Certain powerful images really stick with you when you watch Gasland or Gasland 2. First is the shot of the tap water on fire. Equally powerful are the images of the film’s director Josh Fox on his porch strumming his banjo, in the woods on his property, walking by the local stream, and celebrating the pristine beauty of the nearby Delaware River. The film keeps returning to the land that Fox treasures, cluing us in on why he turned down a sizeable offer to lease for gas drilling, and what drove him forth with his camera on a fact-finding journey that culminated in the first Gasland, the film that ignited the fractivism movement.
The offer on the table in Fox’s corner of Wayne County, Pa., was part of the first incursion of fracking into the Northeastern U.S. The arrival of landsmen— the gas company representatives offering quick and easy money with no downside if people signed away the mineral rights to their land, had already been going on in the Western U.S. As it plays out road by road, town by town, and state by state, fracking baldly reveals the downsides of the myth of American individualism. Americans prize the right to do what they want on their property. But other people’s rights wind up violated when what Neighbor A chooses to do contaminates the water supply, impinges on the quality of life, or destroys the property value of Neighbor B.
And that cross point—one person’s rights to drill versus others’ rights to protect their homes, community and water supply is central to every community’s divide over fracking. It’s science’s job to assess benefits versus risks. It’s government’s job to mediate my rights versus yours. When science fails to study, when government fails to monitor, it’s neighbor against neighbor. When millions of dollars spent on ad buys and lobbyists assure that marketing slogans like “energy independence” appear everywhere from Superbowl commercials to State of the Union talking points, then local battles erupt in places like Wayne County. Since 2007, when leasing began in Wayne County, Fox’s once idyllic rural community has been embattled. And so is a nation divided at a crossroads of energy choice and climate change.
But over the last few weeks, that changed for Wayne County. Hess and Newfield, the two major gas companies leasing land there, decided to cancel their leases in Marcellus shale, and move out of Wayne and much of northeastern PA. The companies sent letters stating that they “have elected to release your lease, thus your lease will not be continued to the development phase,” terminating approximately 1,500 leases covering over 100,000 acres of land.
“I can’t believe it and I can’t stop crying,” Fox said, adding that he is deeply grateful for this “amazing victory.” “This proves that people passionate and organized can actually win sometimes. We won’t stop until we win everywhere.”
It’s no happenstance that the unprecedented mass lease cancellation occurred in a region that is home both to Josh Fox, fractivism’s heroic Pied Piper, and to the first fractivist organization founded in the Northeast U.S., Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCS)— making it a triumph both for Fox and for the dedicated grassroots effort by a community of neighbors that began in 2007.
Fox was inspired to film his investigation of fracking’s impacts on average citizens in 2008 after attending a local public event hosted by DCS co-founders Joe Levine, Jane Cyphers and Barbara Arrindell. The first Gasland film is dedicated to them. When faced with the shared threat of fracking, this trio pooled their skills to organize. Levine is an architect conversant with land use, zoning, and local ordinances and officials; Cyphers is an educator; and Arrindell has a background in science, which made it easy for her to grasp the geological complexities beneath the marketing phrases.
Other like-minded neighbors joined, bringing in both the skills (in everything from fund raising and legal language to data entry and letter writing) not to mention the stamina needed to drive hours to attend public meetings, to march in rallies, and to button hole uninformed state and local officials, and provide hard data. The group also attracted the expertise of leading geologist, Tony Ingraffea, health researcher, Theo Colborn, and former NYC Commissioner of Environmental Protection, Al Appleton.
By the time director Fox decided to take his camera and hit the road, Levine and company had already built connections with people adversely affected by fracking nationwide. “We gave him an itinerary of people to meet, and I also loaned him my car when his broke down,” Levine fondly recalls. No one imagined that Gasland would have the impact it did, raising the profile of fracking and gas company activities, (which had previously operated in secrecy in remote rural areas, far from major media). But as it turned out, the film attracted tens of thousands of citizens to fractivism, was nominated for an Oscar, and catapulted Fox to media celebrity.
Due to DCS efforts and alliances with the over two hundred other groups which soon formed in the Northeast, fractivists have so far been successful in sustaining a moratorium on fracking in the environmentally sensitive Delaware River Basin (as well as a moratorium on fracking in New York State). This is an achievement given that when the group first sat down with the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) —an inter-state entity charged with environment protection— Arrindell recalls that the Commission considered any form of regulation or oversight of gas drilling to be outside of its purview. Along with other factors, the protracted moratorium on drilling may have played a part in the decision of Hess and Newfield to cancel leases and depart.
On many fronts, DCS has pushed for accountability, and in some cases, filled voids left by disengaged or corrupted government. When public health officials failed to undertake long-term studies of the health impacts of drilling, DCS began gathering that data in a special survey it developed for reporting to the CDC.
Another DCS initiative arose in response to the gas companies’ rote claim that water contamination by methane could not be proven because “methane was already there.” Outraged landowners whose families over generations had relied on their deep wells and pure water had no way to counter that denial—until DCS pioneered the use of a new technology that establishes baseline methane levels prior to drilling. Although this technology was originally developed for the gas industry, it’s now in use to demonstrate when drilling (and allied activities) have produced the release of methane and other forms of pollution, not present before. It may be that the threat of lawsuits for damages (now possible thanks to such proof) helped to deter Hess and Newfield from proceeding in the region, although no one can say for sure.
Arrindell celebrates what she calls “the innumerable term papers” often written on short notice, which would be “a very tall stack if [gathered] in one pile!” She also cites “the meetings, comments filed, and the educational sessions with people of all walks of life” that the grassroots activists have done. But what is the response of her neighbors whose leases were canceled?
Most she has spoken to feel relieved, she reports. “They got their money when they signed their leases, and for a variety of reasons, royalty payments are rarely near what they were initially promised.” What’s more, although the companies could cancel the leases at will, lessors who changed their minds once they learned more about drilling, had no right to cancel. Even though the leases, when signed, were to have expired by a specific time period, the insertion of specific language gave the companies the right to extend the leases indefinitely. Plus, many have come to see that the landsmen’s description of a 24/7 industrial drilling site, as an inconspicuous “little Christmas tree,” is inaccurate.
Still both Levine and Arrindell see the lease terminations as winning a battle though not necessarily the war. Fractivist efforts must continue, they urge. Moreover, Arrindell points out that in canceling the leases, the companies were making a business decision. “Due to government subsidies the companies receive when they lease land, the lease acquisition phase was profitable for them. But before they proceed to the next phase, they have to measure the costs of drilling against the likely profits. Thanks to the SEC, we now know more about the average outputs of gas wells. At best, gas output falls off very dramatically after the first year or two. This makes drilling less profitable than these companies hoped it would be at the outset. Gas prices have also declined.”
In this context, the Hess and Newfield decision to pull out could be a smart business move, and one other companies might well follow. Fractivists like Fox, Levine, and Arrindell hope that they do before more damage is done. But they are not banking on hope. They are banking on ongoing work.