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Josh Fox's Gasland film versus the shale-gas industry

A film about shale-gas fracking in the US is up for an Oscar

JOSH FOX has been causing a furore in the energy industry. And, depending on the whims of the Academy of Motion Pictures, the tempest surrounding him could get much bigger, very quickly. On 27 February, Fox and his many green fans will find out if Gasland, his film about hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Pennsylvania, wins an Oscar for the year's best documentary.

It won't matter to the great and sometimes good of Hollywood, but the energy industry doesn't much like Fox's film. It's not hard to see why. "I'm not a pessimist," says Fox, "I've always had a great deal of faith in people, but ..." That hanging "but" is a heavy hint that, in Gasland, the shale-gas industry is in for a walloping.

Burning gas towers, poisoned rivers, dead wildlife, uncommunicative gas executives and rapacious landsmen: Gasland has it all. Most of it is anecdotal documentary-making; but some of the scenes are truly disturbing. If you thought natural gas was the sweet sister of the fossil fuels, think again. The drillers are coming to get you.

The film is controversial, with some critics slamming it as both sensationalist and tabloid-esque. But movie-goers like a good scare story, and Fox has won the response his polemic seeks. In the US, his tale of rampant drilling in pristine farmland has grasped the narrative about shale-gas fracking, despite the best efforts of the industry's boosters. Following the film's UK release in January, the opposition Labour Party began calling for a moratorium on shale-gas drilling in the country until an inquiry into the safety of fracking had been carried out.

Gasland may be sensationalist but that doesn't bother Fox. "The film is successful and entertaining," he told Petroleum Economist in a recent interview in London. "It has to be to get people to pay attention." Gasland is well shot – viewers are treated to ravishing panoramas of rural North America. The film is often funny, too.

Balanced, though? Not really. Indeed, Fox's ambition both to educate and entertain creates problems. He seems to believe he's some sort of Luke Skywalker, struggling against the "evil empire" of the shale-gas industry. "This shatters democracy," he claims, "this is an undemocratic force that is coming to invade." And Fox believes this. For him, the shale-gas industry is toxic to its core.

His tale is a personal one. Fox's idea for the film came after he was offered $100,000 to let shale-gas firms start exploration on his property in Milanville, a town on the Upper Delaware River in northeast Pennsylvania. He rejected the offer and then embarked on a road trip across "the red zone" – areas across North America with prolific shale-gas drilling.

It's a fun trip. But the film is no documentary. It's an emotional journey through the shale-gas boom, deeply slanted to reflect Fox's prejudice. Impartial scientific data are not big stars in his polemic. He blames the industry for this. "I wanted to find out what was really the truth," he says. "The industry has been very successful at shutting down all scientific enquiries on independent levels."

But that's not a picture shale-gas drillers would recognise, nor would the US Environmental Protection Agency, which approved the process several years ago and is again collecting extensive data.

Fox says the industry has behaved like "a truly insidious machine" in its opposition to the film. Since Gasland's Oscar nomination, Energy in Depth (EID), a lobby group for gas drillers, has gone into overdrive in response to the film. EID says the film contains "many errors, inconsistencies, outright falsehoods". It also sent a letter to Hollywood, pleading with the Academy to remove Gasland from its documentary award category on the grounds that the film is more fiction than fact.

And in terms of weighing up shale gas's contribution to the US economy, the film is simplistic. Indeed, when asked if new shale-gas production had brought his country any economic or energy- security benefits, Fox brushed aside the question. "I don't accept that shale gas has been useful for the US economy," he said, "they're robbing the American people. The whole value of their homes has been destroyed."

The US shale-gas revolution has virtually halted the US' need to import liquefied natural gas. Shale-gas production now makes up 17% of the US' total, a figure that will rise to 35% by 2020, says consultancy Wood Mackenzie. Burgeoning production has also flattened gas prices for consumers. Emissions from coal-fired electricity generation, the biggest source of greenhouse gases in the US, could be wiped out by switching to natural-gas generation – slashing the country's pollution.

But Fox and his film ignore all that. And that undermines Gasland, which lacks the basic thrust of good journalism that seeks to put things in context, and as impartially as possible. Art Berman, a petroleum consultant and writer for The Oil Drum, a website, agreed the film was well made from a photo-journalistic standpoint, but it "wasn't a very responsible piece of journalism".

"He talks to a lot of people with anecdotal experience, but without following scientific fact," says Berman. "These are not people that have a comprehensive understanding of what's going on."

A compelling polemic

This may be so, but the shale-gas industry has done itself no favours by failing to engage with him over the issue. Gasland is a polemic, but it is compelling for all that. Unless the industry shows itself willing to answer genuine criticisms and debunk myths it could very well lose public support. That's what Fox hopes. For him, the future has room only for renewable energy. "Leave it in the ground," he says of the US' new shale-gas abundance. "It will compromise all sorts of places we depend on for life," he says, "We should be heading in a direction away from fossil fuels."

Without showing how difficult such a task is, Gasland doesn't do its audience justice. That might not stop the film from claiming an Oscar. Either way, the presence of Fox's film on the nomination list should tell the gas industry that it has a big job on its hands to win public approval. For the shale-gas industry to get a fair hearing, it should start engaging with the public's concerns.

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