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Friday, June 21, 2013

At Local Premiere, Gasland II Widens the Frame

Posted By on Fri, Jun 21, 2013 at 2:10 PM

About 1,700 turned out last night at at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall to watch a sneak preview of Gasland director Josh Fox’s sequel.

Fox — who received a standing ovation just by walking onstage to introduce the film — says the Pittsburgh crowd was the largest in-person audience not only on the 23-city Gasland Part II tour (on which Pittsburgh was the final stop) but for either Gasland film.

The 2010 documentary is widely credited with helping spark widespread knowledge of, and opposition to, the practice fracking for natural gas. (It was also, predictably, widely denounced by the gas industry.) Gasland Part II, which premieres on-air on HBO on July 8, highlights not just the environmental and health risks of gas drilling, but the damage Fox contends industry influence does to democracy. (Here's CP's interview with Fox, previewing last night's screening.)

In the two-hour film, narrator Fox calls this effect “another layer of contamination” caused by drilling: “Not the water, not the air, but our government.”

Josh Fox in a scene from Gasland Part II
  • Josh Fox in a scene from "Gasland Part II"

Several of the film’s narrative threads revolve around alleged regulatory fecklessness, either by the U.S. EPA or state agencies. One is the continuing story of Dimock, Pa., that northeastern town (near Fox’s own home) that the first Gasland helped make a byword for water contaminated by drilling.

In Gasland II, Fox interviews Lance Simmens, a former special assistant to Gov. Ed Rendell. Simmens contends that the Rendell administration sold out the residents of Dimock to whom they had promised justice for their lost water supply. (Simmens is also known as a Huffington Post columnist.)

Fox likewise depicts now-former EPA head Lisa Jackson (who is also interiewed) at first coming to Dimock’s aid, but ulimately leaving it hang.

Another story is that of rural Pavilion, Wyo., site of an EPA study whose results seemed to indicate high levels of contamination by chemicals used in fracking, like the carcinogen benzene. But industry disputes the figures, EPA seems to back down, and Fox is shown getting arrested when he attempts to defy a ban on videotaping a February 2012 Congressional hearing on the Pavilion study. (This really is a story in which the EPA keeps looking ever less willing to confront industry.)

That ban on press access to a public hearing helps make Fox’s point about industry influence. He even interviews members of Congress willing to condemn said influence. More sinister-sounding still is testimony from homeowners impacted by drilling, who claim sympathetic EPA reps went soft on investigations after telling the homeowners they were ordered to “back off” by higher-ups in the agency.

There are also sequences about people forced to leave their homes in Pa and Texas’ families living near drilling operations whose kids have nosebleeds — and evidence that the gas industry considers drilling opponents an “insurgency” to be dealt with by hiring consultants who are former military psy-ops experts.

And, of course, no Gasland movie would be complete without more images of people lighting their tapwater on fire, like this.

For all that, Gasland II has an even larger frame: fracking as a global, and globally controversial, phenomenon. (It’s also happening in Europe and Africa, for instance.)

Fox repeatedly shows clips of President Obama touting the “safe development” of shale gas to emphasize that society has found its next fix of cheap fossil fuels, and that corporate and governmental powers around the world are eager to exploit it, consequences to the climate and other health considerations notwithstanding.

Fox hammers home this analogy by opening Gasland II with an extended sequence about the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in 2010 — a notable case where going to extremes for fossil fuels backfired.

Much of last night's crowd stuck around for a question-and-answer session with Fox, in which he noted that "two-thirds" of Pennsylvanians (according to a recent poll, the figure's more like 58 percent) favor a moratorium on fracking pending further study of its environmental and health effects. “We have the tide of public opinion,” he said. “Now all we have to do is have democracy.”

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