Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Dueling Fracking Films Battle for Pennsylvanian’s Hearts and Minds

courtesy of filmmakers

A dairy farmer from Calicoon, NY who is campaigning to lift the moratorium on gas drilling in New York, appears in Fracknation.

The pro-fracking answer to “Gasland” is on the road in Pennsylvania and will be screened in hostile territory tonight — the Philadelphia suburbs. “Fracknation,” a film by Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, has already been shown in several theaters in Northeast Pennsylvania, including a standing-room only crowd in Montrose, Susquehanna County. The Scranton Times-Tribune reported a handful of protestors outside the theater engaged Irish journalist and filmmaker Phelim McAleer in a lively debate. But inside, the crowd was supportive.

It’s likely fractivists will get a bigger contingent to attend the Bryn Mawr screening since the Philadelphia region tends to draw more vocal protests against gas drilling.

But that’s unlikely to faze McAleer, who previously produced a film questioning climate change. “Not Evil Just Wrong,” countered Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth.” “Fracknation” directly challenges filmmaker Josh Fox’s landmark anti-fracking documentary “Gasland.” McAleer doesn’t shy away from controversy.

“Gasland brought fracking to my attention,” McAleer tells StateImpact Pennsylvania.  ”I think Gasland brought it to most peoples’ attention. But Gasland is riddled with errors, misrepresentations and lies. There’s actually genuine untruths in Gasland.”

McAleer says he attended a “Gasland” screening, where he asked Josh Fox about the image of setting tap water on fire, challenging Fox about the cause of methane migration, which can occur naturally. McAleer wanted to know why Fox didn’t address naturally occurring methane migration in “Gasland.” He posted a video segment on youtube where Fox responds that naturally occurring methane migration was irrelevant. It’s unclear whether the entire exchange between the two was posted. But McAleer says he heard from Fox’s lawyers asking him to take down the video.

“He censored me,” says McAleer. “I thought he had something to hide, so I decided to investigate.”

When it comes to methane migration, both Fox and McAleer are correct. It can occur naturally, but it has also occurred because of poorly constructed well casings. Fox’s film focused on the water problems in Dimock, Susquehanna County, where the Department of Environmental Protection’s investigation concluded that Cabot Oil and Gas was at fault. Cabot denies responsibility but did reach a settlement with all but one of the affected residents. The DEP ended mandatory water deliveries to Dimock. But the agency never reversed its conclusion regarding the source of methane migration in houses along Carter Road.

McAleer is the Michael Moore for the pro-drilling contingent. In his film he confronts anti-fracking Dimock residents at their kitchen tables and along the roadside. He even takes a confrontational approach in his interview with Carol Collier, the head of the Delaware River Basin Commission, which has a moratorium on drilling in the basin until new gas drilling rules are agreed upon. Collier appears confused in the interview, as if she was misled by McAleer. She’s an odd choice for this type of interview, since Collier has five bosses who can’t agree on those proposed rules, including the Governors of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the President of the United States via the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But McAleer’s real target is anti-fracking activist and filmmaker Josh Fox.

“I think he’s an ideologue,” says McAleer. “And he’s made an anti-American movie, he works for a Manhattan radical theater company. He’s entitled to be an ideologue, but journalism is more than that and he has to bring up facts. Journalism is not being a stenographer about any allegations people give.”

“Fracknation” is not just an invective on the anti-fracking environmental movement, it’s also a critique of journalists who McAleer says are too quick to believe activist claims of environmental and public health impacts.

“My plea for real journalists is to treat big environment the way you treat big oil and big gas,” he says. “Demand the same rigourous standards of accuracy.”

McAleer says he began making films critical of the environmental movement when he worked as a journalist in Romania.

“I can’t believe where I am today, I can’t believe I’m making these documentaries. I don’t recognize myself,” McAleer told StateImpact. “I was a journalist for the Financial Times in Romania. I was very liberal, very anti-business, and I believed everything the environmental movement said. I went to do a story about an evil mining company. I went up a mountain in Transylvania to write this story. I went up the mountain believing in big environmentalists and I came down skeptical of them. Everything that they said was either inaccurate or an exaggeration.”

One of the smartest things McAleer does is leave Pennsylvania and take his camera to Poland, where he interviews a woman who can barely pay her gas bill. Large shale deposits in Poland could free that nation from reliance on Russia for its natural gas. It’s a scene that reminds viewers that energy is more than just a local battle with local consequences.

Josh Fox himself has refused to take on McAleer either in the press or through a public debate. He is working on a sequel to “Gasland,” which will be broadcast on HBO.

Iris Bloom, from the Philadelphia-based environmental group Protecting Our Waters, says McAleer is everything but honest.

“He is overtly dishonest,” says Bloom. “He’s actively engaged in a misinformation campaign about what actually happened to the water in Dimock. And he’s timing his tour at exactly the moment when more and more people with shale gas impacts are coming forward.”

Bloom says McAleer’s assertion that “fracking” did not pollute some of Dimock’s water wells is disingenuous.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s investigation clearly showed, with their own testing, that the methane [contamination] was due to gas drilling,” says Bloom. “And it was Cabot’s gas drilling in particular. McAleer is obviously playing games and he knows better. His intention is to avoid the facts and confuse the public.”

Strictly defined, “fracking” is not well construction, which the DEP says led to methane migration in Dimock.

When asked, McAleer did admit that as with any industrial activity, gas drilling will create harmful environmental impacts.

“There are costs to any industrial process,” says McAleer. “But that’s not the argument at the moment. What the anti-fracking activists are saying is fracking kills and it pollutes your water and it makes your water go on fire, and that’s not true. I’ll talk about the larger picture when the anti-fracking activists admit that fracking per se is a relatively harmless process, that there’s no danger from the fracking process, that it’s never polluted water.”

McAleer will likely get some tough questions from the Bryn Mawr audience, but don’t expect a discussion of the larger picture.

McAleer financed the film through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. He says he asked for $150,000 and received $212,000, with the an average donation of $60. McAleer says he sent back any donation he could connect to the gas industry.

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