“Gasland” Movie Goes On Tour

In one county in New Mexico, archeological and eco-tourist conservation staved off fracking. But we appear to be the lucky few so lets not count our blessings — but count ourselves activated.

About three years ago in Santa Fe County, New Mexico, citizen outrage combusted around land-leases to natural gas companies planning to “frack,” or hydraulic fracture for natural gas in nearly 70,000 acres of the Galisteo Basin of New Mexico. The Galisteo Basin as the crow flies is 10 minutes from my house  – a valley full of archeological treasures and a living history of habitation that is the subject of Down Country: The Tano of the Galisteo Basin, 1250-1782 (2010: Museum of New Mexico Press), a new book by art critic and activist Lucy R. Lippard, with photos by Edward Ranney, that we will review here soon.

Luckily the community outcry held fast, and a county-adopted oil and gas ordinance (official in Feb. 2009) included language about the “priceless, unique and irreplaceable” fragile ecosystem of the basin, as well as the  “unique and irreplaceable historic, cultural, archeological, and eco-tourist sites and scenic vistas, in addition to water and other natural resources.” The frackers took themselves elsewhere.

We were fortunate but would be stupid to feel virtuous about it. Especially now. For “elsewhere” increasingly means, “everywhere” — as seen in a widely circulated yet still niche movie by Josh Fox. Fox, a landowner in the Delaware River Valley of Pennsylvania, got interested in the extent of hydraulic fracturing, and some of its impacts, because of an offer he saw of big money from a natural gas company in 2006: more than $100,000 from natural gas drillers to lease 19.5 acres of his inherited family land.

Having said no to the leases, but curious about those in the yes camp, Fox set out with video camera and a penchant for questions, and a moviemaking style closely informed by the seminal Roger and Me (directed by and starring Michael Moore). He came back with Gasland, a movie about what happened to some people relying on the drinking wells and indeed the ground water — in counties of states including Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah  — after the frackers came.

Offering a pre-quel to the movies controversy, Fox ended his documentary by interviewing the head of Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendells environment department, who attributed alleged departmental apathy to Pennsylvania consumer reports of water pollution to a 25 percent budget cut. (Following the film release and lining up with the pro-natural gas forces, the official has since claimed Josh Fox misrepresented him, that the budget cut was 8 percent and required no job losses.)

So: If youre dubious you may count Foxs movie — which won a Sundance documentary prize in January, was shown by HBO documentaries in June, and is one of four  films on the subject out now, two of those being industry rebuttals — as another note in the who ya gonna trust opera.

Or, if you count yourself, as I do, plenty mad about the premature media sudden-death notices for all Democrats, consider language in blogs like one calling itself “conservative reform,” which refers to (with their quotes and capitalization preserved), “Pristine and Poor Environmentalists, intent on demonizing any capitalist, profit-making business as if the Devil.”

Fracking, is short for “hydraulic fracturing”  — a chemical stew (Halliburton sold many of the natural gas companies the fracking fluids)  of mostly undisclosed and therefore unregulat-able carcinogens, pollutants and water that can be re-applied in the teens of times by drillers to natural gas wells that must rupture foundational rock blocking oil flow from deep, deep below the surface of the earth. If we apply media literacy to events in energy production this year alone, one has to consider that the ruined coast of  Louisiana and  dead-sead Gulf of Mexico have accompanied the Deepwater Horizon wells being identified, by major media outlets on a daily basis, as a “gusher.” Now isnt that phrase slightly .. nostalgic? Reminiscent of the hoe-toting-Clampitts of the  Beverly Hillbillies, as they traded their backwater oil wells for what their “gusher” bought them: Rodeo Drive, and a Cadillac replacing the buggy.  The American Way.

Texas may have been Pres. George W. Bushs home state, and is now a place of air-quality enemies nextdoor — in this blog called Dallas Drilling, a report about Fort Worth air (bad) versus Dallas air (better). But it is the sadly defiled state of Wyoming that appears to bear special pertinence in the federal environmental-legislation-degrading that occurred from 2000-2008, the two terms of Ws presidency. (In 2005, during Bush-Cheney,  the “Halliburton Loophole” exempted natural gas fracking from the Clean Water Act.) This year, as reported in Newwest, Wyoming has begun, the first state, to require that fracking chemicals be disclosed.
Fox, who certifies his own personal even mythically sensed attachment to home and land, meets many others on his travels who share that with him: for example, a West Virginia  woman who had placed in her freezer the bodies of animals that died after drinking groundwater, from a stream her father used to drink from, downstream from repeatedly fracked gas wells. Her father, who she recalled had drank water with his hands from that stream, died of pancreatic cancer.

In Fort Lupton, Colorado,  we see a woman reciting her husbands advice to dial two digits, 9 and 1, and to dial the last 1 in case of real emergency. Demonstrating to Josh Fox, the Fort Lupton man holds a Bic up to the kitchen faucet – in a dont-try-this-at-home-but-this-is-home object lesson fraught with bad irony. What begins as a hiss soon turns into a conversation-silencing boom when the water blows. Long beat. Not funny. Huffington Post last week picked up another live instance of this happening in West Virginia. In such places concentrations of known carcinogens in the water have given residents symptoms from migraines to cancers. These are also places from which residents, knowing they are living on polluted lands, knowing they have only devalued defiled properties they cannot sell, cannot leave. And that are, still, home.

On  Facebook, Gasland the movie has some 24,000 friends at this writing. But meanwhile  “clean natural gas” campaigns continue to live on the sides of urban buses and on TV ads, and T. Boone Pickens advises us from the sage status of billionaire row that “innovation” lies in the “clean” alternative. The Bushies for those of us without amnesia, and Cheney in particular, make Richard Nixon look like the  uber-statesman who, too bad, had a few really sorry character flaws, so what of Shakespearean scale? The so-what is in response to recognizing Nixons administration not only had talks in China but was  responsible for environmental legislation passage that very few if any of todays seat-ambitious Republicans would even stand by– lest they become un-electable in their own extremist party. (Speaking of Pennsylvania, think Arlen Spector, the Democratic Sen. who changed his party allegiance to Democrat in frustration with the Republicans. He got defeated in a primary in May this year.)

However, as the embedded impact of Facebook grows more clear one can see that community-building can reflect what the social and community site is good at. Take this post today:

24,026 in this facebook group. Please lets use this huge number of people to DO something, attend or organize meetings in your community, call/email your elected officials, write letters to the editors of your local papers. Drillers may have the money, but weve got the voices and the VOTES.

Gasland has venues in Pennsylvania, tonight, September 7th; has put been on the table via Facebook for planned EPA meetings in Binghamton, NY tomorrow, September 8th; and will likely continue to galvanize debate as we go forward into the midterms. Which are not just about voter “anger” at the economy, and whatever might constitute a cynical,  Band-Aid-style “fix.” Many of us voters feel “anger” at the rupture of values that our country is solidly yet vulnerably built upon. Respect for our great land. Stress land. Its feet deep in the rocks that the frackers hydraulize.

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