Jonathan Storm: HBO's 'Gasland' premieres tonight, featuring Marcellus Shale lands

Josh Fox standing in a stream near Dimock, Pa., where residents' animals began to lose their hair after drilling started, presumably from drinking contaminated water. It is part of "Gasland."
Josh Fox standing in a stream near Dimock, Pa., where residents' animals began to lose their hair after drilling started, presumably from drinking contaminated water. It is part of "Gasland."
Posted: June 21, 2010

HBO's Gasland is a timely tale of terrible pollution at the hands of the energy industry, with special terror looming in our region. But, premiering at 9 Monday night, it has nothing to do with oil. It's all about natural gas.

And it has the natural gas industry up in arms. You'd be nervous, too, if a documentary accused you of making things so bad for rural folk that they choke in brown, polluted air, and their drinking water bursts into flames at the touch of a match.

Tests proved that drilling had nothing to do with that situation, says America's Natural Gas Alliance on a Web page (www.anga.us/the-truth-about-gasland/) put up to rebut the movie. But, to use a gloriously jarring elemental metaphor, burning water is just the tip of the iceberg.

Documentaries aren't supposed to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but, as good TV does every day, they should open our eyes. For many, Josh Fox's evocative and industry-eviscerating Gasland, which won the Documentary Special Jury Prize at Sundance in January, will be an introduction to natural gas drilling.

No wonder the industry's aghast, and will probably be more upset after Fox appears Monday at 11 p.m. on Comedy Central's Daily Show, and Jon Stewart takes up the topic.

Fox grew up in Wayne County in northeast Pennsylvania, next to what is officially called the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River. He never gave a thought to natural gas until he got an unsolicited offer of nearly $100,000 for drilling rights on the family land.

It's smack on top of the Marcellus Shale, recently determined to be "the Saudi Arabia of natural gas," which stretches across five states. Natural gas companies are champing at the bit to get their drill bits in the ground.

With the flat narration style of Ira Glass and an intimate, homemade filming technique reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, Fox finds horror stories from several of 34 states, where, he says, gas drilling ruins people's lives.

He traces the evolution of the 2005 Energy Act, pushed by former Vice President Dick Cheney, also former chief executive officer of Halliburton Co., which does about a third of America's hydraulic-fracture drilling to obtain natural gas. The law exempts that process from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Superfund law, Fox says.

Fox starts and ends in Pennsylvania, where, unlike scores of executives and officials who turned him down, DEP Secretary John Hanger gives Fox an interview. The secretary sounds sincere, but eventually becomes frustrated and walks out, politely, as the camera rolls, and Fox comments: "In the midst of what could be the largest natural gas drilling campaign in Pennsylvania history," the Department of Environmental Protection faces a 25 percent budget cut and layoffs of 350 full-time employees.

Even if your tap water is better suited to putting out fires than starting them, that's got to give you pause.


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com.

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