Flamethrower: Gasland II Stokes the Flames of Fracking Debate

  • Gasland II will premiere nationally on HBO. Image: Tribeca Film Festival

June 13, 2013

In 2010, almost no one in America had heard of the term "fracking". Then, Josh Fox came along.

For many who saw Fox’s debut film, Gasland, it was the first they’d ever heard of fracking.

And it wasn’t a very good impression. The movie charged oil and gas companies with polluting air and water, then avoiding public scrutiny by coopting the political process. The first Gasland garnered Fox an Oscar nomination, and galvanized the anti-fracking movement. Not bad for a debut film.

Now Fox is back, and he’s looking for more evidence of environmental harm from fracking. Tom Wilber is a journalist whose written a book about fracking and maintains a blog called the Shale Gas Review. How was the second Gasland?

“It was one-sided, didactic, there were errors of omission, and will be polarizing,” Wilber said.

Aside from that, Wilber found there were some pretty useful feats of muckraking in Gasland II.

For instance, Fox explores a surveillance program set up between the gas industry and the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security. Each group secretly traded information about anti-fracking activists in 2010.

Shedding light on this type of collusion between government and industry is where Gasland, bias and all, hits the mark, Wilber says.

“Fox deals with real issues that are important, he’s provocative, he raises questions about them, and I think that’s fair,” Wilber says. 

Wilber credits the first Gasland with helping implement a moratorium on fracking in New York State.

So what impact will Gasland II have? The answer depends on who’s watching, says Tom Murphy, co-director of Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. Most of those who will watch it probably already have strong views on fracking, for and against.

“In the middle I think is where most people are,” says Murphy. “I think these type of movies address more to the sides than the middle.”

Murphy wasn’t a big fan of Gasland because he says it oversimplified the complicated question of whether fracking could be done safely.

“I cringe when I see something protrayed as science that is not science--or leads a viewer to think something is in fact true, when there might be pieces that are left out of that story.”

For Murphy, the most famous scene in the first Gasland is especially cringe-worthy. A man lights his water faucet on fire. Murphy says this creates the misleading impression that fracking will cause your water to set flame.

Most of Gasland was cringeworthy for Phelim MacAleer, a conservative documentary filmmaker. He made a movie called FrackNation to rebut Fox. MacAleer says he felt compelled to make his movie because Fox’s was so successful at creating a negative impression of fracking.

“(Gasland) has completely changed the debate--in fact it created a debate about fracking. There was no debate about fracking before Gasland,” MacAleer said.

MacAleer wanted to do the same thing, but in reverse. He fact checks Fox’s work, and finds most of Gasland’s conclusions about fracking wrong.

“I talked with people in fracking areas and they thought they’d been misrepresented by Gasland,” MacAleer said. 

Critics, like Tom Wilber, say FrackNation suffers from some of the problems of bias that Gasland does.

What impact do these movies have? Polls show a majority of Americans still don’t know what fracking is. 

So they might be susceptible to persuasion. But maybe not as much as you might think, says Mary Beth Oliver, distinguished professor of media studies at Penn State. She says there’s this phenomenon called the Third Person Effect, whereby most people think that other people are more easily swayed by a movie or book than they are.

“We might see people believing this film has a big impact on everybody else--but ourselves,” Oliver said.

Believe that? See for yourself. Gasland II debuts on HBO in July.

Josh Fox will attend and answer audience questions at two Pennsylvania screenings of Gasland II in advance of the television premiere:

Monday June 17, 6:30 pm
Broughal Middle School
114 W. Morton Street, Bethlehem, PA

Thursday June 20, 7pm
Soldiers and Sailor's Memorial Hall
4141 Fifth Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA