When tap water burns, it’s probably time to admit there’s a problem.
Yet not everyone agrees, which is one of the more disturbing messages of “Gasland,” an HBO documentary about pollution caused by the expanding search for “clean” natural gas in the U.S.
The film, which airs tonight at 9 p.m. New York time, won a special jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It was made by Josh Fox, who may go down in history as the Paul Revere of fracking -- short for hydraulic fracturing, the process by which natural gas is extracted.
The story he tells is alarming, educational and sometimes funny.
Fox became suspicious when energy companies offered him and his neighbors near the New York-Pennsylvania border boatloads of money to drill for natural gas on their properties in the Delaware River Basin. Fox turned down $100,000 after investigating the situation and finding it fraught with danger.
He traces the problem to the Dick Cheney-backed Energy Policy Act of 2005, which exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act and other environmental regulations.
This unleashed a massive gas grope, according to the film, that has resulted in 450,000 gas wells in 34 states. Fracking fluids, which help release gas deposits trapped in rocks, contain neurotoxins and carcinogens. Fox says trillions of gallons of contaminated water have been produced by the process and largely left to seep back into the earth or evaporate.
When Fox heads West, he finds a new type of firewater.
In rural Colorado several residents turn on their kitchen faucets and light the water afire. The roaring flames make you wonder if they might be able to fuel their cars with their gas-contaminated tap water.
In Colorado and Wyoming, residents in drilling areas complain of persistent headaches, loss of smell and taste and having to buy their drinking water from Wal-Mart.
Despite the ominous implications, Fox manages to maintain his sense of humor. During a trip through Wyoming’s Jonah Gas Field he leaves his car (wearing a gas mask) and plays “This Land is Your Land” on his banjo, a poignant choice since he’s on public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management that’s been leased out for exploration.
In DISH, Texas -- the town was renamed after the satellite company in exchange for getting free TV service for 10 years -- the air is so polluted by natural-gas exploration that it may be flammable. Mayor Calvin Tillman muses that “some guy is going to be cooking his hamburger one day and blow up the town.”
The Marcellus Shale Field, which stretches from New York to West Virginia, is called the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” It’s also the country’s largest unfiltered watershed, supplying 16.5 million people with drinking water.
John Hanger, the head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, downplays pollution dangers. Yet when Fox offers him a drink of water from a town where animals have begun losing their hair, he declines.
In Congress, Fox finds lobbyists and energy executives trying to derail a bill that would regulate some of the chemicals used in fracking. U.S. Representative Dan Boren, a Democrat from Oklahoma, accuses critics of “searching for a problem that does not exist.”
That might surprise some folks in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where gas-well explosions caused extensive damage earlier last month. Toxic chemicals spewed into the air for 16 hours in Pennsylvania, which has halted construction of 70 wells pending environmental review.
Maybe Boren would change his perspective if he took a sip of some high-octane water.
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(Dave Shiflett is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)