FrackNation, written and directed by Phelim McAleer, Ann McElhinney, and Magdalena Segieda. Narrated by Phelim McAleer. Distributed by Hard Boiled Films. Unrated. Running time: 76 minutes.
Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly referred to as fracking (or sometimes frac’ing), is a decades-old method of extracting oil and natural gas, which, in combination with more recent innovations, has turned previously inaccessible shale formations into highly productive energy sources. When fracking is mentioned in the media these days, however, it is often in the form of negative reports alleging dangers of the process, exaggerating known risks, and promoting the latest anti-fracking crusade by one “environmental” group or another. Fracking has many detractors and few defenders.
Recently however, a new and decidedly supportive voice has been added to the discussion about fracking: that of investigative journalist Phelim McAleer. FrackNation, the feature-length documentary film he produced and directed along with Ann McElhinney and Magdalena Segieda, and in which he stars, is a powerful defense of fracking. Importantly, the film adds more than just McAleer’s voice to this international debate—it adds the voices of many individuals who have been deliberately ignored in the rush to declare fracking dangerous and harmful. These include families whose farms have been saved by revenues from fracking, and those whose farms and livelihoods are threatened by moratoria and bans on the process, driven by fearmongering and ignorance of the facts.
Early in the film, McAleer identifies Josh Fox as a primary source of the widespread misinformation about fracking. Fox wrote, directed, and starred in the anti-fracking film GasLand, one particularly notorious sequence of which involves the ignition of tap water as it emerges from the faucet of a kitchen sink. The sink is immediately awash in flames, and nearby fracking is blamed for contaminating the groundwater with methane. In FrackNation, McAleer shows us this clip, then cuts to footage of Fox answering questions from the front of a large auditorium at a screening of GasLand. McAleer raises his hand, stands up, and asks Fox whether it was true that locals had long known that one could light the water on fire in that town, even for decades prior to the advent of fracking there. Fox dodges and dances around the question until McAleer finally pins him down. Fox reluctantly admits that it is true, adding, “but it’s not relevant.”
This sets the stage for things to come, as McAleer sets off on a journey, audience in tow, to visit the people and places behind the “evidence” offered in GasLand of the mortal danger inherent in fracking. In virtually every case, McAleer finds other and illuminating sides to these stories: the voices and facts that have been left out of the anti-fracking narrative because they contradict environmentalists’ doom and gloom scenarios of polluted wastelands and poisoned wells.
His first stop is Dimock, Pennsylvania, home of the Sautner family whose kitchen sink was infamously ignited. During their interview with McAleer, the Sautners not only reiterate the claim that fracking polluted their water with methane, but they further make the outrageous assertion that the well was contaminated with “three different types of uranium, and two of them were weapons grade.” The Sautners claimed that fracking had caused this pollution and initiated a lawsuit against Cabot Oil & Gas. Elsewhere in Dimock, however, McAleer has no trouble finding numerous residents who attest to the long-standing knowledge, going back generations, that the groundwater in the area was full of iron, sulfur, and methane, among other naturally occurring minerals and compounds.
Next, we follow McAleer to the office of Carol Collier, executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission, the agency that had issued a moratorium on fracking for portions of the Delaware River valley. When McAleer begins to query her on some potential conflicts of interest related to her involvement in an anti-fracking fund-raiser, as well as her appearance in the credits of GasLand, she promptly cuts short the interview and walks out as the cameras roll. She then sends her lawyer after McAleer in the parking lot, in an attempt to confiscate his film. McAleer, who is tremendously skilled at remaining straightforward and cool in the face of tense and even combative interview scenarios, handles these and other similar situations in the film deftly, with a nuanced sense of timing that (often humorously) serves to amplify the contradictions in his interviewees’ assertions.
In another segment, we meet members of the Northern Wayne Property Owners Association (NWPOA), a coalition of farmers and landowners who joined forces, leveraging their combined 100,000-plus acres in order to negotiate a uniform land lease with energy companies wishing to frack there. The NWPOA lease story, in which the farmers protected their interests in the preservation of their farmland, air quality, and water quality while allowing fracking operation on their farms, gives an inspiring example of the fact that local landowners’ and energy producers’ interests are not fundamentally opposed, and of how they can work together in mutually beneficial ways when property rights and sanctity of contract are respected by all parties.
The NWPOA segment leads to yet another GasLand debunking, involving a claim by Josh Fox that an energy company that wanted to frack on his land approached him with a lease offer. In GasLand, he holds the partially redacted lease up to the camera, as if to validate his claim. In fact, the lease is shown to be a copy of the original NWPOA lease, not the offer he makes it out to be. Thus Fox’s credibility is dealt another serious blow.
But Josh Fox isn’t the only opponent of fracking whose anti-industrial propaganda is debunked in FrackNation. Internationally, Russia’s efforts to suppress the development of fracking in Europe are documented as well. Russian leader Vladimir Putin, himself heavily involved in the Russian state-controlled natural gas agency Gazprom, has assumed an anti-fracking stance that, although couched in environmentalist terms, is transparently yet another means of exerting political control over parts of Europe. (The irony of Russia’s sudden finding of “conscience” regarding the environment is not lost on McAleer.) The prevention of fracking throughout Europe keeps the Europeans beholden to Gazprom for their heating and cooking fuel, with the poor being hit hardest. The film makes the further point that throughout the Cold War, Russia never once cut off gas supplies to Europe, yet in the post-Cold War era, Gazprom has twice cut off gas supplies to parts of Europe as a convenient diplomatic tactic.
The film goes into greater depth on these and other controversial issues surrounding fracking, including the alleged toxicity of fracking fluid; reports of increased cancer rates allegedly associated with fracking; and the objectivity (or lack thereof) of media reporting on fracking. Near the end of the film, McAleer reminds us of how most who live in advanced, civilized societies take energy—and the myriad ways it improves and extends our lives—for granted. He then gives us a sobering reminder that “where energy is scarce, life is cruel, and life is short,” thus underscoring and concretizing the antihuman nature of the movement against fracking, and against fossil fuels more generally. After a final sequence showing Josh Fox evading an inquisitive McAleer at a public function where eventually, in a display of sheer cowardice, Fox has the FrackNation crew ejected from the event by security guards, the credits roll.
Just before the credits, however, we learn perhaps the most disturbing fact in the whole documentary: HBO has commissioned Josh Fox to make a sequel to GasLand.
Although fracking has been employed for more than sixty years on more than one million wells in the United States, its use in innovative new ways has brought about the beginnings of a domestic oil and gas boom of unprecedented proportions. And, although successfully used without a single instance of scientifically verifiable groundwater contamination, this revolutionary method of unlocking the earth’s energy resources is under attack. Its enemies are the enemies of modern civilization, and they are making a concerted effort to permanently shut down fracking everywhere. FrackNation presents the truth about fracking, and does so with wit, style, and humor. It is an enjoyable lesson in energy production and freedom, and a sobering reminder of the lengths to which charlatans will go to oppose these important values. Get the DVD at http://www.fracknation.com, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself inspired to add your voice to the growing movement in support of fracking.