Fictionalizing the Facts: Fox’s Flaming Faucets
By Peter Wynne
The Hancock (N.Y.) Herald
July 14, 2010
If you watch Josh Fox in his movie “Gasland,” listen to the narration he wrote and read some of the interviews he’s giving to the media, you’ll likely be convinced he was born among the green hills of Wayne County, Pa., and grew up in a little house on a dirt road in the middle of the woods. More than that, the house was built by his parents, who taught him his first word, “hammer.”
Fox gives out details like that and does it with seeming sincerity, but his heart-warming tale is mostly a fantasy, just so much bait to hook an audience and pull viewers over to his side. The movie’s straight-talking Josh Fox, who wears jeans and a baseball cap and finger-picks a five-string banjo, can’t be trusted to tell anything like the whole truth.
Fox is playing a role in his movie. Besides being a film director, he’s an experienced actor who eight years ago was already claiming he had appeared in more than 60 plays. He’s also a playwright with at least 16 stage plays to his credit. In fact, it’s in the program notes for one of those plays — in 2002 at the La MaMa ETC theater in New York City — that he mentions his acting experience.
In those notes, he also volunteers that he “was born and raised above 96th street and grew up almost entirely in Manhattan,” adding that he’s “a graduate of Columbia University with a degree in Theater Arts.”
That doesn’t sound at all like the star and narrator of “Gasland,” and it’s because the Josh Fox of the film is basically a fictional character. His father does own a modest house on the unpaved John Davis Road in Milanville, and Josh no doubt spent some time there as a child, when he wasn’t growing up “almost entirely in Manhattan.” As with everything else in the movie, Foxed picks only the facts that help him win his case and fills the gaps with fiction.
Fox is a capable and well respected artist who works mostly in a tradition that can be traced back to the leftist propaganda theater of the Great Depression, things like Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock.” He clearly understands that audiences will view him and his crusade against gas exploration with far greater sympathy if he represents himself as someone born and bred in the countryside he says he’s defending, and not just some Upper West Sider whose parents were well enough off to have a rustic retreat for weekends and summer vacations.
He claims he refused an offer of nearly $100,000 as a signing bonus for leasing the drilling rights to the Milanville property. He says that in May 2008 he got an offer of $4,750 an acre on the family’s 19-1/2 acres, but offers of that much money just weren’t being made on properties in northern Wayne County at that time.
The Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, whose members then represented something like 60,000 acres, was struggling to get high-bidding Chesapeake Energy to increase its bonus-money offer from $1,750 an acre. And large aggregations of property were attracting much higher offers than little stand-alone parcels.
The fictions aside, one of the gravest and most consistent problems with “Gasland” is the way Fox ignores the huge differences in geology, production techniques and government regulations that exist across our vast and diverse country. He lavishes generous amounts of screen time on things he observed in Colorado, for example, but very little of what he saw there is germane to Pennsylvania or to many other states.
He points out, for example, that gas wells in Garfield County, CO, are very closely spaced, and this is supposed to be a warning to the rest of us. But what he doesn’t say is the wells are spaced this way because natural gas in Garfield County is found in lens-shaped pockets of porous sandstone that are entirely surrounded by gas-free solid rock.
The only way to extract gas from these “lenses” is to drill into them vertically from above, and efficiently exploiting a gasfield of this type requires placing wells just a few hundred feet apart.
The Marcellus Shale allows — almost requires — an entirely different approach. The shale continuously covers thousands of square miles in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Here a driller can bore down to the shale, 6,000 to 8,000 feet below the surface, and then extend the wellbore horizontally for a mile or more.
The same well pad can be used for multiple wells that extend outward like the spokes of a wheel, and a single location can be used to drain the gas from beneath many hundreds of acres. Here well pads can be spaced thousands of feet apart.
Out West, Fox also found evaporation ponds, which are used there to concentrate the tainted water that flows back to the surface from a newly fracked well. The flowback or “produced” fluid is sprayed into the air so that much of the water it contains evaporates, reducing the amount of fluid that has to be trucked to a disposal site. This is a technique designed for remote desert settings and cannot be used in Pennsylvania; our Department of Environmental Protection won’t allow it.
An industry group called Energy in Depth has prepared a rebuttal to “Gasland” that runs to nearly 4,000 words and carefully details some of the dozens of factual errors and outright fictions that can be found in the film. It would make no sense to repeat them all here, when the reader can find the piece online.
One subject worthy of comment is Fox’s flaming faucets, which provide some of the most arresting images in the movie. These are kitchen faucets that spout flames because the water wells supplying them have become contaminated with highly combustible methane gas and someone sets it ablaze.
Fox filmed these scenes in Colorado and lets the viewer conclude that the problem was caused by gas drilling, as the homeowners interviewed seem to believe. The most dramatic sequence of the lot, filmed at the home of Mike Markham in Ft. Lupton, gets about 10 minutes of screen time, but there’s no mention that the methane in the water came from bacterial contamination of Markham’s well, which is what Colorado state investigators determined.
In any case, Fox’s basic goal in “Gasland” is to convince his audience that hydrofracturing, or fracking, poses a grave and imminent threat to the environment and every living thing in it — in Pennsylvania and everywhere else. However, fracking has nothing to do with methane in water wells, which is the product of “migration” or “seepage.”
Methane contamination of water wells can be dangerous, to be sure. A methane-gas explosion in Dimock in Susquehanna County at the start of this year blew apart the underground enclosure of a water-well system and left a gaping hole in the ground.
A recently drilled gas well was less than 1,300 feet away, and gas seems to have migrated upward from a pocket 1,500 feet below the surface, along the outside of the steel well casing, which seems not to have been adequately cemented in place. The gas then seeped through the ground to the well enclosure. At least that was the scenario suggested a month or so later by the DEP.
It should be pointed out, however, that methane seepage is nothing new in northeastern Pennsylvania. Francis Tully, a Thompson resident who drilled literally thousands of water wells in the region starting in the 1940s, says gas seepage is relatively common in our area.
In an interview published in “The Hancock (NY) Herald” in February, the now retired Tully remarked that in his time water-well drillers often found they could flare matches at faucets. Near Clifford in Susquehanna County, he said, nearly every water well has natural gas in it, and people drink the water there all the time without harm. (Clifford and Dimock are about 20 miles apart as “the crow flies.”)
Back in January 2007, a brief video of a flaming faucet in Susquehanna County was posted by a homeowner there on You Tube. That was months before any gas wells had been drilled in the county.
Images of flaming faucets can be frightening, even though they’re totally irrelevant, and Fox is hoping, of course, that viewers will associate the unsettling emotional experience he has put them through with the idea of fracking. If you look at the headlines showing up in the popular press these days, you have to admit his tactic is working very well.
If “Gasland” were being offered to the public as an artistic endeavor, a scary, apocalyptic cautionary tale, it mightn’t be too bad. But Fox casts himself in the role of a “gas-drilling detective,” a downhome journalist presenting his findings in a film documentary, but he cherry-picks the facts for their shock value and blends them with at least an equal helping of fiction. The consequences of this deception could be profoundly destructive and longlasting.
Peter Wynne, who’s also a native of Manhattan, spent many years working as a journalist in New York City.