Perhaps the biggest documentary splash this past week was made by the television debut of one of the year's best and most important films, Josh Fox's GASLAND. A screening one week ago on HBO, accompanied by a series of television appearances by Fox, brought wide, new attention to the dangers of hydraulic fracturing. And this, in turn, brought out a swift response from natural gas interests.
In light of recent industry push-back against films as diverse as Joe Berlinger's CRUDE and Louie Psihoyos' THE COVE, it's probably no surprise that the natural gas companies and their allies have mounted their defenses so quickly and so strongly. But the vastness and thoroughness of the attack on GASLAND, mounted by seemingly anonymous PR front groups, through comments sections, twitter feeds and direct media contacts, is still surprising.
More to the point, it suggests that Josh Fox has hit a real nerve.
There is probably no greater evidence to the threat GASLAND poses to unfettered natural gas exploration than the widespread, well-timed and sometimes obscenely personal attack that the natural gas industry launched against Josh Fox and his film last weekend. Days before Fox's film was set to premiere, front groups for natural gas interests, led by the misnomered "Energy in Depth" (which touts the safety of hydraulic fracturing on its website and warns of the dangers of new regulations on the industry), sent a press release to media outlets that would supposedly "debunk" the claims in Fox' film.
One major complaint in Energy in Depth's "debunking" focuses on whether the federal government has ever regulated hydraulic fracturing. Fox makes a point that the Bush administration's 2005 energy bill exempted "fracking" from federal regulatory and environmental protection laws. EID says that fracking has never been regulated by the feds. In truth - it's a distinction without a difference, whether fracking has been regulated previously does nothing to gut Fox' argument that the 2005 energy cemented this lack of regulation on the industry.
Writing about the topic in 2009, John Laurent-Tronche of the Fort Worth Business Press, summarizes the state of federal regulation and the Energy Policy Act of 2005. His summary is nearly identical to the one that Fox provides in his film.
"The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed by Congress in 1974 to ensure a safe drinking water supply by regulating what can and cannot be injected into the ground. Previously the EPA was granted permission to regulate hydraulic fracturing. In 2005, however, its reach was cut short. At the behest of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, formerly a CEO of Halliburton Co., which developed hydraulic fracturing in 1949, the Safe Drinking Water Act was amended to exempt hydraulic fracturing from federal regulation through the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which specified that the definition of "underground injection" excludes the injection of fluids or propping agents. (The task force that drafted the fracing legislation was comprised of energy industry executives, according to a Washington Post report. Activists refer to the 2005 act as the "Halliburton loophole.")"
EID also alleges that Fox misrepresented the truth when he says in the film that environmentalist Theo Colborn had to use highly investigative means to determine which chemicals make up the "fracking fluid". EID says that the information is out there for anyone who wants to google it. But in Tronche's 2009 article, an EID spokesperson named Chris Tucker is quoted as saying nearly exactly what Fox says in GASLAND, the quote that EID now says is a misrepresentation.
Fox in GASLAND, as quoted by EID:
"“Because of the exemptions, fracking chemicals are considered proprietary"
EID's Chris Tucker in the 2009 Fort Worth Business Press article:
"State regulators don't know how much of each chemical is being used, however, due to proprietary restrictions, Tucker said."
If EID's distortions and misrepresentations (funny, isn't that what they're accusing Fox of?) aren't enough, they go for a series of smears on Fox personally, making sure to tell you that Fox is an "avant-garde...stage director" whose previous work has been in NYC's "Fringe Festival". That sounds positively French.
And suggesting that EID might not understand the process by which documentary films are seen and distributed - or perhaps intentionally trying to obfuscate on the matter - the group makes a most bizarre claim in its introduction:
"But with larger audiences and greater fanfare come the expectation of a few basic things: accuracy, attention to detail, and original reporting among them. Unfortunately, in the case of this film, accuracy is too often pushed aside for simplicity, evidence too often sacrificed for exaggeration, and the same old cast of characters and anecdotes – previously debunked – simply lifted from prior incarnations of the film and given a new home in this one."
Lifted from prior incarnations of the film? Given a new home in this one? Original reporting? Is EID actually arguing that Fox is somehow stealing from himself in presenting a version of GASLAND on HBO that is basically the same film that premiered at Sundance in January? [In a more recent post, EID points to an unsourced claim regarding a "new and improved" version of the film and to two minor narration changes.]
Strangely - or perhaps not so strangely - EID's strategy of hitting
media outlets on the eve of GASLAND's premiere seemed to pay off for
them. Fox' appearance on
the Daily Show on the night of his HBO premiere had the Comedy
Central host bring up EID's charges and offer that ordinary people just don't
know who to go to for the truth. In a bit of word usage that he likely didn't intend, Jon Stewart even said that Josh Fox did
the "bunking" and now someone else is trying to debunk, which suggested
that GASLAND was, quite possibly, rife with suspected inaccuracies.
Even the NY Times' critic Mike Hale fell victim. In citing the industry complaints against the film, Hale claims that it would be difficult for "objective viewers" to "wholly embrace" Fox. Hale calls this maddening and argues that Fox prefers "vivid images" rather than "the more mundane crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s of investigative journalism". Further, Hale goes for sophomoric shorthand and compares Fox to Michael Moore, which is just what the industry is hoping for - Moore being code in some circles (hey, maybe even most) for someone who is a propagandist who plays fast and loose with the truth. It's unclear whether Hale researched the industry's claims before using them to "balance" his review of the film.
And it wasn't just the media doing their part to make sure the industry's claims cast a shadow over their coverage of GASLAND. Google "Gasland" or "fracking" and you get sponsored links by friends of the natural gas industry. An otherwise benign ArtsBeat post by Jeremy Enger in the Times quickly gets three straight comments encouraging people to go to the Energy in Depth website.
Just who is Energy in Depth?
In his 2009 piece, the Fort Worth Business Times' Tronche identified Energy in Depth as "a Washington, D.C.-based industry lobbying group comprised of dozens of organizations, including the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of America."
Kevin Grandia wrote a piece at the Huffington Post saying that he found Energy in Depth's otherwise anonymous (no contact information to be found) website registered to DC PR firm FD Americas Public Affairs:
"FD's clients include other oil and gas lobby groups with one in particular that stands out, the American Energy Alliance, run by former Republican staffers Eric Creighton, Kevin Kennedy and Laura Henderson. The Energy Alliance ran an "Energy Town Hall" bus tour last summer attacking the Obama administration's Clean Energy and Security legislation."
Meanwhile, Fox and company play a little bit of combination catch-up and offense. A week after the HBO screening, GASLAND has a new website and Fox has posted on his Facebook page that he is hard at work on a lengthy rebuttal to EID's charges while simultaneously encouraging folks to support a moratorium on fracking in the state of New York.
And while the industry attacks, they can't stop people from seeing GASLAND and hearing their neighbors' stories. For every one of the pro-EID comments in the NY Times ArtsBeat piece, there are 4 or 5 that express horror for what they've seen in the film or have experienced personally.
Meanwhile, that "money shot"? The scenes of drinking water on fire? EID claims it's naturally occurring methane.
Nothing to see here, boys, move along now...