Video: Fracking the cause of Fort Lupton's flaming faucet?

This week's cover story, "The Insider," profiles Colorado Oil and Gas Association president Tisha Schuller, whose efforts to defend her industry's strong presence in the state have been made tougher by the fallout from Josh Fox's antifracking documentary Gasland. That film "has really changed the conversation" about using hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas," Schuller admits -- especially a scene showing a Fort Lupton homeowner setting his tap water on fire.

The startling scene in question is considered the "money shot" in the grim 2010 documentary. In order to demonstrate just how badly his well water has become contaminated with methane, a man named Mike Markham fiddles with a lighter at his kitchen sink -- and produces a blast of flame. Filmmaker Fox then repeats the trick, cutting off the inferno by shutting off the water.

It's Markham's contention that the phenomenon was caused by the fracking going on in his vicinity, a claim that's been strongly challenged by Irish journalist Phelim McAleer and his pro-frack movie FrackNation, as well as by COGA and a host of other industry sources. A group called Energy for America even put out a fake trailer for Fox's follow-up film, Gasland 2, to try to discredit it even before it airs on HBO.

But perhaps the most substantive rebuttal has come from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the primary regulatory agency overseeing fracking in the state. In a detailed "correction document" available on the agency website, the COGCC notes that it conducted its own investigation of complaints about possible methane contamination of water wells by three Weld County landowners featured in Gasland. One did have a problem that could be at least partly blamed on oil and gas development and reached a settlement with the operator. But the COGCC investigation concluded that in the other cases, including Markham's, the methane was "biogenic" in origin -- meaning that it was naturally occurring and not typical of the kind of "thermogenic" gas found in drilling operations.

"COGCC records indicate little or no temporal relationship between the Markham and McClure complaints and nearby drilling and hydraulic fracturing activities, which occurred several years earlier and in most cases many years earlier," the document states.

Fox has prepared his own extensive rebuttal to the rebuttals, in which he cites research that indicates fracking may well facilitate the migration of biogenic gas into well water: "So, just because the COGCC labeled the gas 'biogenic' doesn't mean that they actually looked into how it got there."

Fraud or fracking shame? As with most points of contention in the fracking debate, there's no easy answer. Check out the money shot below.

More from our Environment archive: "Fracking fight coming to Loveland?"

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast