Gasland's False Fire Water Claims

by Benjamin Domenech on 9:30 am June 30, 2010

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This morning on CNBC, the hosts brought up HBO’s Gasland documentary during an interview with T. Boone Pickens (it’s around the 6:30 mark). Pickens seemed unfamiliar with it, but had the right response — skepticism. People ought to really investigate these things before they jump to conclusions. Sometimes, someone’s trying to play games with you.

A project of Josh Fox, Gasland is less a documentary than a screed against America’s natural gas policies — including gotcha-style theater targeting respected environmental liberals. Its chief made-for-tv appeal is footage of a few individuals lighting their tap water on fire, an angle Fox has peddled to The Daily Show audience and others.

The key point of the documentary is the three setpieces where Colorado residents light their water on fire. In each case, Fox alleges or the citizens imply that this is because of natural gas drilling near their property. It’s a great image. The only problem is that in each of these cases, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), the agency required to investigate such claims, performed extensive tests on the water in question, and found that wasn’t the case.

Gasland is super serial
You can see the reports and the responses at the COGCC website, where in each case, after multiple tests, the cause was found to be methane: “Dissolved methane in well water appears to be biogenic in origin… There are no indications of oil & gas related impacts to water well.” And: “Sample results (water & gas) show naturally occuring biogenic methane gas in well and no impact from O&G operations.”

In fact, in the one case where the gas was thermogenic — which made the news rounds last year and likely prompted Fox’s piece — investigators spent nearly $150,000 testing and ruling out a 60-year-old abandoned well and 26 other nearby wells as sources or for possible problems, again finding no signs of contamination associated with the oil and gas wells. Yet the energy company which operated nearby was so worried about negative public relations — despite the fact that they had “performed all tests requested by the COGCC, all with negative results” — they provided an additional filtration system for the family which raised the concern.

Fox is a self-styled artist. With his Documentary Special Jury Prize from Sundance for Gasland, he’s probably found a new calling in scare tactic documentaries, given that his prior film, “Memorial Day,” (which currently owns the top Google result for the phrase “groan-inducing conceptualism”), got a 9% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But for someone who presumably thinks of himself as respecting the earth, Fox is remarkably daft about nature. And by playing tabloid games with pseudoscience, Fox just engages in scare tactics which leave people with a false picture of how these things really work.

Guess what: methane is common. If you live off well water, you deal with it. If there really was a natural gas leak going on — if someone here did screw up — the company involved should of course be liable for it. But despite what Josh Fox would have you believe, all the evidence shows that’s not what is happening in Colorado.

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