NPR

Josh Fox: Living In The Middle Of A 'Gasland'

Josh Fox lives in the Upper Delaware River Basin, on the border straddling Pennsylvania and New York State. In May 2008, he received a letter from a natural gas mining company. The company wanted to lease 19.5 acres of land from Fox -- and would pay him $100,000 to do so.

"[They say] 'We might not even drill,' " he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. " 'We don't even know if there's gas here. It's going to be a fire hydrant in the middle of a field -- very little impact to your land. You won't hardly know we're here.' "

Instead of saying yes, Fox decided to travel around the country to see how the process of natural gas drilling affected other communities and homeowners. The result, his documentary Gasland, premieres on HBO on June 21.

Fox explains the process of unconventional gas drilling -- the technique used by mining companies to obtain natural gas -- as well as why he believes there is continued cause for concern.

For example, some homeowners he spoke to noticed that their water had been discolored or was starting to bubble. And in some communities, people were able to light the water coming out of their faucets on fire -- because chemicals from the natural gas drilling process had seeped into the water.

"I did it myself," he says. "That's one of the most dramatic and spectacular things in the film. It just turns your whole world upside down when you can turn the faucet on and stick a cigarette lighter under it and you get this explosion of flame."


Interview Highlights

On his alarming findings while researching for his film

"The first thing that I heard about was a woman [whose] water well exploded on New Years Day of 2009. And it sent a concrete casing soaring up into the air and scattered debris all over her yard. And then other people started to notice that their water was bubbling and fizzing, that their water had been discolored. By the time I got there a month later, there were children who were getting sick [and] animals who were getting sick and the whole place was pretty much laid to waste. There were gas well pads everywhere. There was incredibly heavy truck traffic. It seemed like normal life had just been turned completely upside down."

On what natural gas companies do to obtain the natural gas

"Hydraulic fracturing is a process of injecting, at incredibly high pressure, a huge volume of water -- they use between 2 and 7 million gallons of water per frack to fracture the rock formation. It's called unconventional gas drilling. It fractures that rock apart and gets at all of the tiny bubbles of the gas that are sort of infused in that rock. In order to do that, they inject [these] million gallons of fluid down the wellbore that breaks apart the rock. It causes a kind of mini-earthquake under very intense pressure. What seems to be happening is that's liberating gas and other volatile, organic compounds. ... The volatile organics are released along with the gas. Sometimes they're used as part of the compounds. The fracking fluid creates this. You're releasing volatile organics, which are carcinogenic, and that is traveling, somehow -- along with the methane -- getting into peoples' water supply so that it's flammable."

On regulation in the natural gas industry

"The gas industry is very powerful, and their power in Congress is well shown. They were exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act by the 2005 Energy bill. The Safe Drinking Water Act monitors underground injection of toxin. They were also exempted in previous years from the Clean Air Act, the Superfund Law. ... It's an unregulated industry."

On his neighbors leasing their land to the natural gas companies

"We're completely surrounded by people who have leased. And this is what's worrisome. The difficult thing about this is it's a decision for a whole community that's left up to certain individuals to decide what they want to do. Because if the neighboring property next to me is leased and I want to sell my house, I'm in a very difficult situation, and it's very hard for me to get financing from a bank because I'm now adjacent to an industrial zone."

On summer camps

Josh Fox: "You'd be surprised at how many of those summer camps are leasing [their land to natural gas companies]. Listen, we're talking about 65 percent of Pennsylvania, 50 percent of New York. Even if the summer camps aren't leased, their neighbors are leasing."

Terry Gross: "You know, I never thought of that. So that means some of the summer camps might become oil wells?"

Josh Fox: "Well, no. Listen. What the gas company is saying is, 'You can live where this is happening. You can go to camp where this is happening.' If watersheds are not off the table, schools are not off the table, summer camps are not off the table -- near hospitals are not off the table. You have close to 15,000 wells in the downtown Fort Worth area -- in the urban area, in the country, in the city. This is everywhere. So it stands to reason if you can put it next to somebody's house and the gas company says that's OK, you can put it in the middle of a summer camp. You can put it in the middle of a lake. You can put it right on the banks of the Colorado River, which supplies all the water to Los Angeles. This is what we're seeing."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

What would you do if you were offered a lot of money by a gas company, in return for leasing the right to drill on your land? That was the position my guest Josh Fox was in. His family's land is on the Delaware River Basin, on the border of New York and Pennsylvania.

When the offer was made, he didn't know anything about the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process which was just described in our show by reporter Abrahm Lustgarten. It involves high- pressure injections of millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand into underground wells. This causes the rock layers deep underground to crack so that natural gas flows up the well.

Fox decided to investigate what happens to those toxins and how they affect communities that said yes to the gas companies. So he took his camera to over 20 states, where gas companies have been fracking. His new documentary, called "Gasland," won the Special Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It will be shown on HBO Monday, June 21st.

Josh Fox, welcome to FRESH AIR. What was the offer the gas company made to you?

Mr. JOSH FOX (Director, "Gasland"): We were offered about $100,000 to lease 19.5 acres of my family's house and land in the Upper Delaware River Basin of Pennsylvania.

GROSS: And what did the gas company tell you about what impact this would have on your land and on your life?

Mr. FOX: They say very little about the actual impacts. They talk to you about how much money you're going to make. They say, listen, we might not even drill. We don't know if there's actually gas here. It's going to be a fire hydrant in the middle of a field - very, very little impact to your land. You know, you won't hardly know we're here.

Within my family, there was a little bit of debate about this. I think at first, my father was interested in leasing because he was interested in the money. And I said look, I think I have to look into this. Give me some time to go ahead and get the facts.

GROSS: So you traveled around to see how this process - hydraulic fracturing, to get out the gas - affected other communities and other homeowners. What were some of the most alarming things that you saw?

Mr. FOX: Well, you know, the first place I went was a town called Dimmick, Pennsylvania, which was about 50 miles from me, and I'm right near the New York-Pennsylvania border. What I found there was absolutely astounding. I found people who had leased for very little money - $25 an acre. And when I got to that town, the first thing that I heard about was a woman named Norma Fiorentino. Her water well exploded on New Year's Day of 2009, and it sent a concrete casing soaring up into the air, and scattered debris all over her yard. And then other people started to notice that their water was bubbling and fizzing; some of their water had been discolored.

By the time I got there just a month later, there were children who were complaining of getting sick, animals who were getting sick, and the whole place was pretty much laid to waste. I mean, there was like, gas well pads everywhere, incredibly heavy truck traffic. It seemed like normal life had just been turned completely upside down. And I heard all these reports of people who could light their water on fire.

And I saw water tests which indicated lots of natural gas in the water, heavy metals in the water, which are - I've later found out to be associated with the drilling muds, which are the lubricants for the drill bit that punctures down through the aquifer. When you're subsisting off of well water for your whole life, your water is a point of pride. And I think everybody was shocked that their water, which had been great, would - had turned into something that they couldn't rely on and that they were afraid of.

GROSS: Now, you did find places where the tap water could be set on fire. Where did you go to find that?

Mr. FOX: Well, that was in Colorado. Reports of water being flammable right after a hydraulic fracturing process were actually, I found out, fairly common across the country, and also in Canada. And I'd seen pictures of it from a woman in Alberta. I'd heard about it in Louisiana and Wyoming, Texas, Colorado. But generally, what happens is, those people's water wells are disconnected, and then the gas company trades a non-disclosure agreement for a water supply. So it says you can't tell anybody what happened, but we're going to give you replacement water for however long as you want.

So we had to kind of scramble to catch a place that was - that that had just happened, and that was in Wells County, Colorado, where there had been a lot of fracturing. There's a lot of gas wells. It's just northeast of Denver, and there were five or six different families that we saw lighting their water on fire, right out of the tap. In fact, I did it myself, and it just turns your whole world upside down when you can turn the faucet on and then stick a cigarette lighter under it and just - you get this explosion of flame.

GROSS: Yeah. It's like the flames spread through the whole sink. I was surprised that the guy's arm didn't burn up. But he knew to get it out really quick, I guess.

Mr. FOX: Yeah. Well, it's a kind of hilarious scene because the first thing -you know, the first thing that happens when you see somebody lighting their water on fire is just like, your brain just kind of goes crazy. And then you start to think, well, what happens if they had a fire in their house? How would they put it out? And then the thoughts of - some of these people were showering with the lights off because they were afraid if they turned on the light bulb, if there was a spark from the light bulb, they would blow up their shower. It was really intense.

But at the same time, there's a kind of gallows humor that takes over, because I think they'd had so little ability to appeal to any government agency about this problem. You know, they were continually not being able to find a government agency, whether that was the State Department of Environmental Protection or the - in Colorado, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission - generally, were telling them that what was happening to them was not happening to them.

GROSS: In one of the scenes in your documentary "Gasland," there's a woman who has been finding small, dead animals and toads, you know, in her area. And she's alarmed and thinks that it might be a result of contaminated water from the fracking process. So she decides to take some of these dead creatures, freeze them in her freezer until she can get them autopsied. And she seems so totally creeped out by this, but she feels like she has to do it. Can you talk a little bit about her?

Mr. FOX: You're talking about Lisa Bracken in Colorado, and Divide Creek. Basically, the gas industry came in, took over large sections of her property. What happened was she discovered that the creek - Divide Creek - was bubbling and fizzing. And her father went down there, and they discovered that they could light the creek on fire. And that was known as the Divide Creek seep. The fracture hit some other natural fissures in the ground after the fracking, and that exploded plume of benzene, toluene, methane into the creek.

They complained. There was a settlement. But basically, dead animals kept showing up around the creek. The seep occurred again in 2008 because the companies were allowed to go back in and continue to do the fracking. And so she was so frustrated that she started to collect these animals, freeze them, to try to deal with how to prove that this was happening because of the gas. She wanted to find out what chemicals were killing these animals.

The burden of proof in this situation is on the citizen. Even though the chemicals could never be in the environment any other way, it's still up to the citizen to prove that the gas company got the chemicals in their water, which is virtually impossible to do because you need a hydrogeologist. You need chain of custody. You need things that citizens don't have access to.

But in a sort of desperation, she's picking up these animals, freezing them in her freezer, trying to send them off to get autopsied. She couldn't figure out where to get them autopsied, or how to identify the things that had killed them. But you know, she said she had them in her freezer, you know, and you see that in the film. And it's very eerie - it's almost like the David Lynch section of "Gasland," you know?

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. FOX: She comes out, and she's like, all right. Well, here you go. And she unfolds all these dead birds and a rabbit. And apparently, they were just in her freezer. And I ask her, you know, Lisa, did you ever think you were going to be freezing animals, dead birds and this kind of stuff, in your freezer? She says no. This is the creepiest thing I've ever seen, you know. And again, it's that strange sense of, we're living a nightmare. We've got dead rabbits and birds and dead crawfish in the back of our freezer, behind the hamburger meat, wrapped in Wal-Mart bags because simply, we're at the end of our rope. We don't know what to do.

GROSS: My guest is Josh Fox. His new documentary is called "Gasland." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Josh Fox. He made his new documentary, "Gasland," after his family was offered a lot of money by gas companies that wanted to lease the family's land to drill for gas.

You decided not to lease you land to a gas company for hydraulic fracturing.

Mr. FOX: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What about your neighbors? Do you have a lot of neighbors who are saying yes to the deal?

Mr. FOX: Oh, yeah. We're completely surrounded by people who have leased. The difficult thing about this is that it's a decision for a whole community that's left up to certain individuals to decide what they want to do. Because if the neighboring property next to me is leased, and I want to sell my house, I'm in a very difficult situation. It's very hard for me to get financing from a bank because I'm now adjacent to an industrial zone. There also is, in many states, what's called compulsory integration, or forced pooling. So if 60 percent of landowners in one 1,200-acre parcel lease, you're leased, which means they can take the gas from out - from under you. You're forced, basically, to sign the lease. You know...

GROSS: Wait. Wait. Wait. You're forced to sign a lease?

Mr. FOX: Yeah, in many parts of the country. That's true in New York. In Pennsylvania - they're contemplating implementing forced pooling in Pennsylvania. But you know, in Dee Hofmeister's case in Colorado - where a person I interviewed in Garfield County, Colorado, who was made very sick by this cloud of gas that was in her house when she came home from her vacation in Minnesota, and she ended up going down and in the hospital for quite a long time, and has neuropathies and other kinds of brain damage, very big problems, she was forced pooled.

Basically, the gas company came and said look, you have no choice. You can either sign this lease right now and take some money from us, because we're taking the gas, or you can not sign this - and we won't give you anything. And there's a lot of intimidation tactics like that, that we've been hearing as we go around the country.

Just last night in Dimmick, we were showing the film at a small movie theater, and people said: The first time the land men came, they were very sweet, and they asked us to sign, and we said no. The second time they came, they offered us more money. The third time, they said, well, you know, what? We're going to take your property anyway. You might as well get some money - and some other things which I can't repeat. So you know, there is this kind of being forced, whether that's from the land men pushing you, or there is actually this law that says if 60 percent of landowners in a 1,200-acre parcel - in many states, and this is state to state - lease, then you're leased. Period.

GROSS: One of the things you were trying to figure out is, does the fracking fluid that can seep into the ground and into groundwater, and do the gases that are released during the process, are these things affecting the health of people who live near the gas wells? So what did you find about health problems that people thought were likely caused by the fracking process, although they probably couldn't necessarily prove it?

Mr. FOX: Health complaints are happening all over these unconventional gas drilling areas. We know what the chemicals do to you, and we know what symptoms we're seeing. We're seeing neuropathies. There are forms of cancer. We're asking for a health study to be done and a moratorium so that people can - so that they can be investigated, what exactly is happening with people's health.

Right now, all we have is, this is what's happening to people. We don't know if it's a result of the air, if it's a result of the water. But we do know what those kinds of chemicals do to you. And we're seeing those effects.

GROSS: You traveled to some key states around the country where hydraulic fracturing is already happening. You've told us about some of the problems that you've witnessed. Were there any communities where things seemed to be going well, and the landowners who had agreed to lease to the gas companies were happy with their decision?

Mr. FOX: You know, it's a great question. I've been doing a lot of public appearances with the film, and I've actually asked the gas companies: Listen, if you've got an ideal town where you've got 100-plus wells and everything is going swimmingly well, nobody's upset and you don't have these problems with air pollution and water contamination and health problems, I want you to take me to that town. I want a guided tour. So far, no responses to that. I don't think such a town exists. I think what we're doing is going from place to place and contaminating those water supplies. I haven't found that town - and you know, we were looking for it.

GROSS: Josh Fox, thank you so much.

Mr. FOX: OK. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: By the way, I think I used to go to summer camp near where you are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FOX: Oh, where did you go?

GROSS: It was in Wayne County, I'm pretty sure.

Mr. FOX: Oh, yeah. Well, there's so many camps in that area.

GROSS: Are there? Yeah.

Mr. FOX: Yeah. I mean, it's a lot of summer camps - and you'd be surprised at how many of those summer camps are leasing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No. Wow. Really?

Mr. FOX: Oh, yeah. Well, listen, we're talking about...

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. FOX: ...65 percent...

GROSS: Wow. I never thought of that.

Mr. FOX: We're talking about 65 percent of Pennsylvania, 50 percent of New York.

GROSS: Wow. So in...

Mr. FOX: We're talking about - even if the summer camps aren't leased, their neighbors are leasing.

GROSS: So, you know, I never thought of that. So that means that, like, some of the summer camps might actually become oil wells?

Mr. FOX: Well, no. Listen, what the gas company is saying is that you can live where this is happening. You can go to camp where this is happening. If watersheds are not off the table, schools are not off the table, summer camps are not off the table, near hospitals is not off the table. You have close to 15,000 wells in the downtown and in the Fort Worth area, in the urban area, in the country. This is everywhere. So it stands to reason if you could put it next to somebody house and the gas company says that that's OK, you can put it in the middle of a summer camp. You could put it in the middle of a lake. This is - you can put it right on the banks of the Colorado River, which supply all the water to Los Angeles. This is what we're seeing.

GROSS: Well, Josh Fox, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. FOX: OK, thank you.

GROSS: Josh Fox's new documentary, "Gasland," will be shown on HBO, Monday, June 21st. He's currently touring with the film, showing it to audiences in areas affected by gas drilling. You can watch clips from the documentary "Gasland," as well as a map showing natural-gas drilling areas in the U.S., on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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