When Josh Fox received an offer from an energy company to lease his family’s land in Pennsylvania for natural gas drilling, he was more intrigued by the mysteries of the process, hydraulic fracturing, than tempted by the $100,000 on the table. He denied the offer and set out to discover what exactly hydraulic fracturing entails, which turned into the 2010 Academy Award-nominated documentary Gasland. Since the film’s release, Fox has worked to gain public and political support to put a stop to “fracking.” Now at work on Gasland 2, Fox spoke to us about why he believes New Yorkers especially should be concerned about fracking.
Finnegan: What actually is hydraulic fracturing?
Josh Fox: Hydraulic fracturing is a new method for drilling for natural gas. The reason why this is happening now is that the U.S. Congress in 2005 passed a law exempting this form of drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Hydraulic fracturing injects millions of gallons of water laced with toxic chemicals into rock formations at such high pressure that it breaks apart the rocks, and the gas that’s trapped inside these rocks frees up.
The problem is that it is an underground injection of an enormous amount of chemical material that creates a lot of hazardous waste, and what’s been happening is that both the gas and the chemicals are turning up in people’s aquifers, and their private water wells, and it poses a great threat to the New York City watershed because they’re proposing to drill there.
It seems like this is dangerous for the environment and bad for people. So what is the fight in support of this?
You would think that the drilling is so problematic—and it’s been documented so many times as a heavy-duty industrialization process that this would be ruled out—but that would be underestimating the power of Haliburton and Chesapeake and Exxon. They have billions of dollars and considerable influence in Albany and in Washington, and everybody in New York City and New York State should be involved in getting them out of here, because it’s going to be very very difficult to do that.
New York City residents definitely need to wake up to the fact that they have the best tap water in the world, the largest unfiltered drinking source in the world, and they have to work to protect it, or else they could end up with these Haliburton chemicals coming out of the tap all over the city. It would be enormously costly, very very problematic for health, and virtually impossible to control.
Could there ever be an industry incentive for these companies to develop alternate methods?
People have to start realizing that we have to move beyond fossil fuels, and that that’s everybody’s responsibility. The truth here is that you cannot rely on the government in this instance. Where it really comes from, and where change really comes from in the United States is when people take to the streets, get upset, march, go crazy and do all those things that people did in the civil rights movement.
You’ve been pushing for the passage of the FRAC [Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals] Act, which would require disclosure of chemical compounds used in fracking and end the exemption from the Safe Water Drinking Act. Would that be enough?
No. There should be a moratorium, nationwide. The truth is that we don’t need this energy. There are a lot of other ways to go about getting energy for the United States that do not include the systematic contamination of the water supply, the systematic destruction of land and property value, the incredible amount of greenhouse emissions that go on with this form of energy development. It is simply a show of power on behalf of those gas companies that they are allowed to do this at all.
Natural gas is often touted as the cleaner alternative to coal—is it really a better option?
Fracking for natural gas has a much higher emissions profile than was previously suspected. Methane itself is a greenhouse gas, it’s far more potent than CO2. It escapes throughout the process, at every stage of the process, the drilling, the pipelines, the fracking, the tanks. And that means that the emissions of raw methane that isn’t being burned, when you take together the whole life cycle, it shows that fracking for natural gas is actually worse than coal, worse than our worst fossil fuel. Because of all this new information that’s coming out, both from the EPA and from Cornell University and other places, natural gas has to be viewed as the worst fossil fuel option.
What is the biggest thing that New York City residents should be aware of?
To continue the campaign for this New York moratorium is the number one priority. Get involved with the local Sierra Club, get involved in the local Frack Action group or with United for Action, NY H20. There are so many amazing grassroots organizations on the ground in New York City. If they want to continue to have their tap water, they’re going to have to volunteer some time.