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Sunday, April 24,2011

'Gasland' director warns that Ohio's on the firing line

By Libby Cunningham
Photo Credits: Julia Van Wagenen
Photo Caption: 'Gasland' Director Josh Fox speaks at OU's Memorial Auditorium.
An Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker screened his film on the dangers of an increasingly common natural-gas extraction method Wednesday night at Ohio University.
Ohio is next in the line of fire for the wave of natural-gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing, filmmaker Josh Fox warned. Fox presented his film "Gasland" at Ohio University's Memorial Auditorium.

Known as "fracking," horizontal hydraulic fracturing may seem profitable to landowners at first but according to Fox and his film, in the end they may pay a bigger price.

"All of this starts when I got a gas lease in the mail where I live in the Delaware River basin of Pennsylvania," Fox recalled. "You're in the same position (in Ohio) and for some reason (it seems like you're) not in the same crazed position of that of Pennsylvania and New York. But it is happening here and around here."

The Ohio General Assembly is currently considering a bill backed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich that would open 203,000 acres of state parks, forests and preserves to oil and gas drilling, including with the fracking method.

Fracking involves sinking a vertical well deep into shale reserves, and then bending the well horizontally. Once the concrete piping is in place, thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water and sand are pumped into the wells, and then exploded into the shale formation. Cracks open in the shale, allowing natural gas to seep out, which is then pumped to the surface along with the wastewater and chemicals.

While the natural-gas boom has revitalized the economies of many rural communities in Pennsylvania and other states, while offering a viable domestic energy alternative, the process also has potential for serious environmental and aesthetic consequences.

"Gasland" opens with Fox receiving a notice in the mail; Fox hails from Central Pennsylvania, which sits above the Marcellus shale layer, the main target of natural-gas fracking in that region. In the film, a company is offering him almost $5,000 per acre for rights to allow them to drill on his land. To him, it seems too good to be true. So Fox packs-up his Toyota Camry and heads across the country to find out what fracking entails. On his journey his findings are grim.

As depicted in "Gasland," this kind of drilling can come at a heavy cost to landowners. The chemicals mixed with water to extract the gas are so potent that they can cause water to catch fire, pets to lose their hair and the homeowners to get sick, according to the film. But the gas companies in the film maintain that fracking is safe and the isolated hazards overblown.

After the screening, Fox took the stage to stump for environmental activism.

"Today (is) the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill disaster and blowout in the Gulf of Mexico," he said, "which means it's also the one-year anniversary of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history and the beginning of the most comprehensive environmental cover-up in history."

Fox said that his film has been under fire recently, but that that his sources' stories cannot be ignored.

"This is what you're going to be dealing with; this is what you're dealing with now," he said. "And on a day like today when all the oil has magically disappeared and the film continues to be under this kind of attack it is very, very important that you realize there are forces with an enormous amount of money not being honest."

The documentary was made in hopes to get the word out about the dangers of fracking and the companies that use the drilling method, he said.

"I made the film so you don't get fooled and then my neighbors don't get fooled," he said. "So you can go into this process with knowledge of what's happening all over the U.S. and the world."

Fox also paid homage to a friend and fellow documentary filmmaker during his speech. In war-torn Libya earlier on Wednesday, the friend, Tim Hetherington, along with photojournalist Chris Hondros (an OU alum), died after being hit by a mortar or rocket-propelled grenade attack. Hetherington's documentary film, "Restrepo," about the Afghanistan war, was shown alongside "Gasland" at the Sundance Film Festival.

Fox said he and Hetherington became friends on the journey from the film fest to the Oscars. As a journalist himself, Fox reminded the audience that reporting can come at a cost.

"It just reminds me of the kind of sacrifices journalists make, here hosted by journalists (at OU); I'm a journalist," he said. "And it just reminds me of how important it is that (we have) independent journalisms."


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