The hydraulic fracturing process involves pumping chemicals into the ground to free oil and gas reserves trapped in tight shale formations. The debate over fracking's environmental risks isn't all that different; it's become a battle to squeeze a few facts out of stubbornly entrenched forces, amid a lot of high-pressure and possibly toxic PR. The influential documentary Gasland has inspired anti-fracking sentiment in Hollywood (hence Matt Damon's Promised Land) and elsewhere -- but it's also generated the first anti-anti-fracking expose, FrackNation.
FrackNation, which airs tonight on Mark Cuban's AXS cable station, is the work of filmmakers Phelim McAleer, Ann McElhinney and Magdalena Segieda. McAleer is an Irish journalist who's known for taking on Al Gore's global warming PowerPoint and the work of other "green extremists" in previous documentaries. His latest polemical project apparently began as some good old-fashioned muckracking, intended to correct some of the more glaring distortions in Josh Fox's Gasland -- including the claim that methane contamination from fracking had left Weld County residents with drinking water that could be set on fire.
"We got interested in doing this film because of Gasland," explains McElhinney, McAleer's wife and collaborator, "which actually created bans on fracking and had a huge public policy effect. The money shot of the film is water catching fire, supposedly caused by fracking. That's just not true."
A key scene in FrackNation (see excerpt below) captures McAleer confronting Fox over the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission's finding that the methane in question was naturally present in the water and not the result of fracking. That tracks nicely with the energy industry's position that the EPA has yet to document one case in which modern fracking methods have contaminated groundwater (although cases of surface contamination, stemming from leaks at the drill site or sloppy procedures for disposing of wastewater, aren't hard to come by). But McElhinney, who will be speaking tonight in downtown Denver at a Western Energy Alliance event before the film airs, stops short of describing the documentary as pro-fracking.
"I think it's pro-truth," she says. "The stories that are told [by anti-fracking activists] are either hugely exaggerated or completely untrue."
Even before it has aired, the film has been attacked by various environmental groups as industry propaganda; Josh Fox even tried to get a clip removed from YouTube. But McElhinney points out that FrackNation was funded not by energy types but by a grass-roots Kickstarter campaign. Hoping to raise $150,000, the filmmakers actually pulled in $215,000 from 3,500 small donors, who are named in an extended roll of credits at the end of the film. When a Pennsylvania journalist pointed out the industry ties of some donors, McElhinney says, the filmmakers ended up returning around $25,000 to those contributors.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
If you get AXS through Comcast, Dish, or DirecTV, you can check out the latest volley in the fractious frack wars tonight at 7 p.m. -- or catch McElhinney's talk at the Sheraton Hotel, 1550 Court Place, at 5:30 p.m., to be followed by a public screening of the documentary.
Here's the aforementioned clip:
More from our Environment archive: "Fracking the North Fork: Protests pour in over BLM lease plan."