I attended the premier of the documentary Gasland II at the Community Arts Center in Williamsport, PA, the bustling heart of frackdom in the state, along with over 900 others curious to see this latest installment by the man who broke open the story about the horrors of the shale gas industry three years ago. I viewed the movie both from my own perspective as an anti-fracking activist, and from that of my college-age friend who was only attending the film for extra credit in her sociology class and had virtually no knowledge about the issues of unconventional drilling for natural gas. We both agreed that the movie was riveting and alarming. It was also successful in its attempt to alert people to the ways in which the shale gas industry has either colluded with or outright controlled government policies, regulations and actions toward itself, the citizens damaged by it, and the activists seeking to halt the onslaught of corporate fascism.
Those who saw the first Gasland will notice the reuse and revisiting of material from that movie in order to pick up the thread where Fox left off, and to orient the new viewer to the complexities of the industrial, social, and economic issues, as well as the stories of real people negatively affected by drilling. Thus, it is not necessary to have seen the first movie in order to understand Gasland II; the film works as a stand-alone piece. One vital piece of explanation was missing, however, for my friend: why we “need” gas and what it is used for in the first place. Fox should have included a minute or two to explain that gas is used in power plants to generate electricity and in “cracker” plants to produce plastics, all of which are multi-billion-dollar enterprises. Leaving out this key bit of information left my friend confused as to why the companies are leasing and destroying land totaling the size of Florida and California in the first place.
The images and cinematography are compelling, and sometimes overwhelming. The juxtaposition of verdant forests and pristine waterways in Fox’s home state of Pennsylvania against the fire, metal, noxious gases and clear-cut industrial sites of well pads and compressor stations is jarring. At the same time the interviews with families whose water turns to fire, and whose children frolic and suffer nosebleeds in the shadow of drill rigs are juxtaposed against dizzying scenes of government hallways, hearings and the arrest of Fox himself for attempting to legally record a public hearing. The contrast illustrates just how far removed our government is from the people and lands it is supposed to protect.
As an ecological theologian, I resonated with two ethical concepts that provided a cohesive framework for the film. First is the notion of the backyard and the neighbor. An effective camera trick takes the viewer in a bubble floating above and looking down on Fox’s home while he notes that what has become clear to him is that all of our backyards are connected. What happens when his neighbors lease will affect him. What happens if New York lifts its moratorium affects him.
What happens to the families in Dimock, PA, whose water is poisoned by migrating fracking fluids and methane is connected to what happens to families in Pavillion, Wyoming, whose water was tested by the EPA and found with 50 times the accepted level of benzyne, along with countless other chemicals and compounds associated only with fracking.
“There’s no such thing as anyone’s backyard anymore,” Fox concludes. Indeed, as Jesus challenged the wealthy lawyer on the question, “Who is my neighbor?” we, too, learn that our neighbors are as close as the Australian farmer watching his dwindling water supply go up in flames, and as far away as our local legislators who are either afraid of the industry, or profiting handsomely from their corrupt collusion with it.
The other framework is that of story and voice. Using the same advertising firms who sowed seeds of doubt about the safety of cigarettes in the 1960s, the gas industry has spent millions of dollars to control the story of shale gas.
Property rights have been swept aside, people’s health has been compromised, and the threat of methane gas adding to climate change has been ignored. All the while those families whose homes and health have been destroyed by drilling are mocked, demonized, or bought off with settlements that require nondisclosure statements. As one observer in the film put it, they are told to “Take the money, shut up and go away.” When you take away a person’s ability to tell their story, you take away their voice, personhood, dignity, sanity and their life.
So what are we to do? Fox interviewed former administrator of the EPA Lisa Jackson, who urged people to be vocal with their legislators. “The real power is with the people,” she stated. One wonders how she must feel now, knowing that President Obama has betrayed her commitment to protecting environmental and public health in this country by kowtowing to the gas industry. I hope that she will view the pictures that are being taken at every premier on the Gasland II tour across the country, showing hundreds of people packing theatres with their hands defiantly in the air, present and accounted for.
Democracy is alive and energized even as we are labeled as insurgents and terrorists by military psy-ops agents hired by the industry and government.
As my college-age friend and the rest of the crowd learned in the Q&A after the show, fractivist grassroots organizations (see Shale Justice) are sprouting up around the country made up of veterans, college professors, former gas workers, Tea-Partiers, clergy, retirees, small business owners, scientists, ecologists, Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, and parents all committed to stopping the shale gas industry onslaught and hastening a clean-energy future. These are my neighbors. These are our stories. Thanks to Fox’s film, these neighbors and these voices will gain greater audience, and the movement will gain strength and momentum.