Josh Fox: “Democracy itself has become contaminated”

The director of “Gasland Part II” on the rising movement against fracking

Published August 1, 2013 5:18PM (EDT)

FILE- In this Sept. 20, 2012 file photo, Josh Fox, director of the documentary Gasland, protests against hydraulic fracturing, outside an office of Gov. Tom Corbett in Philadelphia. Fox's documentary has become the manifesto of the anti-fracking movement. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)      (Matt Rourke)
FILE- In this Sept. 20, 2012 file photo, Josh Fox, director of the documentary Gasland, protests against hydraulic fracturing, outside an office of Gov. Tom Corbett in Philadelphia. Fox's documentary has become the manifesto of the anti-fracking movement. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) (Matt Rourke)

“We’re getting fracked.” It’s the rallying cry of Josh Fox, an outspoken leader of the grassroots movement against hydraulic fracturing. "Gasland 2" his sequel to the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Gasland," premiered earlier this month on HBO. In it, he takes aim at the natural gas industry for spreading misinformation; He flies over the BP oil spill; He travels across the country to meet families whose land, homes and health are threatened by fracking. He gets arrested when he insists on bringing a camera into a public hearing from which recording equipment had been banned. He plays the banjo. And, as has become his signature, he sets the water coming out of hoses and faucets on fire, to dramatic effect.

Fox spoke with Salon about the film’s reception and the growing resistance to fracking. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It’s been a few weeks since "Gasland 2" premiered. What has the reception been like so far?

Well, the reception’s been pretty amazing. We were told by HBO that lots of people watched it. The response critically, from what I understand was really good, but more than anything, I think, it’s been extremely meaningful to people who are in the target zone of oil and gas drilling in America, which is millions of people.

I toured to six states for the release of the film on HBO, and that was an amazing experience. I mean, we had 15,000 people show up to these screenings. What we really saw was a movement that’s really galvanized, that’s on the ground, that’s fighting off fracking. I expect to tour again in the fall, but it’s just been remarkable to watch people respond to it.

We also asked the President to meet with us, because we know that his administration has met with the natural gas industry many, many times. And we know that those meetings have resulted in unfair policies. So far,  the President and the Secretary of Energy, have rejected our call for meetings, for equal time, so that’s been extremely disappointing. But I don’t think we’re going to stop; we’re going to keep asking.

In the documentary, you find families who are really enraged about fracking. Have you also encountered complacency: people who are happy to accept the money and are maybe less concerned about the potential consequences of fracking on their property?

I don’t think anybody is not concerned. I think there are varying degrees of people feeling either cornered, where they have to fight, or empowered, where they feel that they can fight.

For example, New York State did something completely unusual in response to the proposals of the gas industry, which is they used democracy. They did an environmental impact study, which allowed citizens to participate in this discussion. And what you saw at every stage of the process was greater and greater involvement by citizens. The more they got to know fracking, the less they liked it, and the worse the poll numbers got for the frackers. At the last stage of the environmental impact study, 204,000 public comments were put into the Department of Environmental Conservation. That smashes all previous records for any kind of involvement. That’s more people than voted for Andrew Cuomo in his home borough of Queens.

So the question of "Gasland Part II" isn’t, “Is there widespread water contamination and air pollution?” We know that. We showed that in the first film. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of reports in the New York Times, and Salon, and ProPublica that back up the information of the investigative reporting in the first film.

The second film is an investigation of how our government is going to handle that crisis. What you see in the film is a dismal response that is influenced by oil and gas, that democracy itself has become contaminated. That’s really the emphasis of this film, and it’s really shocking. It’s every bit as shocking to watch it, and to watch the oil and gas industry light democracy on fire, as it was to watch people light their water on fire in the first film. Although, of course we have people lighting their water on fire in the second film, too, because it’s an epidemic.

And it never really gets old.

Well, you know it’s a joke that’s not really funny, but in every sequel, you need to have bigger and better explosions. That’s a prerequisite of any sequel. 

You were first introduced to fracking while canvassing for Obama. What do you make of his new climate plan, where he’s focusing very heavily on reducing carbon pollution? 

I couldn’t be happier to watch an American president talk about climate change. It’s simply the greatest hurdle we face as a species, and it is one of the most challenging things we’ve ever had to try to address.

At the same time, the plan is entirely wrong. It is unscientific and it makes no sense. We don’t measure carbon pollution in the air solely. We measure what are called carbon equivalents. Carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas to reduce. However, methane—which is released through fracking—is the second most important.

Methane is up to 105 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In other words, it’s at par or worse than coal. What we’re seeing in the field is that huge amounts of methane are leaking at all these stages of gas production. In the fields of Utah and Colorado, we’re seeing four percent leakage, nine percent leakage. In Los Angeles, in the L.A. basin, where they both produce and deliver natural gas, we’re seeing a combined total of 17 percent leakage.

I think that what’s happening here is a squandering of the greatest political will that we’ve ever had towards getting off of fossil fuels. The good news is that we can do everything we’re doing right now with renewable energy. There are plans right now that exist to do that. Why that’s not Obama’s climate plan is a direct result of the political pressure, not of science, and not, by the way, of the will of the American people.

So do you believe that this industry pressure is the only thing keeping us from completely tapping solar, wind, and hydropower, and having that meet all of our energy needs?

It’s so clear that, first of all, we don’t have a level playing field— the oil and gas industry is subsidized. These are the most profitable companies in the history of companies, and yet they’re getting tax breaks and money from the American people. It doesn’t make sense. There is an enormous amount of pressure that, at so many different stages, undermines the development of renewable energy. It makes it easier for oil and gas to continue to do what they do at every stage of the process.

We have shifted away from the era of easily obtainable fossil fuels and are doing something that is much more destructive, toxic, extreme. I call it “extreme energy.” That’s fracking; that’s mountaintop removal for coal, where they blow the tops off of mountains in Appalachia. That’s tar sands development, where you’re literally scraping the entire surface off of a forest that’s the size of the state of Florida. That’s deep-water drilling—drilling deeper into off the continental shelves, and depths that we’ve never dealt with before. These practices are not business as usual. They’re a ramping-up and an amping-up of destructive and toxic extractive energy, and people are reacting to it.

If we were to restore accountability; if we were to restore liability in the face of these extreme practices; if we were to restore what are nakedly human rights violations; they would not be able to do this. They would not be able to do this if they weren’t able to trample people.

Where specifically could the government be investing instead for a better energy policy?

The greatest bang for your buck is the least sexy—it’s in energy efficiency. Simply insulating all the homes throughout New York State, for example, would create more energy than fracking, and it’s a return on your investment.

When we’re talking about community development, for example, we think a lot about solar as roof-top solar. Well, only about 10 percent of people can benefit from that because they can get the tax credit. I’m in a CVS parking lot outside of Boston right now. This parking lot could be covered in solar panels. You’d have your cars shaded, and you’d have a community solar farm that people in the community could buy into that are renters, for example, who have the median strip on the highway. You have huge warehouse buildings. You have land that farmers could be leasing in upstate New York that their cattle or sheep could still graze under, because grass still grows under a solar panel. And you could have community solar farms being built.

But right now in New York, there is no law that says if you build a big solar farm people can buy into it. That law is consistently lobbied against by the oil and gas industry.

The oil and gas industry has leased more landmass than the total land mass of California and Florida combined. It’s staggering. And because it’s a patchwork, that means that all those adjacent properties are affected. So you’re talking about a land mass probably double that, in 34 states.

A big chunk of that’s in the NYC watershed, so all the people downriver in New York, they’re getting the water from the affected region. When we all realize that we’re all affected, that’s where we have to start to do this. If we had that kind of messaging from leadership that said, “We’re all in it together” instead of, “Lets give lots of gimmes and tax breaks and subsidies to the natural gas industry and the frackers,” I think you’d see Americans go nuts over that. Americans love a challenge.

What about outside of the U.S.? What does the situation look like in other parts of the world?

In Australia, for example, there’s the “Lock the Gate” campaign. Unlike in America, Australians don’t own their mineral rights. You’ve seen farmers come together and literally lock out the gas industry. They set up three-week blockades at the well sites, sitting out there and having barbeques and refusing entry for gas companies. That’s been effective in New South Wales, although not so much in Queensland.

You have a thing called “Occupy Chevron,” which has been going on for several months in Poland, where Polish farmers are trying to lock out Chevron. In South Africa, the leader of the anti-fracking movement just won the Goldman Prize. They’re campaigning ferociously against Shell.

You’re seeing a lot of movement in Europe. France has effectively banned fracking through this administration. In the U.K., you’ve had an ongoing protest over the last week, where there was civil disobedience. I just saw a tweet today that said, “UK anti-fracking protestors glue themselves together.” I’m looking forward to seeing that.

You’re seeing a worldwide movement come together, and it’s extremely exciting. But, you know, in this moment, news travels fast. And every day, I see a different video, a different essay, a different article, five different Websites cropping up from different parts of the globe that are ferociously protesting fracking. So, it’s truly a worldwide movement, and I think that it’s pushing people. And this information about how viable, in fact, renewable energy is, is vital. People have realized that we can do this another way—through a combination of efficiency, solar, wind, and, where appropriate, existing hydro, or micro-hydro, or tidal and wave power. It’s not rocket science. You can bundle these resources together and get where you need to go.

You didn’t start out as an environmentalist, but were rather thrown into these issues when they began to affect your family, and your land. What do you think is the key to getting people who aren’t as dramatically affected in their day-to-day lives to care about what’s happening and get involved?

People have so many burdens, especially right now. There’s no way that people would be leasing their land to drilling if they weren’t broke. Nobody’s that greedy.

We also have to be very cognizant of what we’re doing in the face of what the oil and gas industry is doing. In the face of their deceitful practices, I think we have to develop a clear sense of values. In the face of their misinformation campaigns, I would say: honesty. In the face of their trampling of people’s human rights, I would say: decency. In the face of the fragmentation of communities, I would say: trust. And in the face of their greed, I would say: kindness. There are laws here that they’re exempt from, but there are other laws which no one can ever be exempt from, like the basic drive to generosity, compassion, kindness, and alleviation of suffering. These are tests which they fail over and over and over again.

If you think about these things, it lends us strengths far beyond what you think the obstacles are. We don’t talk about generosity, kindness, respect, integrity, and decency when we talk about energy or politics. But, that’s what is guiding and leading the anti-fracking movement, and when you get into the weeds on science engineering, it’s just as important to understand, in a profound, reflective sense, those virtues which bind us together as people. As we understand them in a deeper sense, it compels us to the right course of action.

By Lindsay Abrams

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