Gasland: True or False?

Gasland, an Oscar-nominated film that documents alleged environmental damage from fracking, is fueling a backlash against natural gas drilling. It shows homeowners lighting their tap water on fire, drawing industry charges of sensationalism. We examine three of the film's claims:

Claim 1: Fracking is polluting underground sources of drinking water.

The film highlights the risk but overstates it at times. At least three contamination cases from faulty gas wells have been confirmed since 2007, says Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser at the Environmental Defense Fund. In all three, the problem was flawed cement used in well construction, he says, not the fracking itself. Pennsylvania and other states have since toughened construction standards. The main risk is that drilling can allow naturally occurring methane to seep into a water source, says Jan Jarrett, president of PennFuture, a Pennsylvania policy group. Naturally occurring methane can contaminate water even without drilling, and Energy in Depth, a natural gas industry group, says that may explain the flammable tap water.

Claim 2: Fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, leaving it largely unregulated.

States and regional authorities such as the Delaware River Basin Commission regulate fracking. The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study of fracking and performs some oversight, but a clause in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 excludes fracking from portions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA cannot, for example, regulate drillers' underground injections, except when diesel fuel is used in the fracking mix. Michael Dworkin, a Vermont Law School professor, says gas exploration is exempt, but it's debatable whether extraction is, too.

Claim 3: Wastewater from fracking sites is contaminating rivers.

The film suggests that wastewater from drilling killed fish in Washington County, Pa. The EPA pointed to discharges from coal mines as the fish kill's possible cause. Josh Fox, the film's director, says the EPA overlooked testimony from locals who claimed that gas drilling wastewater was being dumped into the mines prior to the fish kill. Also, The New York Times reported on Feb. 27 that drillers were trucking wastewater laced with radioactive chemicals to treatment plants that were unable to remove the carcinogens.

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