Gasland director Josh Fox released a short film last month targeting the Democratic governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, for his plan to open economically distressed parts of the state to hydraulic fracturing or "fracking." The 18-minute film skewers Cuomo for his plans and exposes oil and gas industry internal documents which detail that some of corporations also have concerns about well safety and water contamination.
Cuomo's Plan Targets Impoverished Counties
A fracking moratorium has been in place since 2010 so that the state could conduct an investigation on the environmental impacts of fracking and develop new rules to govern this industry. A draft of Cuomo's new plan for fracking in the state, which was leaked to the New York Times, shows that the administration has plans to allow fracking in four impoverished counties. The drilling would happen in those counties only in towns that permit it, but not in areas of historical significance.
With the controversial practice of fracking, large amounts of water, chemicals, and sand are drilled into shale deposits to extract oil and gas, but the chemicals have been exempt from regulation under the Safe Water Drinking Act because they are deemed "trade secrets," under a rule called the "Haliburton Loophole." The practice has been linked to water and air contamination. The Marcellus Shale, which extends across a swath of eastern states, has already been heavily fracked in states like Pennsylvania.
In response to Cuomo's plan, a coalition of more than 100 groups issued a statement urging Cuomo to hold off on deciding New York's fate on this highly controversial issue until health, environmental, and community impacts have been carefully and fully assessed.
Fox asks a New York Times reporter: "If the New York Department of Environmental Conservation is so confident that the process protects the environment, why not put the first 100 wells in the New York City watershed? Or truck the first 1,000 truckloads of "treated" waste to the reservoir in Central Park? Or perhaps put the first gas refinery and compressor station in Scarsdale or Westchester? Why put it out in an economically depressed area with very little political clout?"
Some in the Industry Have Concerns About Water Contamination
One of the industry documents exposed in the film comes from Southwestern Energy and details the ways in which fracking chemicals can potentially seep into aquifers. One of the ways is through faulty cement casing, which Fox notes in the film must stay intact forever to adequately protect water supplies (and cement, in fact, degrades over time and as a brittle substance it can crack or fail earlier). One industry powerpoint has a chart that shows well failure linked to faulty cement or casing in the Gulf of Mexico, which indicates that 6 percent of the wells in the study experienced sustained casing-head pressure -- or failure -- immediately and over 50 percent failed within 15 years.
"If New York State starts drilling tomorrow and Andrew Cuomo is elected for a second term, by the end of his second term its safe to say that 20 percent or more of oil and gas wells installed in his first term will be leaking. These are the facts that they don't want you to pay attention to," Fox says in the film.
Gasland Counter Offensive Now Includes ALEC
Fox's short film comes two years after his first documentary Gasland, which details cases of water contamination from fracking across the country. The film has had a major role in mobilizing resistance to fracking -- and has gained Fox a collection of well-funded foes.
One of Fox's most vocal opponents is Energy in Depth, a front group formed by industry giants like the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), which has led a PR counter-offensive to Fox's influential film. This month, a video response to Gasland called "Truthland" was rolled out touting the benefits of "natural" gas. A blogger exposed that the website for the 34-minute film was registered by Chesapeake Energy, a top fracking company.
Now the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) -- an organization that brings together corporations and right-wing legislators to vote on "model" bills, behind closed doors -- has also decided to weigh in. It named the film in its April 2012 document called "The Economy Derailed: State-By-State Impacts of the EPA Regulatory Train Wreck." ALEC asserts that the film's documented claims that fracking poses a threat to air and water are false, but the documents released in Fox's film, as well as studies done across the country have shown a clear need for more in-depth investigations on the environmental and health threats that communities face from fracking.
ALEC corporate members, most notably companies like Exxon Mobil which have a heavy stake in fracking, have pushed bills in many states which call for weak regulatory oversight over the process. ALEC approved a "model" bill in December 2011 that deals with the issue of "disclosure" of chemicals, but provides the industry with loopholes to keep private chemicals deemed "trade secrets." The model bill was secretly pushed by Exxon Mobil through ALEC and has been the basis for several bills pushed around the country.
Recently, emails obtained by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) show that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation gave the gas industry access to earlier proposed permit and regulations for fracking in mid-August 2011 -- over a month before they made the rules available to the public. EWG and other critics argue that this illustrates an overly cozy relationship between state regulators and the industry.