By Kevin Killough
The Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning documentary Gasland is often credited with spawning the movement to oppose fracking.
The 2010 documentary, which was written and directed by Josh Fox, portrayed fracking operations as poisoning groundwater, killing wildlife and making people sick, while corrupt oil companies profited. It predicted that if the practice wasn’t banned, communities’ water supplies would become undrinkable and wildlife populations could be decimated.
At the time of its release, most Americans had never heard of fracking. Only about 20% of wells used the fracking process in 2010 when the film was made, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Today, about 70% of wells are completed with the process, and frack crews operate in most of the oil-producing states in the country.
Fracking is short for “hydraulic fracturing.” After an oil or natural gas well has been drilled, liquid under high pressure is forced into the drilled hole to fracture rock formations deep underground. This allows oil and gas to flow through these porous, hard rocks to the surface — oil and gas that were inaccessible with conventional drilling techniques.
The documentary energized the environmentalist opposition to the industry and led to bans in some states, including New York, the practice grew exponentially in many states, including Colorado, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota.
At the same time, fracking provided massive amounts of crude oil and natural gas, reinvigorating the U.S. oil and gas industry. From 2007 to 2022, production of natural gas increased 88%. In July 2018, U.S. crude oil production topped 11 million barrels per day for the first time.
A 2015 study estimated that the industry supported 2.7 million jobs in 2014, and that it could potentially support nearly 4 million by 2030.
The most infamous scene in “Gasland” is where a Colorado man lights his tap water on fire, which Fox blames on fracking operations in the area. In 2010, responding to the emblematic scene, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) tested the man’s water. The commission found no evidence of chemicals used in the fracking process, and concluded the methane that burned in the scene was the result of natural causes.
“‘Gasland’ is one of the most infamously misleading and deceptive documentaries out there. I’d catalog it as less reliable than Ancient Aliens, frankly,” Linnae Lueken, research fellow at the Heartland Institute, told Just The News.
The COGCC analysis cites reports from as far back as 1976 that found naturally occurring methane in the groundwater. Journalist Phelim McAleer found these reports and confronted Fox at a screening of the film in Chicago. Fox stated he was aware of the reports, but he said the information was “not relevant.”
McAlleer told Just The News that Fox has never really corrected the record on the misleading scene.
“That’s not relevant? How can you say that? You’ve built a multi-million dollar anti-fracking industry on the back of that image,” McAleer said. “But yeah, that image is fraudulent, but it’s not relevant. We obviously have different views on journalism.”
Just The News reached out to Fox by email and Facebook and did not receive a response.
After McAleer posted the video of the exchange with Fox on YouTube, Fox’s lawyers convinced YouTube to remove the video. McAleer posted it on Vimeo and the same thing happened. Eventually, he was able to get the video reinstated.
McAleer, his wife Ann McElhinney and Magdalena Segieda produced “Fracknation” in 2013 to challenge Fox’s claims in “Gasland” and “investigate the truth about fracking.” It was funded with a Kickstarter campaign that raised $212,265.
McAleer said the anti-fracking movement was helped in part by the pattern of the oil industry backing down from lawsuits. Some of the people who claimed their well water was harmed by the companies’ fracking operations filed lawsuits, and in some of the cases, the companies settled rather than fight it in court. McAleer said this just fueled the perception the companies were guilty.
“We had an epidemic of lawsuits, not an epidemic of pollution,” McAleer said.
Lueken said she was forced to watch the film in high school. The claim Fox made that always stuck with her, she said, was that pronghorn antelope were threatened with extinction because of fracking in Wyoming.
“Anyone who has ever been to Wyoming can see how comedically false that claim is, and was,” Lueken said.