‘Gasland’ filmmaker brings anti-oil industry message to Texas

SAN ANTONIO — The Eagle Ford Shale is drawing an estimated $30 billion in industry investment this year, and this week the massive amount of oil-field activity also attracted anti-drilling activist and filmmaker Josh Fox.

Fox, the banjo-strumming citizen journalist, appeared at a free screening of his new movie “Gasland 2” Thursday night at Santikos Northwest 14, where he did a Q&A session with the audience and encouraged attendees not simply to oppose drilling, but to support renewable energy.

“People are really being abused by this industry,” he said in an interview this week. “This is a film about our democracy. Another layer of contamination happens — the contamination of our government. This is the oil and gas industry lighting our democracy on fire.”

The first “Gasland” movie was nominated for an Academy Award and features now-famous images of people across the country lighting their well water on fire and talking about health problems.

It also spawned a side industry of competing documentaries such as “FrackNation,” which talks to landowners and scientists who are in favor of drilling, as well as industry websites devoted to debunking Fox’s facts and position.

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“Gasland 2 is the worst movie sequel since Caddyshack 2, and shows even less interest in real science,” Steve Everley of the industry website Energy in Depth, said by email. “The thesis of the movie is a categorical denial of the facts, all in the hope of confusing the public and advancing a marginalized agenda. Everything Josh Fox has said has been debunked, and no one takes him seriously — except for the handful of hardcore ideologues and conspiracy theorists who were never interested in the facts anyway.”

The Obama administration also has said it is in favor of domestic shale drilling.

Fox said that public health and clean water are at risk from drilling, especially hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process of pumping water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to crack open dense shale and let oil and gas flow up a well.

“It breaks down along political lines,” Fox said. “There are a lot of people who are rah-rah-rah before they come in. They drink the Kool-Aid or the frack fluid. Now they realize they can’t live there because they’re in an industrial zone.”

Fox said the country should move toward developing more sources of wind, solar and other renewable energy as rapidly as possible, and noted that Texas produces more wind energy than any other state. He also said a well failure could create a pathway for methane to migrate.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that is 72 times more powerful at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide during the first two decades after it is released.

But a broad peer-reviewed study published this month said energy companies are making a big dent in the amount of harmful methane emissions that escape from natural gas wells, and that the emissions were much lower than previously estimated.

The University of Texas study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also revealed bigger-than-expected methane leaks from valve controllers and other equipment at well sites.

“Gasland 2” features several Texas homeowners who live near drilling sites.

Among the most controversial cases is that of Steven Lipsky, who was shown in the movie lighting a vent hose from his well water.

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The Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency order against a nearby oil and gas operator, but later withdrew it and dropped its investigation. The Texas Railroad Commission determined that the methane was from a shallow formation that Lipsky’s water well had tapped.

Lipsky has been embroiled in litigation with Range Resources, and a state appellate court in April left pending the company’s claims for defamation and business disparagement, but didn’t give an opinion about whether it claims had merit.

This week the website Energy Wire reported that the Railroad Commission has opened new investigations into other water wells near Lipsky’s home.

Fox was screening the movie in Dallas on Friday and in Fort Worth on Saturday.

His next documentary subject: worker injuries in the country’s oil and gas fields. Fox plans to release a short film in early 2014.

Express-News and Houston Chronicle archives and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this report.