Of all things flammable in the world, tap water shouldn't be one of them. At least that's the consensus — call it crazy — among environmentalists and fracking foes, for whom the phenomenon, supposedly brought on by nearby hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas extraction, has grown into quite a powerful symbol. Fitting, as fire has conveyed the angry heart and distempered emotion of many movements in modern history, from bra- and flag-burning to self-immolation.
It's clear from speaking with Josh Fox, the amped-up face-man for the anti-fracking movement, that he views Americans' battle against big industry, not to mention their own elected leaders, as nothing short of a fight to the (slow) death. Our health versus their wealth.
Fox, 40, earned some celebrity with the 2010 film Gasland, which was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, as well as for four Emmy Awards (winning one for its directing). Opposition upped Fox's profile soon after: An independent film team used Kickstarter to produce the pro-fracking FrackNation. And special interests who support fossil-fuel development, like the Independent Petroleum Association of America, backed the documentary TruthLand in an effort to discredit Fox's "fearumentary."
It's a strange David-and-Goliath conflict, pitting billionaires and multinational corporations versus the relatively lowly founder and artistic director of New York-based International WOW Company, a theater and film collaborative dedicated to illuminating "global social and political crises."
Fox lands in Oakland on Sunday, June 2 on a limited grassroots screening tour ahead of the impending wide-release of Gasland Part II on HBO. Here's an edited version of a recent Q&A I had with him:
MS: For this Gasland II Grassroots Tour, how did you schedule the cities? Are these important battlegrounds?
JF: Yes, they are. Each one for slightly different reasons. But we did want to encourage what we think works the best. And what works the best is a ban movement.
And we're seeing a significant ban movement grow in Colorado. We're seeing a significant ban-moratorium movement grow in California, and obviously in New York that has worked.
We're going to Pennsylvania because Pittsburgh and other places have banded together to ban there. And in Illinois, we're going there because it's a real crisis right now.
This is a practice that can't be regulated. The regulations approach has been the rack and ruin of Pennsylvania, the rack and ruin of the Western Slope of Colorado.
MS: What did you most want to do with Gasland II?
JF: Well, I was compelled to make the follow-up film because, frankly, we saw just an enormous movement happening. Now, I'm not crediting the film with that. ... The movement has happened because there is this largest domestic drilling campaign in history happening, and people are angry and upset and protesting that.
But what we found was there was another layer of contamination due to fracking we wanted to investigate. And that's the contamination of democracy.
Governor Hickenlooper, or as I like to call him, "Frackenlooper" — we don't call him anything but "Frackenlooper," "Frackenlooper" is his name — is moonlighting as governor of Colorado, and his main job is to be representing the oil and gas industry. And it is incredible to see the Democratic establishment — Governor Frackenlooper, President Obama, [former Pennsylvania Governor Ed] Rendell, everyone except [New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo right now, frankly — literally in the gas tank. And to be betraying the health concerns of its own constituents in favor of toeing an oil-and-gas-development line, when every indicator says we have to move away from this and move towards renewable energy.
There's vigorous development of renewable energy ... solar ... wind. It is totally viable for us to ... replace all fossil fuels with renewable energy. We need strong leadership who's not on the take from oil and gas to represent the people.
So what we wanted to do is say, "Oh my god, look at what happened in the media. Look at what happened in the streets. It's unprecedented, amazing what's happened in the face of the fracking threat. Why hasn't the government responded?"
MS: Since the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 21, what's the response and blow-back been so far?
JF: More of the same. I mean, the industry got caught hiring psyops officers. People who'd just come from Iraq and Afghanistan who were trained in psyops, psychological operations, and they were employing those techniques against landowners fighting the industry in Pennsylvania.
They got caught doing that. They were tape-recorded at their own teleconference describing landowners fighting for their basic human rights in Pennsylvania as "insurgents." This industry has pursued a line of disinformation, of deceit.
Now, it's not surprising. Understand that my first glimpse of the oil and gas industry was them coming to me [as a member of a family that owned property in Pennsylvania] and saying, "Oh, it's not going to be such a big deal, we'll hardly even drill, just sign at the bottom line, it's free money."
When their first note is deception, how do you expect the next note to be something truthful?
What they're doing here is doubling down on denial and it's following the strategy of Big Tobacco. Big Tobacco had a problem they couldn't solve. There was no way to make a healthy cigarette. The gas industry has been studying well leakage, water contamination, all these problems for decades. And they've come to the conclusion in their own scientific reporting, and we show this in Gasland II, that there is no way to make a leak-proof well. And in fact, their leakage rates are alarming and astounding.