Natural gas drilling industry fights 'Gasland' with own film
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HARRISBURG -- The natural gas drilling industry has responded to Josh Fox and his infamous flaming tap water with a movie -- and flammable kitchen faucet -- of their own.
"Truthland" -- a 34-minute film produced by the Independent Petroleum Association of America and Energy In Depth -- primarily was crafted in response to Mr. Fox's 2010 anti-drilling documentary, "Gasland."
Its protagonist, Shelly Depue of Franklin, Susquehanna County, is depicted as a rural teacher and mother who sets out to find answers after watching "Gasland" with her family. Cameras follow her as she talks to former state environmental officials, leaseholders and -- like in Mr. Fox's film -- a man whose water can be lit on fire.
"That's what happens if you smoke in the shower," says Robert Sandell of New York as a small fireball erupts when he touches the flame of a blowtorch to his running faucet.
A Colorado man igniting his tap water was one of the most memorable and controversial scenes from "Gasland." Those skeptical of gas drilling took it as a signal of potential dangers awaiting Pennsylvania as the number of shale wells increased, while companies replied that methane gas is naturally present in some water wells -- including the well featured in Mr. Fox's film.
After Mr. Sandell sparks the fire in his sink, Mrs. Depue looks at him and asks a question to which she already knows the answer: There's no drilling, no fracking nearby to have caused the methane to migrate into drinking water?
Nope, he replies, noting that hydraulic fracturing still is not allowed in New York.
Her questions to the industry-selected experts are framed to emphasize the film's main conclusion: that, as the gas industry repeatedly has argued, the earlier film is misleading in portraying hydraulic fracturing as the source of environmental problems that have arisen in the Marcellus Shale region.
Filmmakers say they contacted Mr. Fox, who recently released an 18-minute follow-up to "Gasland" and is expected to release a full-length sequel later this year, but that he never responded.
As Mr. Fox did with "Gasland," Mrs. Depue has been trekking across Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and elsewhere during a series of local showings. At each session, she takes audience questions and offers a nonindustry face in defense of drilling.
"Are we going to let something like 'Gasland' scare us, or are we going to investigate it and find out what's actually going on?" she asked one Harrisburg audience before the lights dimmed. "We're looking at a very depressed area that is flourishing now."
In response to a question at another showing, Mrs. Depue said she already had seen Mr. Fox's documentary when she was put in contact with "Truthland" organizers by a landowners group. At that time, her family had leased acreage to WPX Energy for drilling and her son was working in the gas industry.
Neither Mrs. Depue nor any of the experts interviewed in the film -- which include Penn State University geologist Terry Engelder and former state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger, who also was featured in "Gasland" -- were compensated for their involvement. Her travel expenses related to filming were paid for by the film's sponsors.
At Tuesday evening's showing at Harrisburg Area Community College, the small attendance of a half-dozen viewers allowed for Lebanon County resident Ann Pinca to engage Mrs. Depue in a series of civil but critical queries.
Mrs. Pinca and her husband purchased a slice of remote land in Sullivan County in 2008, just before "Marcellus" became a household name. She said she was disappointed that the documentary didn't address more of the problems that have occurred, citing anecdotes from drill sites near the couple's vacation property and statistics about well-casing failures.
"What are we doing for these people who are caught in the cross hairs of this?" Mrs. Pinca asked.
Mrs. Depue replied that she did visit Dimock, where 18 families battled with Cabot Oil and Gas over faulty gas wells that resulted in gas migrating into their drinking water and state environmental officials intervening in the dispute.
The man she spoke to there recounted how the amount of methane in his water increased after Cabot began drilling, but that levels decreased once the company pumped additional cement into the well. After the Dimock man relayed the problem and eventual solution, he and Mrs. Depue each drank a glass of water from the formerly problematic water well.
"The benefits far outweigh the inconveniences, and that's what they are -- inconveniences for a time," she said. "Is natural gas perfect? No. But it's what we have."
"Truthland" and extended interviews with its featured experts can be viewed online at www.truthlandmovie.com. Additional showings are planned in Canonsburg and Uniontown next week, and in McCandless on July 30.
First Published July 13, 2012 12:00 am