Flim flam film redux

July 23, 2012
A bit more than 2 years ago, this space looked at "Gasland," a product of independent filmmaker Josh Fox.

A bit more than 2 years ago, this space looked at "Gasland," a product of independent filmmaker Josh Fox. The film purports to demonstrate the safety and environmental hazards of natural gas drilling in general and hydraulic fracturing in particular (OGJ, July 12, 2010, p. 16).

HBO had shown the film, after it had won a prize earlier in the year at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Since then, it has continued to be the darling of the more irrational, less responsible environmentalist crowd.

As a scientific treatment, "Gasland" is almost laughable. Almost…because its distortions, oversimplifications, and falsehoods are undermining balanced, reasonable, and essential discussions about hydraulic fracturing and, more generally, the role natural gas can play in reducing US carbon emissions.

My column juxtaposed some of the film's more inflammatory claims against reasoned, science-based rebuttals that comprise part of a 4,000-word attack on the film by oil and gas producer organization Energy in Depth (EID). Now, EID in conjunction with the Independent Petroleum Association of America has fired back with the 34-min "Truthland."

Real people

"Truthland" employs an actual Pennsylvania farm family, the Depues of Franklin, Susquehanna County, or more accurately its mother. The narrative posits that a family viewing of Fox's film has prompted questions among its members. Trained as an educator, a skeptical Mrs. Depue decides to take those questions to experts—something Fox's film doesn't do—and get some answers.

She packs her bags and heads out. In the course of her odyssey across five states, she addresses different questions to different experts whose replies essentially repeat the main rebuttal points of EID's 2010 document.

By far the most memorable scene in "Gasland" is the flaming faucet: A Colorado man turns on his kitchen faucet and holds a match to the running water, which erupts in flame. Fox invites viewers to infer that nearby gas drilling has caused methane to invade the house's water supply.

Mrs. Depue confronts this image early in "Truthland" by holding a lit match to a bubbling Pennsylvania stream known for years naturally to contain methane. It too lights.

She then visits experts in Louisiana, Texas, and Colorado whose comments dispute most of the myths and distortions propounded in Fox's film. These experts offer mini-tutorials on the nature and behavior of methane, the geologic forces at work in the subsurface, and the realities of how wells are drilled and completed.

Near the movie's end, Mrs. Depue returns to the dramatic burning-faucet image when she visits a farmer in New York. He too lights methane in water flowing from his kitchen faucet…yet there's been no hydraulic fracturing nor natural gas drilling anywhere near his house.


It is useful to report that, according to the film, Mrs. Depue received no payment outside her travel expenses. And, it states, the interviewed experts provided their time and knowledge without compensation.

Also, local media have reported that, while the movie was being produced, the Depues had leased acreage to WPX Energy and that Mrs. Depue's son was working in the gas industry.

It's important, however, not to lose sight of what "Truthland" is: industry propaganda. Its narrative is contrived and stiff, its softball questions to the experts are obvious, and its conclusions never in doubt.

But its purpose is to oppose other propaganda—particularly vicious propaganda that plays to the fears and ignorance of the general public.

Are there questions about hydraulic fracturing and natural gas drilling that "Truthland" ignores? Sure. But it never pretends to be anything more than what it is.

It employs the same medium—film—and approach—narration—that engage most people's attention far more readily than a lecture on the same facts.

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