most places right now have grassroots organizations that deal with natural gas. I think that the organizations at the ground level are going to be the most interesting and fun to work with; first of all, because they're often the most informed. They're also always in a partnership with the bigger national organizations, like NRDC, Environmental Working Group, Sierra Club, Oil and Gas Accountability Project . They're going to be having a conversation there.
But before this comes to your area - and take a look at the map at gaslandthemovie.com - there's enormous amounts of everything in the United States. Or before it comes to an area where your water is coming from; they're not drilling in New York City, but they're drilling where the watershed is... Get involved, on that basic level. If you don't have time to get involved, the least you can do is immediately write your congress people and senators about the FRAC Act. The FRAC Act is incredibly important. It would reverse the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption for the industry, which means they would start to have to report what they're injecting onto the ground. That would do a whole series of things; it would allow the EPA to regulate and monitor what's happening. So the FRAC Act, which has been proposed by Maurice Hinchey of New York and by Diana DeGette of Colorado and has 57 cosponsors in the House and 12 in the Senate, that needs more support and that needs to pass in order to reverse the aberration to our history, which is the exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act. So those are all things that you can do to get involved, but I think the best thing to do is to immediately go to gaslandthemovie.com and start to learn more information about what's happening in your area and to definitely, definitely support the FRAC Act.