On a recent chilly night I visited the Accord Fire House to catch a free screening of the documentary film, "Gasland". (www.gaslandthemovie.com) It focuses on the process known as "Hydro-Fracking" which is a method used by energy companies to extract natural gas. I knew very little about Hydro-Fracking (or "fracking" as it is referred to) but I had seen Anti-Fracking signs on front lawns throughout Ulster County and I knew it was a hot-button issue. This being my first public screening at the Accord Firehouse I was also curious to see what kind of turnout the function would have. The place was packed. Residents of all ages were settling into their chairs, from a young man who I guessed to be about 11 seated with his dad, to older folks who probably wouldn't appreciate me speculating on their age.
The lights dimmed and the movie began…
"Gasland" begins with a panel of executives explaining the benefits of fracking. Knowing nothing about the process I listened, and it didn't really sound that bad. The executives explained how the United States is in abundance of natural gas, and it was only right to use our own natural resources as opposed to importing oil from foreign countries. Fair enough. Next we meet our narrator Josh Fox, a young man who explains that his film began with a letter, an offer from a Natural Gas company. The offer was to lease his family's land in Pennsylvania and it was for a LOT of money. In fact, the company explained, they may not do anything to the land aside from a few tests, perhaps drill a well. The lease and the money would only apply to what's going on underneath his family's land. The narrator wondered aloud, "Could it really be that easy?"
The World of Fracking
What follows is an alarming journey into the murky world of fracking. As our narrator conducts his own unofficial interviews and tests all across the United States, the film starts to convey that the natural gas industry is anything but natural. We are shown the hazards of hydro-fracking, and although I make no claims to be an expert on the subject, I can only convey a few of the potential dangers that were presented by this film:
The term "Hydro-Fracking" refers to the volatile extraction of natural gas from the ground. First a well is drilled, and then thousands upon thousands of gallons of water are pumped down into the well. This is where the "hydro" part of the term comes from. The process involves water, lots of water. This water is forced into the ground with such pressure, that it forces the gas to separate from the stone in which it dwells.. A mixture of chemicals in the water clings to the gas particles. The water/gas mixture is then pumped back up to the surface, where the gas is extracted. As portrayed in "Gasland" the hazards and waste that come along with this process are truly frightening.
The waste of water is appallingly evident. "Gasland" provides dizzying figures of endless trucks loaded with water being used for each and every well. The water at the end of the process is useless, hazardous, and dangerous. "Gasland" reveals that the methods natural gas companies are using to dispose of the contaminated water are extremely dangerous. The most common method being massive pits, where the toxic water is dumped continuously to slowly be reabsorbed back into the earth, in other words dumped into a hole. "Gasland" also shows us video evidence of a Gas Company "evaporating" the contaminated water. That is, spraying it into the air on a hot sunny day so that the water evaporates. Where do the chemicals go? Right into our air. Each natural gas company is a privately owned company that protects its business secrets from their competitors. This means they are not required to disclose what types of chemicals they are using. Much like the "special sauce" in a McDonald's Big Mac, these chemicals have become the natural gas companies' "secret ingredients". Under the guise of protecting trade secrets, natural gas companies are given free reign to use chemicals without being regulated. One darkly humorous scene stars New York State's own Democratic congressman Maurice Hinchey, who, at the aforementioned discussion panel, politely asks a natural gas Company exec to read aloud some of the chemicals they use. Hinchey's stone-faced expression is priceless as the baffled exec struggles to pronounce the seemingly never ending list of chemicals.
Affects to Our Drinking Water
Finally the scariest aspect of fracking (and also where this whole issue comes full circle to Ulster County) is its threat to drinking water. An area rich in natural gas is fracked until all the gas is drained. This requires drilling well after well and continuously pumping chemically-induced water deep into the ground. Before long, the average viewer realizes the true threat - what is all of this hydro-fracking doing to the groundwater underneath? The natural gas company executives say, "absolutely nothing, it's perfectly safe" But as our narrator tours the country and interviews folks, all one has to do is look at the tap water to know that it is not safe. (The film makes a point to repeatedly ask natural gas company employees and executives to drink the water, each and every one of them refuse.) In one very disturbing scene, a homeowner turns on their kitchen sink and water flows out. Then, inexplicably, the homeowner takes a lighter and holds it to the water. The flowing water instantly catches fire - and the sight of a kitchen sink spouting flames says it all.
How does this affect Ulster County?
We happen to be perched upon the massive Marcellus Shale Bed. This shale under the ground stretches from New York on down to West Vriginia. Natural Gas Executives describe it as the, "Saudi Arabia of Natural Gas" and they desperately want to tap into it. At what cost though? As "Gasland" points out, Upstate New York reservoirs supply drinking water to New York City. If this water were ever contaminated it could affect millions & millions of people. Not to mention the absolute devastation to the natural environment. "Gasland" is filled with sad & regretful characters who mourn the loss of their beautiful land as their homes are surrounded by endless drilling wells and waste pits.
A brief question and answer period after the film was extremely educational. I was shocked to learn that the letters had already come, that some residents had leased their land years ago, in the 70's, however not much came of it at that time and many of those leases have since expired.. One man claimed that there was a test well drilled long ago in Minnewaska, and he spoke of a secret place near this well where the water catches fire. As "Gasland" comes to an end we are once again back with our panel of natural gas executives but something's different. Suddenly these men don't seem to be making much sense, and some of their words start to sound like lies. "Gasland" is an intense and thought-provoking film definitely worth seeing particularly for homeowners throughout Ulster County.