Our Heroes: Josh Fox, director of Gasland

In this week’s episode we talk to Josh Fox, director of the popular documentary film Gasland, a cross-country exposé on the environmental effects of fracking.

The 2010 film – which chronicles Fox’s investigation into the practice after he was approached with the option to lease his own land for drilling – was nominated for an Oscar, won a Sundance award and has been viewed by thousands in community screenings across the country. A New York avant-garde theater talent turned environmental activist, Fox is a high-powered individual with a seemingly endless amount of energy for every project he delves into.

In this conversation we discuss his recent arrest while trying to videotape a hearing in Congress, earthquakes in Ohio, the role of social issue documentaries in the environmental movement and how many explosions to expect in the film’s sequel, Gasland 2.

To learn more about the film and how to get involved, go to www.gaslandthemovie.com, where you can find information about the current campaign to regulate fracking in New York State, as well as how to arrange a community screening.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation. Listen to the 47-minute interview by clicking on the audio player (above left) or by downloading the podcast.

Q: Your film has had tremendous success with audiences across the country. Can you tell us what exactly is happening in New York State and how New York is in a unique position to influence how other states will regulate fracking?

It is a huge pressurizing situation in New York State right now. There is a grassroots organization in every small town across the state that is dealing with this and that’s 50 percent of the state. There is an enormous amount of organization and activism that’s going on and the first thing that happened was the grassroots was campaigning for a moratorium. They got the moratorium under Governor David Patterson that went on for about a year. Andrew Cuomo then let that moratorium expire; there is a process with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) where they are developing regulations.

Now their draft regulations are very, very problematic. In many cases it looks as if they have been written by the industry themselves. The DEC went out to get public comments. Their first round of public comments got 14,000 public comments from the citizenship, from organizations, that smashed all public records in the environmental impact study. And then the second round, I think got something near 70,000 public comments. Unbelievable. This has never happened before, so this is really the biggest environmental issue facing New York State in its history and what you have here is a gas industry that came in, like I mentioned, to me, and didn’t tell people what their real practice was, how it affected the land in a state that depends on its groundwater, in a state that has never had this type of industrial development proposed for it, certainly not in the New York City watershed, or in the upper Delaware River or in the Catskills. And you are talking about that whole region plus all the way across the southern tier, and possibly elsewhere because they've discovered another shale formation called the Utica shale. So all lights are on Andrew Cuomo right now and he has said that he wants the science to influence the debate, to be the primary thing in the debate here.

And so there is an enormous amount of consternation and the story here is to move towards the future and the 21st century and actually lead the world by rejecting an incredibly problematic proposal for fossil fuel development, which would annihilate the other industries that really power New York State.  The top two industries in New York State are agriculture and tourism, both of which are impossible to conduct in a gas field, because nobody wants to vacation in a gas field, nobody wants to eat food that’s developed in a region with this much chemical activity. And there is a lot of things happening right now, health impact assessment and a lot of campaigning to appeal to Governor Andrew Cuomo and say: “Look, this is something that really shouldn’t be happening in New York State at all. There are so many implications for what will happen to our groundwater, which we crucially need, to the infrastructure that delivers water to New York City because when they drilled and when they dispose of wastewater that can cause seismic activity, it can cause earthquakes as we just saw a big report coming out in Ohio yesterday that, they had earthquakes in Youngstown. And the cause of which was fracking, and so you could disrupt the underground tunnels that bring water to New York City from 100 miles away, with this.

In terms of air quality, you have an enormous problem with air quality, wherever this is going, because these gas wells vent off natural gas, raw natural gas, into the atmosphere, for the first month of the drilling process and then subsequently throughout, the pipeline’s release, you have situations in Wyoming where you have a county, an entire county where they only have 3,000 people, places with one stoplight, that have worse air quality than Los Angeles because of the gas drilling, because of the gas industry.

So this would be disastrous for New York State, in my opinion, and other people’s opinion. As well as completely change and create an upheaval whereby people can’t live and have the same quality of life that they had before, all so the gas industry can make their bottom line, make their profit at the expense of basically the quality of life of the entire state.  To me this is a no brainer. And it will reflect very seriously on Cuomo’s legacy if he does let this industry in, every contamination episode, every single part of this, this massive industrialization process will be his legacy.

On the other hand, you have the gas industry bearing down on Albany, spending millions and millions of dollars in lobbying, creating an ad war out there, where if you look on MSBC or CNN every other minute you are going to find natural gas ads, or at least it certainly feels like that, explaining how natural gas is the clean fuel of the future and we should put it in cars and we should transfer all of our electricity to generate natural gas and we have 100 years of natural gas, all these things have been debunked by the science.

And what you are seeing is a huge PR and lobbying campaign on behalf of a dying industry, the fossil fuel industry, to try to create a last gasp of supremacy here. Whereas what we know could come to New York State and could come to the world is community solar, wind, power, hydroelectric power. We have enormous hydroelectric resources in New York State with Niagara Falls and the St. Lawrence River. We have possibilities for geothermal. There is technology right now that can run the entire state, that can run the entire world that’s really true clean power, zero carbon power, and so I think that this is really a watershed moment, no pun intended, I guess, where New York State could make a choice right now. They haven’t allowed, water hydraulic fracturing in the state.  But we could redirect this state’s economy to be a sustainable economy, to be a sustainable renewable energy and, in that, lead the world.

So the question in front of New York State is, you know, are we going to turn over the state to the gas industry, or are we actually going to be brave enough and heroic enough to move in a new direction which everybody knows we have to move in anyway. So I think Cuomo is in an interesting position right now. He’s a very smart guy, and unfortunately there’s a lot of political pressure on the natural gas side.  And there is the future calling on the side which would reject that industry.  So I think that’s what’s happening right now and I'm doing everything I can and all these organizations in New York State are going out to plead the case that let’s not do this, let’s not surrender the state to the natural gas industry and imperil our water supply. Let’s actually be bold and create the future.

Q: And you were recently arrested during the hearing in Congress on fracking for trying to videotape the proceedings. This has been written about and talked about elsewhere, but I just wanted to take the opportunity of talking to you to ask you about this episode and what’s your take on it?

Well, I'm making Gasland 2 right now and there is a family—there is a town out in Wyoming, Pavillion, Wyoming, who are the most incredible dignified people.  If you've seen Gasland, you know the cowboys out in Pavillion, Wyoming, who can burn this plastic sheen off of their water because of the chemicals that have been in the water injected there from hydraulic fracturing.

EPA did a three-year investigation in that town; it’s a tiny town, 140 people.

They came back and it showed 50 times the level of benzene in the groundwater.  Now, no level of benzene, which is a carcinogen, is safe to be in your groundwater—it shouldn’t be there at all. They found 50 times the safe level—the EPA.  After three years of meticulous groundwork and thousands of samples and test wells and all this incredible science.

So the Republicans in the Science and Technology Committee saw fit to hold a hearing whereby they were putting the EPA on trial. They had gas-industry lobbyists on the panel and the opening statements were to be: EPA is irresponsible. And they were essentially, they held a hearing to attack the EPA for doing their job. We wanted to go there to tape it. I wanted to go there to tape it, because it concerns the subject matter of our film, it also concerns the policy nationwide, the EPA is actually investigated and they found the likely cause of this contamination to be hydraulic fracturing.

So the normal process is you call the committee, you say we want to film, we're with HBO, we're an independent documentary, because there are special Hill credentials. There is a reporting staff that lives on the Hill, they are all the time, they can walk in and out all the time, they have these sort of credentials, which is not a normal thing to have.

But you can appeal to the committee and you get it and we've gotten in before. But since the Republicans took over Congress, I'm sad to report, we've had an enormous problems getting into these hearings with the official permission. Even though it’s a public hearing, and the First Amendment states Congress shall make no law that infringes upon the freedom of the press. And if it’s a public speech it should be able to be recorded and that’s in the First Amendment.

So they are giving us all this flack: we can’t go, you can’t go, you can’t set up your camera. I know you can come, but you can’t tape. And I just thought, you know: Look, we're going to go down there, we're going to make an appeal to the chairman, which we had done a day before, hearings are only announced two days in advance and just show up. So I go there to do what I think is my job as a journalist to report on this, because there was no high-quality taping going on of that, there’s a little web cam that they put on line, but it’s not broadcast quality and very hard to watch. And we needed this hearing shot the way we shoot it for our film, which was our right.

So I went in and they continued to say, “No, you can’t film.” And I said, “Well, I believe I can film.” And the Republican Chairman Andy Harris, from Maryland, freshman, I think, Congressman, ordered my arrest, on the spot. And I was handcuffed and taken out.

It was videotaped by a bunch of Congressional staffers who were also taping, they weren’t arrested, and by some of the audience members with their iPhones. So that went up on, I think it was the top story on Huffington Post all day, it was on MSNBC, it was on Democracy Now.  It created a sort of media firestorm. And the long term of it is, the case was totally dismissed.  No charges, no nothing, the district attorney refused to prosecute it.

But this is the state of siege that we're under here, in terms of independent media. The Republicans were holding an attack on science, and then they held an attack on journalism. And in both cases, the truth, I think, emerges, which is to say that those kind of bullying tactics will not be tolerated, they are not acceptable. We have a huge movement against bullying in America right now. Bullies are bad; we can’t have bullying in our high schools. And let me tell you something, the biggest bully in America is the oil and gas industry. And the people they bully the most are Congress. And when they have bought off certain people in Congress those people’s jobs then become to bully journalists, to bully the EPA, to bully the science, to bully the families. And that is what you saw there, that day in Congress.

It’s no big deal to me to end up in a jail cell for two hours before I am released. But the much, much bigger deal is we did not get to tape the hearing, the American people are being denied information, access, transparency, to what’s happening on the floor of the House of Representatives on days when crucial public health energy issues are being debated, and that they would like to do this in the dark without the light of the media on them.  So all these things were brought to bear by that episode and I was sort of like: Come on, you gotta be kidding me! I mean we went there and thought: They are going to cave, they are going to understand that we actually have the right to do this. And yet this is the kind of impulsive behavior of these people. They said, you know what, we know that this might create a big—as Maurice Hinchey put it, a stain on the Congress, we know that this might be a media explosion if we do this, but who cares, dam the consequences. Let’s just throw the guy in jail, get him out of here and we'll be done with it. But they weren’t done with it, and the same kind of mentality happens with hydraulic fracturing. It’s like, let’s drill in the ground, we'll explode these formations underground, we'll get our gas, we'll get our money and we'll get out of here. Well, what ends up happening is the consequences on our society and our civilization are long term and if I were to have said, “Look, I'm not going to go investigate the drilling, we would never have had the film. If I had said, “You know, all right, well they are not going to let us in today, I would have surrendered my First Amendment rights right there on the spot and  had them anymore. And so it was proof that to have those rights you need to exert them, and sometimes you need to go to lengths to do that.