Josh Fox’s Gasland literally begins in his own backyard. The director of International WOW Company, which produces films and plays, received a letter from a natural gas company offering him over $100,000 to lease his Milanville, Pa. backyard in the middle of the woods. He was told that his yard was on top of the Marcellus Shale, a stretch of land considered to be “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” Fox said in the documentary. The Marcellus Shale covers Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and West Virginia.
Natural gas is extracted through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. A mixture of chemicals is shot 8,000 feet into the ground, creating a mini-earthquake and loosening natural gases from the rock. According to Fox, the “fracking fluid” contains over 596 different chemicals, “from the unpronounceable, to the unknown, to the too-well known.”
Between one and seven million gallons of water is needed each time a well is drilled; another one to seven million gallons is used each time it is fracked. Wells can be fracked up to 18 times. At the time Fox made Gasland, 34 states contained gas wells that use the fracking method.
Fox headed to Dimock, Pa., where drilling was already happening, to find out more about the effects of natural gas extraction. In just a few months, the town had become home to 40 wells. After the drilling had started, many residents began complaining that their own water wells were going bad: the water coming out of their taps bubbled and fizzed, turned brown and started tasting funny. Water wells exploded. People all over town started feeling sick. Pets lost their fur.
There, Fox encountered a family who could light their own water on fire. In the narration he claimed they didn’t want to show him because the water well had been turned off, and they were afraid of it exploding if they turned it back on.
“I said goodbye to my $100,000,” said Fox in Gasland’s voiceover, his inquiry suddenly turning into investigative journalism. “Was I actually going to become a kind of natural gas drilling detective? Okay, I guess.”
Fox’s trip to Dimock sparked a journey across America, from the original home of hydraulic fracturing in Texas to the proposed projects in New York, in order to find out just what this process was doing to both water and air.
The first time Fox shows water being lit on fire, it’s in Weld County, Colo., at Mike Markhan’s farm. Markhan turns on a tap and holds a lighter up to the water coming out of it. Only a few seconds later, it lights up. A fireball singes his arm hair. The sight is a shock to Fox. What can be in that water to make it light up in that way?
The absurdity of the situation is captured in one scene towards the midpoint of the documentary, when Fox stands in front of a gas field, completely undisturbed, and plays his banjo while wearing a gas mask. It conveys the strangeness of a situation where people do out-of-character things like treat their water supply as a science experiment, or freeze the bodies of animals that have died near a poisoned stream to send them for autopsies. Fox takes his viewers on a journey that is crazy, a little scary, occasionally funny and very compelling.
This review was originally published in The Concordian.