Perhaps you may be aware that I grew up in one of the country’s most beautiful regions, the Catskill Mountains. My home county, Sullivan County, as well as some adjacent counties supply the drinking water for New York City and most of New Jersey, coming from local reservoirs that are fed by some very famous rivers and streams, including the Neversink River. When I was young, I used to ride my bike along the Neversink, captivated by its sparkling water.
Now it turns out that the Neversink is a tributary of the Delaware River that borders New York State and Pennsylvania, and that we encounter at the beginning of Josh Fox’s Gasland, opening today at the IFC Center in New York. As the film begins, Fox has just gotten an offer of $25,000 per acre for drilling rights on his land from an oil and gas company—the total pay-off will be $100,000 for this Milanville resident, who ended up in rural Pennsylvania when his hippie parents chose this neck of the woods rather than Vermont or New Mexico.
The natural gas companies have swooped across eastern Pennsylvania, headed now into my ancestral home in upstate New York, trying to nail down the right to exploit the ample resources that some powerful players in the energy industry like T. Boone Pickens regard as the magic bullet that will deliver us from the curse of foreign oil.
Until I saw Gasland, I hadn’t given much thought to natural gas drilling but I was aware that it had become a hot potato up in Sullivan County. In nearly every issue of the Middletown Record and the Sullivan County Democrat, two hometown papers I read online, you can find an article about whether drilling would benefit the county despite the risks. This is from a recent issue of the Democrat:
On one side are the residents signing leases with natural gas companies and setting up signs in their yards proclaiming themselves “friends” of the natural gas industry.
On the other are the people who say they fear for the future of the very children singing along with Liberty High School grads Justin Sutherland and Erin Slaver as they played out the tune of Woody Guthrie’s famous ode to the earth.
Sutherland and his mother Justine had borrowed Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” for Saturday night’s free screening of the documentary “Gasland,” adding lyrics that spoke directly to the people of Callicoon.
“This land is our land; it’s not gas land,” their song went. “Think of our future, it’s all in our hands.
Meanwhile, the May 18th Middletown Record reported on the pro-drilling faction:
The pro-drillers say their voices have been drowned out by a gushing of anti-drilling publicity. Elitist, deep-pocketed environmentalists have put drilling on hold in New York, they say, made the federal government again study its safety and forced politicians to turn against it or sit on the fence. They say the anti-drilling publicity machine has turned the spotlight on the few drilling accidents, not the thousands of wells that have been safely drilled across the country, and in New York. All this despite the fact that nearly twice as many people favor drilling as oppose it, according to last week’s Record poll.
The pro-drillers say drilling the gas-rich Marcellus shale beneath Sullivan County – and leasing their land at thousands of dollars per acre, with royalties up to 20 percent – will pump millions into the state’s dying economy, and their pockets. It will allow farmers in places like Sullivan to save dying farms and the green landscape. It will allow overtaxed landowners to save their property. And it will revive struggling counties like Sullivan by creating thousands of jobs.
The arguments for drilling are basically the same being heard for mountaintop removal in West Virginia and Kentucky, issuing faux populist appeals on behalf of the poor.
As you see the hapless victims of rural people in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Colorado and the far outskirts of Fort Worth coping with water so contaminated that it catches fire, you realize that the “race to the bottom” in American society has not just involved runaway shops. People desperate for a pay-off from a petroleum corporation will sign away their lives. In exchange for a royalty payment, they sacrifice their health, from low-level aches and pains up to brain lesions.
In many ways, Gasland’s closest relative in the world of documentary is the 2008 Crude that showed how little Chevron cared about the environmental consequences that drilling had on the waterways of largely indigenous poor peasants in Ecuador. The remarkable thing about Gasland is how much the self-respecting middle-classes in the US are getting just as royally screwed. Over and over again, the ranchers and farmers tell Josh Fox that this is a democracy and that this should not be happening to them. They are particularly incensed at the inability or unwillingness of the agencies assigned to protect their well-being to do anything. One imagines that some of these good people of Wyoming and Colorado are exactly the sort of people who had voted for Bush and Cheney in the hope that their taxes would be reduced and that their right to bear arms would not be threatened.
What they got instead was the Energy Policy Act of 2005 drafted by Halliburton ex-CEO Dick Cheney that exempted natural gas drilling companies from the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Acts. As we see the embittered rural folk spilling out their guts to Josh Fox, ready it would seem to storm the barricades, we cannot help but think that Karl Marx was right when he said that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”
In addition to interviewing people who are the victims of “fracking”, a term for hydraulic fracturing—the chemical-laced process that releases natural gas from rocks deep beneath the earth’s surface, Fox meets with their public defenders like scientist Theo Colburn.
Colburn is a leading authority on the impact of chemicals on our endocrine system. In an interview on Amy Goodman’s radio show, she explained what consequences the byproducts of “fracking” might have on our health:
But what endocrine disruption does, basically, these are the chemicals that we now understand better—by the way, that are made from natural gas, believe it or not—the plastics that—and pesticides and other industrial chemicals. These are the chemicals that can get into the pregnant woman and enter the womb, while her baby is developing in her womb, and alter how those children are born. And this is our big concern today, because we’re facing major pandemics of endocrine-driven disorders—
simple things like ADHD, autism, diabetes, obesity, early testicular cancer, endometriosis. These are all endocrine-driven disorders that we’re very concerned about.
And these products are being injected underground, for centuries, maybe, to stay before they surface, and also coming back up. So the big problem is—with natural gas, is dealing with the water when it comes back up.
Toward the end of Fox’s film, he visits New York City to find out what local politicians have to say about the possible impact of “fracking” on upstate reservoirs. City council member Scott Stringer makes the essential point that people generally choose draft water rather than bottled water in restaurants because it is pure and delicious. As someone who has spent time in Los Angeles, I can attest to you that this is not the norm for major American cities.
The idea that what comes out of our tap might lead to early testicular cancer should make it clear that the stakes are much higher than we ever could have realized. My strong suggestion is that New Yorkers go see Gasland, which opens today at the IFC Center. You should also see the movie’s website that contains a trove of information about how you can get involved in a campaign to resist the squandering of one of our most precious assets: water.
This Counterpunch article makes a very useful point, namely that the movie ignored the grass roots movement against drilling. I should have noticed that myself. I guess I was too swept up in the story of what the drilling was doing to pay attention to what was missing.