Josh Fox's 2010 debut film, Gasland, is best known for the image of homeowners setting their own tapwater on fire. And with that footage, Fox, a native of eastern Pennsylvania, provided the match for a nationwide movement of "fracktivists" — environmentalists who oppose the use of hydraulic fracturing to release natural gas deep inside the earth. In Pennsylvania and other fracking hotspots, the film's popularity has persisted despite, or perhaps partly because of, a ferocious gas-industry campaign attacking it. (The industry notes, for example, that methane — the gas homeowners were lighting on fire — can occur naturally in water supplies.) Now Fox is unveiling a sequel, Gasland 2, with a series of screenings around the country, including a stop in Pittsburgh on June 20. HBO will air the film July 8.
An extended version of this interview appears on www.pghcitypaper.com.
How will Gasland 2 will differ from the first one? Does it resolve all the unanswered questions left at the end of Gasland 1?
The first Gasland was a survey of what was happening to people on the ground. It was, "Let's listen to the citizens and what is happening out there." This film goes into two areas that I think are very new. One is looking at all these well-failure problems, which sounds a little dry but it's actually really fascinating. ... We have Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection saying that 6 percent of the wells failed in 2009, that 6 or 7 percent of them failed in 2011, and in 2012, 8.9 percent of these wells have gas-migration issues — that is to say that gas is migrating into aquifers.
But the real focus of Gasland 2 is the government. We have one of the most controversial issues in the history of Pennsylvania, and the governement has done nothing to protect people. So the question is: Why? Gasland 2 investigates the contamination of government. And that's every bit as shocking and revelatory as the part about the water and air pollution.
Are we talking about gas-industry campaign contributions to Tom Corbett here?
That's part of the backdrop, but you'll actually see how regulatory agencies are trying to solve these problems, and fall apart in the face of the gas industry. ...
In the film, Pennsylvania has a very central focus. From Ed Rendell to Tom Ridge to Gov. Corbett — three governors in a row who are all carrying water for the gas industry. ... You've got Gov. Ed Rendell, with conflict of interests and actual financial ties to the gas industry through the firm that he works for, being a proponent of drilling. And you have Tom Ridge, taking $900,000 from the Marcellus Shale Coalition to be its chief spokesman. ... And you have Gov. Tom Corbett being a wholly owned subsidary of the gas industry. You've gotta wonder: What the hell is going on in Pennsylvania?
An industry spokesgroup, Energy in Depth, has argued that Corbett openly campaigned as a champion of the gas industry and won — so doesn't that prove democracy works?
The primary issue we have in our politics is money in politics. And if the gas industry wanted a fair fight, it would stop outspending the citizens of Pennsylvania. Gov. Corbett right now is ... the most endangered governor in the United States, and it's because of his policies. He passed Act 13, which overturned local bans, where citizens democratically said, "We don't not want this industry in our town." ...
The state Supreme Court has to weigh in on that, and it's basically the Oil and Gas Act [which Act 13 amended] versus the Pennsyvalnia constitution, which says Pennsylvanians have a right to clean air, clean water and healthy environment for future generations to come. You have the state constitution on the line, and the governor trying to overthrow it. So if you want to talk about democracy — it amazes me.
... We know and love the basic quality of life in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is the founding place of democracy. These are the things that the gas industry is contaminating, either by injecting their chemicals in the ground and emitting them into the air, or by injecting money into the political system.
Several Democrats are lining up to challenge Corbett in next year's election. Do you have a favorite?
I haven't seen any of the current positions. I do know that there is no suitable position except to say, "We have to stop this and figure out a different economic-development strategy." ... From any standpoint, selling out the state's resources to multinational corporations that would harm the citizens and leave behind the mess — that can't be the policy of any of the Democrats in this race. [They] have to respond the same way [city councilor and likely future mayor] Bill Peduto and [former city councilor] Doug Shields responded [by passing a citywide ban on drilling], which is to say, "This is an exploitation model that the gas industry has done in developing countries to their great detriment, and we're not going to turn Pennsylvania into Nigeria."
You've been traveling around the country screening this film. How would you compare the level of activism in Western Pennsylvania with what you're seeing elsewhere?
There's activism everywhere. The question is whether there's hope. In Pittsburgh you have public officials who saw this coming and went after it [but elsewhere] in Pennsylvania, you see a lot of depression. And one of the things that I want to put out there as a possibility is the fact that we can get rid of Tom Corbett. To me, that's where we've gotta focus.
In the Delaware River basin [where Fox lives and where drilling was been stopped because of water agreements with adjoining states], we fought them off and won. But if we hadn't had New York in the mix, and Delaware saying no? We wouldn't have stood a chance ... and I would be in the same incredibly depressing situation so many other people are.
What do you hope to accomplish with your visit to Pittsburgh?
We want to have a rocking time in Pittsburgh. The last time we did this, we were at the Byham Theater, and it was one of the most thrilling experiences. ...
We're gonna have a great discussion after the screening, where we start to hash out a lot of the questions that you asked: Who are we supporting for governor? How will we do that? What are our demands?
Pittsburgh has been very strong in saying, "We don't live in Gasland, we live in Pittsburgh." So we want to have a great screening with as many people as we can get in that door. Things are very dark and depressing in Pennsylvania, and we need to come together and show that we're stronger than the things which would corrupt our government.