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Opinion: Columnists

Sean Higgins: How to set your tap water -- and pants -- on fire

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Opinion,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Campaign 2012

There is a scene toward the end of Josh Fox's cult-hit documentary "Gasland" in which liberal New York state legislators and environmental activists hold a press conference on fracking and drinking water safety. Fox was the only person to show up. No other reporter appeared.

The speakers at the event fumed angrily over this, but they were luckier than they knew. The incident became a powerful scene in Fox's film, in which they were portrayed as a lonely few taking on both powerful interests and an indifferent press.

It also helps to explain how a simple documentary by a novice filmmaker became a major factor in the debate over fracking -- the process of extracting natural gas from deep underground. So few were covering the issue that Fox's anti-fracking film had the platform to itself. Fox was able to frame the entire issue.

A new documentary called FrackNation raises serious questions about the accuracy of Gasland though. Fox -- who is reportedly working on a sequel for HBO -- has yet to respond, but at some point he is going to have to. The evidence in FrackNation looks pretty damning.

For those who haven't seen it, Gasland follows director/narrator/onscreen host Fox, a puckish banjo-playing son of hippies, as he tries to learn about fracking after he gets an offer to have his family's land drilled for natural gas. In the style of Michael Moore, Fox portrays fracking as a disaster waiting to happen -- people become sick after wells are dug near their homes, and their groundwater becomes contaminated.

In its most famous segment, Fox shows a man literally lighting his tap water on fire, allegedly the consequence of seepage from a fracking well. This became the documentary's tag line: "Can you light your water on fire?"

Though not a huge commercial success, the 2010 film became an underground sensation among liberals just as fracking was emerging as major issue -- at the very moment that massive new stores of natural gas were becoming available, thanks in large part to this drilling process.

Environmentalists who had previously backed natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to a renewable energy future turned sharply against it, fearing cheap, abundant gas would undermine the case for wind and solar.

Gasland also inspired Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, two Irish journalists and filmmakers, to craft a response. They find people in the neighborhoods Fox visited who eagerly back fracking. Residents of the supposedly devastated town of Dimock, Pa., are portrayed as resenting claim it was damaged. Both the state environmental agency and Environmental Protection Agency have now said that fracking did not contaminate their water after all.

McAleer shows people in the supposedly fracking-damaged regions saying their groundwater was always bad. The filmmakers show considerable evidence that methane gas in groundwater is not uncommon, and the flaming tap water may have been a naturally occurring phenomenon.

When McAleeer confronts Fox at a lecture, Fox surprisingly concedes that people had been lighting tap water on fire long before fracking. So why wasn't this mentioned in Gasland? "It's not relevant," Fox insists.

Professors and scientists are interviewed and dismiss the concerns over fracking chemicals. One even argues there are worse chemicals in a cup of coffee.

In another section, McAleer shows evidence that the offer to lease Fox's land for drilling came not from a corporation, but from the North Wayne Property Owner's Alliance, a private group of Pennsylvania residents who favor fracking.

FrackNation is not above stacking the deck itself. Maudlin music plays over one segment as people who favor having their lands fracked but have been blocked by activists who worry over their economic futures. Another section raises the possibility that Russia's Vladimir Putin may be backing the anti-fracking campaign to prevent competition with his state-owned gas companies. McAleer admitted to me that he has "no evidence direct or even indirect" that Russia is doing this. (On the other hand, the government of Abu Dhabi did underwrite the anti-fracking commercial film, "Promised Land.")

Fracknation concludes with Fox literally evading McAleer as the latter tries to question him at another event. My attempts to secure an interview with Fox through his gasland.com website were similarly fruitless.

Even if you are not interested in energy policy, I'd recommend watching Gasland and FrackNation back-to-back, as I did. They form a compelling example of how film can manipulate -- and how one person's free speech is the best answer to another's.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner