What's 'Gasland' all about?
'Gasland' is my road trip across the country investigating a particular kind of natural gas drilling called hydraulic fracturing. In May of 2008, I was asked to lease my family's property for natural gas drilling. I live in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, right on the border of New York State. And I found out that about fifty percent of New York State and about sixty-five percent of Pennsylvania are over a formation called The Marcellus Shale, which contains, embedded in the rock, natural gas. And a new technology had opened up that let companies pulverize this rock and get natural gas out of it. So when I got this letter in the mail offering me one hundred thousand dollars as a signing bonus and then a royalty thereafter, I went to investigate.
Where I live is a pristine watershed area. That watershed area in New York State and in Pennsylvania is the combined water source for millions of people in New York City, Philadelphia, southern New Jersey, and some people in Delaware. When I started to investigate this process, I went to a nearby town-Dimock, Pennsylvania - where they were already drilling, and found all manner of insanity breaking loose. People had natural gas in their water-they could light it on fire; there were chemicals and contamination in their water; their animals getting sick, their kids were getting sick. And so when I saw what it meant - that this would essentially industrialize the entire region-I decided to take this cross-country trip to other places that this type of drilling was happening.
In 2005, the United States Congress, compelled by Dick Cheney, exempted this form of natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act; when that happened, it exploded nationwide. And these huge drilling fields opened up what they call "unconventional" drilling. And so it was easy to go from state to state and hear the stories and hear people's issues. And everywhere I went it was the same problems: water contamination, air pollution; people getting sick, flammable water, chemicals in the water. This process was creating havoc on the landscape, and on people's lives. And so the film is me being approached to do this, and then trying to investigate, and finding a nationwide crisis.
The people I interviewed were unbelievable. People who have had their lives completely taken over by natural gas drilling, literally, right off their front porch, and who have had no recourse to any of the environmental laws; and they know something is terribly wrong with what's going on.
It sounds like it was a cathartic experience for you?
Absolutely cathartic; I mean, when I was making it, I started off with just one or two people that I was gonna interview. And then they told two friends and they told two friends and it spiraled. So I think that there's a huge number of people across the country that are waiting to see this. I hope it will be cathartic for the nation.
You know, the natural gas industry has promoted itself as a "clean-burning" alternative to coal. But what I know is that natural gas is actually competing with renewable energy, which is a lot cleaner. And the extraction of natural gas is causing havoc all across America. At the same time, the fact that it's a fossil fuel and the fact that so much natural gas is released into the air when they do the drilling, it's debatable as to whether or not it's better than coal. So, it's a scary thing, and I think it's gonna challenge a lot of people opinions about what natural gas is-or at least domestically produced natural gas through this new hydrofracking technology.
"I think it's an opportunity for the people in the movie to talk directly to millions of people and tell them what they're going through. And then they can connect the dots."
What we learn by the end of the film is kind of terrifying.
That's true. But it's also incredibly inspiring. There's something indomitable about these people-about their optimism and unwillingness to quit. You know, when you can light your water on fire, right out of your sink, the first thing that you do is laugh. It's so shocking, you just start cracking up. So there's a lot of humor in the movie which you need to get through it. So, for me, there's a terrifying part of it, but there's also just this amazing portrait of America that goes on within it. And I think it's an opportunity for the people in the movie to talk directly to millions of people and tell them what they're going through. And then they can connect the dots. So we go from my back porch in Pennsylvania all across the nation, and then wind up in the halls of Congress watching Congress debate this issue. Because a lot of the laws surrounding this type of drilling are being debated right now; there's been no final outcome. This is not a perennial environmental issue; this is happening right now. So it's amazing that the film is going to be out in time for it to potentially make a difference.
Were people open to talking or were they apprehensive at first?
The people I interviewed we're incredibly happy to have someone who was willing to listen to their stories because no one had been paying attention. The hardest thing about it was keeping it together; being in somebody's kitchen and having them talk to you about brain damage.
There's one scene in the film where I break down. I'm at a stream that was at some point flammable. It was the end of a really long day where I had talked to a lot of people who were sick. And I hiked down and went to this stream in Colorado which reminded me of home, and I completely lost it; because we're all in the same boat.
I'm hoping that we don't get drilled in my community, which is still very much on the line as is the whole Delaware River Basin. So is the New York City watershed; still very much on the line. So, now that I know what this really is, I'm absolutely going after trying to stop it.
What do you hope the film will accomplish?
We want it to be seen as far and wide as possible. That's one of the great things about it getting to be on HBO. We want to get it to members of Congress; we want to get it to the Obama Administration. This film asks questions. We want people to take a look at it and discuss it. Because when this type of drilling became exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act-basically the Environmental Protection Agency was told, you don't have to look at this. So they didn't. We want people at the decision-making level in the government to know what's going on. Of course, there's this concrete goal, but then there's also the fact that people should know about this. Because you can't see it. It's happening under the ground.
There's got to be a solution to these problems. If natural gas is not the answer, what's the answer? Because it's really a crisis; you have to be compelled towards trying to answer this. We all know that we have to get off of fossil fuels. And we know that the world is going in that direction. And we have to do it fast. So this film is a part of the question, and, hopefully, will contribute to the answer.
Summer Series 2010
2010 Sundance Film Festival Award-Winner