In late 2009, environmental justice activists in New York State began to build a very large grassroots movement and an impressive coalition of over 70 groups calling for a ban on a particularly destructive method of methane mining called horizontal hydrofracking or ‘fracking’. Fracking is a water- and energy-intensive form of drilling for ‘natural gas’ (an industry euphamism for methane which has also tried to sell the public on ‘clean burning natural gas’) and is used to force nearly impermeable geological formations like tight sands and shales to yield methane gas trapped in tiny pores. Developed by Halliburton and used extensively throughout the country west of the Appalachian Trail, fracking was unknown to all except for the most ardent environmentalists in the New York. The movement for a ban on horizontal hydrofracking in New York State is one of the largest (if not the largest) campaign in that state responding to the threat of this relatively new fossil fuel extraction method. Yet, in his film Gasland, which enjoys its theatrical premiere in New York City on September 15th, Josh Fox chronicles his cross-country odyssey searching for answers about the impacts of gas drilling, while failing to support or even refer to the existence of this or any other campaign to ban gas drilling. Which brings us to a provocative question this review of the film will touch on: why are Josh Fox and his film becoming famous? To begin to address this question, we need to explore how people came to learn about the threat of horizontal hydrofracking to their way of life, the environment and public helath and to recognize the various responses to that threat by communities directly threatened, professional environmentalists, politicians, and finally the artist.
In 2008, a shale formation stretching from New York State through Pennsylvania, part of Ohio, all the way to Tennessee began to be mentioned outside of circles of gas industry speculators. New Yorkers began to hear more about ‘natural gas’ in general as the mainstream media began promoting the importance of gas and as multibillionaire energy investor, T. Boone Pickens, began promoting the use of methane gas. As the new Congress began secretly shaping legislation ostensibly to address the threat of catastrophic climate change, the media became a vehicle for various hydrocarbon industries (coal, gas, oil) to posture, schmooze and tout their particular form of fossil fuel to the public and hopefully receive a fat piece of what were to become the pork-laden ‘climate’ bills of Representatives Waxman and Markey and Senators Kerry, Lieberman, Graham and Boxer. The Marcellus Shale, where exploratory wells had been drilled in 2004, saw a rapid expansion of new drilling operations from that point on, as the media described the multi-state deposit of gas locked in shale rocks as an exciting new ‘play’.
But horizontal hydraulic fracturing had already been underway for a few years across the country – in the Barnett shale in Texas, the Fayetteville and Haynesville shales in Louisiana, and tight sands and shale in Wyoming, Illinois, Colorado and elsewhere. And stories in local papers, published on the internet, and word of mouth revealed how communities in those states had faced massive water withdrawals, contaminated waterways and wells, toxic spills, ozone levels requiring people to stay indoors, destroyed roadways, large-scale wilderness destruction, and, over the last few years, the emergence of illnesses, including rare brain cancers.
As more New Yorkers began to learn about the experience of Americans in the South, the Great Plains, and the Rockies, many came to the realization that the mining process Halliburton had developed, which was being presented as a means of obtaining ‘clean energy’, economic revitalization, and addressing climate change, was in fact completely unsustainable and had to be stopped. Those New Yorkers became activists fighting a media-savvy, well-connected fossil fuel industry for their lives, their homes, and the well-being of their rural communities.
On ‘Environmental’ organizations and Legislators
A primary obstacle to consolidating nationwide movements to ban hydrofracking is the promotion of methane as a ‘transitional’ or ‘bridge’ fuel by major environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Sierra Club. They claim that ‘natural’ gas is a stepping-stone on the way to a zero, or suitably low, carbon economy, based on the fact that methane burns cleaner than other hydrocarbons. Associated with these pro-gas drilling groups are high-profile figures like Riverkeeper and Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Robert Kennedy, Jr., the Sierra Club’s Chairman Carl Pope and its new Executive Director Michael Brune, some of whom have toured the United States with gas industry reps. These ‘environmental’ leaders lend their name to the gas industry. Industry’s front groups like the Clean Sky Initiative promote ‘natural’ gas and give it a non-profit face , thereby deceiving those receiving information from them into believing that the information is being shared by a disinterested party (or a party interested in clean skies, for instance) as opposed to an industry-funded public relations outfit. Nevertheless, these ‘environmental’ groups promoting methane gas are unable to point to a single comparative life-cycle analysis showing that the greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of shale gas is less than that of coal or oil. Such a study, necessary for any argument arguing for gas as a bridge fuel, has been initiated by Professor Robert Howarth at Cornell, who put together a preliminary assessment of the comparative GHG emissions of coal and unconventional gas. Howarth’s assessment suggests that gas is more GHG intensive than coal, when including conservative estimates of methane leakage from the drill pads and transportation systems. As the public becomes more aware of such measures, the industry has devised more devious deceptions to prevent its lies from being uncovered.
In New York State, various distractions have undermined the movement for a statewide ban on unconventional gas drilling. One such distraction was the (failed) campaign to have the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) restart its environmental review of the potential dangers of horizontal hydrofracking in the Marcellus and simlar geological formations. The campaign urged that the Draft General Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS) which the NYS DEC had issued be withdrawn, on the dubious premise that a de-facto moratorium on such hydrofracking instituted by New York Governor Paterson would stay in place, and that the DGEIS was not the appropriate vehicle for reviewing flaws in any proposed regulatory scheme.
Another distraction from the statewide ban movement building has been the promotion, with great urgency, of carve outs or “special protected areas” that are deemed more deserving of protection — such as efforts to protect the “New York City watershed”. Such efforts have been advanced by New York City politicians like Councilmember Gennaro and Borough President Scott Stringer who have hidden behind excuses of (non-existent) jurisdictional restrictions to justify their promotion of carve outs. They have at every turn been supported by the pro-gas drilling Natural Resources Defense Council and Riverkeeper, for whom sacrificing upstate watersheds and foodsheds (where much regional food supply is sourced) to the contamination of drilling operations seems less important than cashing in with funders and new (naïve) members on a hollow victory.
Finally, there has been a push at the State government level for a one-year moratorium on gas drilling in New York State, which recently passed the New York State Senate and may be headed to the New York State Assembly this month. If passed, it would possibly delay drilling for nine months. Even more revealing is the fact that, since the issuing of new drilling permits by the NYS DEC is unlikely in any case to take place before May 2011, the entire exercise of rallying people for a moratorium bill will have taken energy and resources away from activists pursuing what they actually want: to ban horizontal hydrofracking in New York State and the country.
The campaigns around bills proposing either a moratorium for one year, or a moratorium until the EPA completes its study on the impacts of drilling, which would be about two years, distracted from the growing momentum towards a gas drilling ban. A moratorium bill has been presented by some activists as a means of buying time to organize for a ban; by others it’s presented as ‘realistic’. But many advocates for the ban believe that the timing of a moratorium plays into the hands of the gas industry while pointing out that declaring what activists and upstate communities want ‘unrealistic’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy because it stifles those demanding urgently needed transitions away from polluting energy sources while insulating politicians from the true demands of their constituents. A moratorium not only delays the ban effort, but also serves the gas drilling industry. Because of the moratorium, some shale plays may become more attractive according to the industry itself. Because of the recession/depression and the glut of gas on the market, gas prices are very low. During the moratorium period and, in part because of the moratorium, leases can be scooped up by major players at bargain basement prices, thereby adding to the gas industry’s economic and political muscle. Statewide ban advocates have tried unsuccessfully to determine how the sponsoring legislators for the moratorium efforts decided to introduce moratorium bills as opposed to a ban bill, in light of the already strong movement for a ban, and the absence of any moratorium movement prior to the introduction of the legislation. They have also asked how these two bills were drafted (with which ‘environmental’ organization support), given NRDC’s role in drafting and pushing for the inadequate Federal legislation known as the FRAC Act.
At the Federal level, some environmental organizations, who have played into the gas industry’s strategy of divide-and-conquer, for instance, by supporting ‘special’ areas or carve-outs to be granted protections which poorer, disenfranchised communities would not receive, were also involved in drafting (largely by the NRDC) and introducing the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act in Congress. This legislation has been deceptively presented as protecting all the nation’s drinking water through what would be a repeal of the gas industry’s exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. See the link to a letter here in which some groups suggest that the FRAC Act would protect all of our water, claiming “(e)very American deserves clean drinking water”. The FRAC Act is consistent with NRDC lead counsel and Riverkeeper Director Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s advocacy for gas as a transition fuel, in ads for the industry-sponsored Clean Skies Initiative (e.g. in the New Yorker magazine February 11, 2010 issue, at P.61). The truth is that the FRAC Act only protects public water supplies (or water that could – because of flow rates and amount – serve as such). This would leave effectively unregulated and unprotected a vast landscape of rural America, where individuals and small-town communities are supplied with water from private wells and/or small aquifers.
A small change to the proposed legislation would allow these legislators, and the NRDC, to put their money where their mouth is by protecting all of our drinking water. In December 2009, advocates met with the NRDC’s President and lead staff person dealing with shale gas drilling, asking that they redraft the legislation to include that small change, which would properly represent their, and the sponsoring legislators’, avowed goal — that all water supplies be equally protected. Yet it has become clear that neither they nor those legislators are willing to advocate for such common sense and equitable environmental demands.
An engaged environmentalist movement fighting one of the most powerful fossil fuel interests in the world for the future of rural America might reasonably wonder why this is the case.
Public Awareness and Pressure – Information and Action in Fox’s Gasland
A similar story — of misleading representations of supposedly environmentally-friendly political maneuvers — is occurring around the film Gasland. There is no doubt that Josh Fox’s film has done a great job of raising concern about this massive environmental threat across the country. For this, we should all be appreciative. Nevertheless, the film perpetuates support for pro-drilling legislation, groups and politicians who can – without considerable educational efforts as a corrective– undermine the effectiveness of the movement for a ban on hydrofracking Marcellus and similar geological formations.
As Fox documents in his film, the devastation which shale gas drilling using horizontal hydrofracking has unleashed is real, and being felt on the ground by farmers, ranchers, and rural property owners and communities nationwide. But these communities are not just passive victims of the gas industry. They have mobilized against this threat to their health and well-being in Fox’s own region of the country, the Northeast, and in particular, in New York State.
Unfortunately Fox has refused to take on – and actually featured and celebrated – the pro-drilling environmental groups, as well as pro-drilling legislators such as New York City Councilmember James Gennaro, Senator Casey, and Upstate New York Representative Hinchey (here), who continue to ignore the widespread popular demand for a ban. Fox fails to challenge the politicians who insist tapping US shale and tight sands gas reserves be done ‘safely’, and his film neither shows, nor supports, the impressive coalition to ban gas drilling in New York State!
Why is that? There are excellent documentaries, which expose terrible threats to communities at the same time as they show those communities as central and active agents of resistance with their own positive vision of alternative futures. Harlan County USA (about a community rallying against corrupt mining company owners and their brutal thugs), Allegheny County (successful fight against the federal government’s decision to site 3 national nuclear waste repositories in rural and poor Allegheny county), and The Garden (featuring a community organizing against unscrupulous local Los Angeles politicians and a connected selfish real estate investor) all have threatened communities playing an active role in their own defense. Fox’s documentary is focused on his quixotic search for answers about gas drilling. I don’t remember him asking any person “what would you like the government to do?” “do you want gas drilling on your land, near your land, near your community or anywhere?” Imagine how much more powerful the film’s impact would be if it had featured the grassroots mobilized to ban gas drilling questioning these legislators and pro-drilling environmentalists, instead of providing valuable air time for their spin. And if he had asked politicians like Hinchey to explain why they support horizontal hydrofracking in rural America.
Fox does call visitors to his movie’s website to action, urging them to “Do Something” and he offers a “House Party Guide” to help organize house parties where his film would be shown. But here again, while he does give talks about the threat and he says he supports a ban, so do politicians like those mentioned above when they’re in front of a certain crowd. And when it comes time for actions to be suggested, the website of the film which documents gas drilling-related disasters befalling individuals and communities counsels communities fighting to ban gas drilling to support existing pro-drilling legislation like the FRAC Act instead of organizing around the call to ban drilling.
Obstacles of environmental opportunism and corruption on the road to banning methane mining in New York State, the U.S., and the world
The hydrocarbon industry plays for keeps, and undermines principled grassroots movements by fostering all sorts of individual and institutional corruption and propaganda.
The movement for banning methane mining exists despite some of the well-funded environmental organizations. Why would environmental organizations like the NRDC, Riverkeeper, and the national Sierra Club (as opposed to the New York State Sierra Club Chapter (known as the Atlantic Chapter), which supports a statewide ban of drilling), support gas drilling and the FRAC Act? I think there are a number of institutional reasons that would make this attractive:
1. They could declare victory for the environment because New York City residents and the residents of large municipalities supplied by public water systems would ostensibly be protected (even though toxic fluids have contaminated water as far as 28 miles from the nearest drilling site making the contiguity of one watershed with another a meaningless demarcation;
2. They could collect funding from rich donors in “protected” and politically well-connected municipalities (like NYC);
3. They could avoid fighting the industry for equal and adequate environmental and public health protection of less-enfranchised rural areas;
4. They could avoid alarming some of their hydrocarbon industry-connected board members (for instance the NRDC Board has many such potential conflicts).
Despite the obstacles which advocacy by some environmental organizations for regulated ‘transitional’ this gas drilling process poses the movement to ban it, a powerful network of environmental and community-based organizations in New York State is calling for a statewide ban on hydrofracking in New York State. Such a ban would set a critical precedent to stop the process nationwide, and worldwide.
In a section of the Gasland website offering a House Party guide entitled “Let’s Talk”, Fox asks us to discuss the film after a screening and to ask a number of questions to examine the threat more closely. One question stands out: ‘How can you protect your local community, state or country from the adverse affects of unregulated gas drilling?’
As if to answer that exact question, over 70 organizations have signed onto a petition calling Governor Paterson to ban drilling. Joining their call for a ban (and not a moratorium or the FRAC Act which would leave rural lands exposed) and organizing around it seems the key to protect communities from unregulated and regulated gas drilling.
Some grassroots groups that are involved in New York State are fighting for their lives and livelihood and are doing great work. People who would like to become involved in this campaign can support and join them, including the Chenango Delaware Otsego Gas Drilling Opposition Group (contact through www.un-naturalgas.org), Friends of Brook Park (www.friendsofbrookpark.org), Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (www.peacecouncil.net/noon) and the Shaleshock Citizens Action Alliance (www.shaleshock.org).
ROBERT JERESKI is an environmentalist and compost systems builder living in New York City with his family. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org