“FrackNation” gives voice to those unheard

January 23, 2013

In human terms, a documentary maker undoes Oscar-nominated “Gasland”

These are the people I know here in Pennsylvania: The small farmers scratching out existences on family farms in counties throughout the Commonwealth. The faces I pass on the way to my cabin on Penn’s Creek in Central PA, and that I see at the county fairs I frequent in summer months. They are also the voices rarely heard in the debate over Northeast natural gas development, until now.

Last night, AXS TV premiered journalist’s Phelim McAleer’s long-anticipated, pro natural gas development documentary. Beyond its content and substance, what will forever persist about his movie is the humanity and compassion McAleer uses to portray rural Pennsylvanians — a sturdy stock of people who, for once, are portrayed as articulate, caring people steadfast in their generational bond to farm and field.

For too long their voices have gone unheard. That’s because nationally, hydraulic fracturing has become the environmental cause célèbre of our time with everyone from Susan Sarandon to Yoko Ono to David Letterman lining up on the anti-side of the debate.

Their interest was triggered by the Oscar-nominated 2012 film, “Gasland,” directed by Josh Fox, who claimed to be a Pennsylvania landowner when he really resides in Manhattan. In a bit of investigative journalism, McAleer proves that Fox included in his footage a fake contract from a gas company seeking to license Fox family land, thereby undermining his initial rationale for producing his movie.



Nevertheless, “Gasland” was masterful as theater, and the scene of a homeowner lighting his tap water on fire quickly became a searing indictment of a process that could account for 100 years of energy potential for our country. Fox has since made it his career to lobby against natural gas development, contriving events that attract media, celebrities, and others disinterested in facts.

Much of their criticism has been leveled at Pennsylvanians, painting us as backward, greedy lunkheads who simply can’t understand the evil we do. Matt Damon made that point in his movie, “Promised Land,” which, incidentally, was funded with oil money from the Middle East, stakeholders who stand to lose much if natural gas is developed here in America. By contrast, “FrackNation” was funded by small donations from individuals on the crowd funding site, Kickstarter.

“FrackNation” is a direct response to “Gasland” and to a lesser degree “Promised Land,” but with a complete absence of hysteria and hyperbole. In its place, McAleer relies on his polite, Irish personality to calmly lay out facts and bring forth voices that tell the story in richly human terms. There are no outrageous claims. No fear mongering. No threats of contracting cancer or bringing military-grade radioactive material to Pennsylvania farm fields.

There are farmers from the Delaware River basin who explain how “Gasland” led to a moratorium on drilling in their counties, placing farms and land at risk. It’s jarring to meet these thoughtful Pennsylvania farmers after hearing so much about their ignorance from Sean Lennon, John Lennon’s son who has made natural gas development his personal rallying cry.

Counter that against the women of Dimock, Pa., who graciously tell their story over a cup of coffee at a kitchen table. Dimock has become ground zero in the hydraulic fracturing water debate, with the EPA recently releasing a report that showed no ground water contamination there. That doesn’t surprise some 1,500 Dimock residents who signed a petition in support of natural gas development in the area.

It outrages one of the 11 Dimock townspeople who brought suit and cling to their belief that Cabot Gas poisoned their water. In a climactic scene that will forever recast the Dimock story, McAleer is stopped by the most outspoken of these homeowners, who threatens to sue him for asking questions and then claims to have a gun in her car. In his gracious style, McAleer lets the threat go unclaimed and continues his line of questioning, never to receive a tap water sample for him to test on his own.

Documentaries hold an important place in the public relations arena by paving the avenue by which public opinion is shaped and policy is set. All too often, they come without an ombudsman, the likes of the one who stepped in at The New York Times after the newspaper published outrageously incorrect information about hydraulic fracturing.

McAleer points that out, as well as other anomalies in the generally accepted story about natural gas development and its impact here at ground zero in Pennsylvania. His work is important and a must-see for anyone, especially those who placed so much trust in the storytelling of Josh Fox. By exposing Fox’s simple parlor tricks, he’s done much to redeem the people I know and trust — those who work and play in the gas lands of Pennsylvania and would have it no other way.

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