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.


  • Vera Scroggins

    McAleer should know that the term “fracking” for NYers and many means the whole process and not just fracking; and all need to be concerned about the contamination of water and air somewhere along the process, whether drilling and now some stats on the fracking phase and air pollution from the many compressor stations and real dangers from leaks and explosions. He’s basically wanting to defend the industry and malign those that criticize the industry and show the problems.

  • Iris Marie Bloom

    Pretty good job debunking some of Phelim’s specific myths about Dimock, but there’s no reason to let the industry define the term “fracking.” And it would be equally important to point out that there are so many other badly impacted places, as “The List of the Harmed” demonstrates, starting with Avella, PA.

    To be clear, “fracking” as it has been in popular usage since about 2008 is simply a shorthand term for “high-volume slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing on multi-well pads,” also known as shale gas drilling or unconventional drilling in tight formations — . Those are clunky terms which it’s hard to get the press to use, so we use “fracking” for short, or “shale gas drilling,” which we can sometimes get the press to use accurately, to describe the full life cycle of this extreme new technology which is so controversial.

    The industry term, “frac’ing,” refers only to the fracturing stage of high-volume shale gas drilling. Naturally, the industry plays the game of defining this very narrowly, because they know — and we know — that most of the toxic spills, water impacts, and air impacts take place at or close to the surface. We’ve never defined “fracking” narrowly, and Phelim knows that. We’ve been very clear for many years that when we talk about “fracking,” we are talking about the whole fracking enchilada. Why is that logical? You can’t “frac” unless you drill. You can’t “frac” without pipelines. There are no pipelines without compressor stations. All gas needs to be processed with separators, dehydrators, and sometimes goes to CNG or LNG facilities, or to “cracker plants” which crack ethane molecules into plastic. So for Phelim to claim that he imagines that we are NOT talking about all these impacts when the full life-cycle impacts are EXACTLY what we are talking about, and he knows it — is just another example of how disingenuous this former journalist actually is.

    In short, the problem with fracking is not just “frac’ing,” but the impacts on air, water, health, climate, and communities from shale gas extraction, processing, distribution, and use. That’s why we’ve been demanding cumulative impact studies — and not a single one has been done in Pennsylvania! — and Health Impact Assessments — not a single one has been done in any Marcellus Shale state — INSTEAD of a this large-scale toxic industrial experiment! Scientists — like those radicals over at NOAA — are clearly showing that fracking escalates climate change, and people like Phelim are totally dedicated to distracting as many people as possible from that reality.

    Don’t let him.

    • Donald Roessler

      Are you talking about the Hallowhich children on that list of the harmed ?? You may want to know that the case has been unsealed and no chidren were harmed. It was all a lie !!!

      • Donald Roessler

        Here’s some more information on some of the people on your “List Of The Harmed”.

        UPDATED: Jesse’s Junkyard Plaintiff Attacks DEP

        “A state representative from Western Pennsylvania has attacked the Pennsylvania DEP in a story reported in the New York Times and elsewhere with some fanfare, but readers need to know the background of the accusers, the real causes underlying their complaints and the facts about what belongs and doesn’t belong in a testing report.”

        “UPDATE: DEP Secretary Michael Krancer has sent Representative White a letter articulating some of the Department’s issues with his assertions. It may be found here.”

      • Iris Marie Bloom

        Actually those documents can be accessed here at StateImpact PA and they are recommended reading. (EID is an industry site known for vindictive and irresponsible posts). See the documents yourself, including water tests showing Acrilonitrile and other toxic substances, and the revolving door between PA DEP and the industry. EID likes to call every family suffering under the assaults both on air and on water “liars” — it’s simply their PR strategy to not only blame, but to attack, the victim. Then there are the other over 1000 documented instances of harm on the national List of the Harmed. We strongly recommend reading them all while keeping in mind that for every case that comes to public notice and is publicly documented, many others stay silent or, although speaking out, don’t make it into print anywhere. These are canaries in the coal mine, of course, and the big picture issues — like the 9% methane emissions from life cycle shale gas drilling that NOAA found in Utah recently, spelling out that high volume hydraulic fracturing is worse for climate than coal or oil — are what the Phelims of the fracking industry PR offensive are trying to distract us from.

  • fredweiss

    Phelim is a hero for taking on the propaganda disinformation and fear mongering campaign against fracking. That he is subjected to their venom is hardly a surprise.

    Fracking caught the anti-fossil fuel crowd off guard as it demolished their cherished hoax of “Peak Oil” and as it reversed a long decline in American energy production, opening up vast new reserves of low cost gas and oil – and in the process created the basis for a revival of American industry, now underway.

    They blather about “impacts” but ignore the impact of their effort to shut down the industry which will result in the bankruptcy of 1,000s of companies and the unemployment of millions of workers, wrecking the economy. They ignore the impact on rising unemployment in upstate NY while the governor dithers and fracking is kept on hold.

    We’ve somehow managed to survive the “impact” of fossil fuels over the past 150 years which has included the ending of famine and plague, a doubling of life expectancy, and a skyrocketing of prosperity unparalleled in human history. What we won’t survive is the impact of the anti-fossil fuel crowd should they succeed.

  • Jefferson Williams

    Actually the industry defined the term fracking. It is a process that has been around for decades and has been used for decades without incident. People in industry such as myself were initially surprised over the uproar over fracking as we looked at the outlandish and dishonest claims by anti fracking activists. Now over time it appears that the anti fracking crowd realizes what professionals in the industry have always known which is well integrity is the most important variable in preventing contamination. If your crowd had educated themselves beforehand they might not have emphasized the fracking process but that is the bed you have to sleep in. But the larger question is how trustworthy are a bunch of ideologues who took 5 years to figure out how immensely difficult it is for a frack to go from reservoir to the surface, now that you have discovered well integrity I expect to be confronted with inaccurate and outlandish claims by people who never heard of a segmented bond log or know how much good cement is needed for zonal isolation. Contamination can be reduced by good regulations most of which are in place. The push to ban fracing is based on ignorance from ideologues who continue to overstate their case whether they are talking about a specific frack job breaking containment or whether plug and abandonment regulations are sufficient (industry started dealing with P and A in the 1930′s)

    • Iris Marie Bloom

      The failure rate for Marcellus Shale well casings is 8.9% for 2012, up from a failure rate of 6.2% in 2010. That’s unacceptable– and it also makes it obvious that the industry simply cannot drill in shale without massive methane migration. Most of the toxic liquid spills, from hydrochloric acid and diesel to radioactive flowback, occur at the surface. High-volume hydraulic fracturing and the full-scale shale gas development it entails is thus poisoning our water, air and soil. We understand that those of you who like to look the other way don’t want to think about climate, but the climate crisis can no longer be ignored. With 4% to 9% methane emissions (and likely even higher, when the distribution end is included) over the life cycle of shale gas drilling, and with methane 105 times as potent as CO2 in its global warming impact over the 20-year time frame, this extreme extraction method is over the top. Unfortunately the “drill baby drill” ideologues just don’t like these facts, which is why they turn to insult and wordplay rather than discourse. It would be great to get beyond that and work together to take care of our planet and build a sane energy future. Conservation and old-fashioned practices like stopping waste; old-fashioned values like honesty and integrity, are extremely important, because the stakes are high. Surely we can find some common ground.

  • Scott Cannon

    Documented proof that Phelim McAleer is a nut job.

    #1 Phelim, you’ve said that ”Fracking’s been done safely since 1947, if there were
    problems, we’d know about it”. (Fox Money TV Show) The DEP’s Abandoned Wells
    and Orphaned Wells states that there are approximately 8,000 unplugged orphaned
    wells, 550 are considered problem wells. approximately 129 are prioritized as
    extremely dangerous and leaking and polluting water and soil. That’s just in

    #2 Phelim, you say there hasn’t been one case of fracking causing groundwater contamination,
    but you don’t say what does, which are spills and methane migration from the
    drilling process.

    There is in fact a confirmed case of fracking causing ground water
    contamination in Edmonton, Canada by Caltex Energy Inc., Hydraulic Fracturing Incident,
    16-27-068-10W6M, on September 22, 2011

    While a study of fracking
    causing groundwater contamination is ongoing in Pavilion Wyoming.

    #3 Phelim, several Dimock residents have come forward claiming you told them that
    you were making a film to save Ireland from fracking in order to obtain
    interviews with them. Is this true?

    #4 Phelim, You mention first thing in your movie that Josh Fox had one of your videos
    removed from YouTube and Vimeo because he had something to hide. You failed to
    mention that you committed copyright infringement by uploading scenes of the
    HBO owned “Gasland” in your clips. YouTube copyright policy states that YouTube
    cannot determine what is considered “Fair Use”. It would have to be settled in
    a court of law. Did you have this settled in a court of law?

    #5 Phelim, you say that the water has been able to be lit on fire for centuries, (Fox
    Money TV Show) but you don’t say the methane
    migration from the drilling process is confirmed to produce flammable methane
    amounts in people’s water wells where there was no flammable amounts of methane
    before. Can you explain why you don’t mention this? You seem to accuse Josh Fox
    of these omission tactics, yet you do them yourself.

    #6 Phelim, you make the statement in your film that environmentalist say that
    “Fracking is completely unregulated”. That statement is false. We don’t say
    that. We say is exempt from requirements in the underground
    injection control (UIC) program of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) , which is true.

    #7 Phelim, Loren Salsman, the resident of Dimock who’s shows you the Sautner home
    in your film, shows up in the film Truthland produced by Energy in Depth. He
    holds a crystal clear glass of water with the star of the film and says “Let’s
    drink some Dimock water” and they drink. The film doesn’t show the elaborate
    water filter system it went through provided by Cabot Oil and Gas because they
    were found guilty of contamination by the DEP. Can you comment on that? Here is
    the video link.

    #8 Phelim, you said in a TV interview that the water in Dimock has always been
    fine. If so, please explain why the DEP sued Cabot Gas and Oil over the water
    contamination in 18 wells in Dimock and won?

    • Jefferson Williams

      I haven’t seen Phlem’s film but I did see Gasland and it was not a very well informed film. From showing a flaming sink that was contaminated by shallow methane (i.e had nothing to do with gas drilling) to using a trick of asking people to drink jugs of water rather than try to determine the source of contamination (which is not a trivial exercise), I found it to be contaminated by sophistry. It never even mentioned the distinction between Biogenic (Shallow) and Thermogenic (Deep) gas.

      But, it was entertaining. Perhaps Phlem’s film was also entertaining since it got you Scott Cannon to watch it. These films make more money by being entertaining rather than being accurate.

      To determine if there is contamination from the entire Gas Drilling process, you need to sample public and private water wells with say a kilometer of the drilling rig BEFORE you drill and then after the well goes on production. Otherwise, you are relying on a lot of anecdotal evidence which I don’t find very informative about establishing underground migration pathways. If you sample before and after, you can also learn early on if there are any contamination problems and prevent them before they get out of hand.

      The general rule in groundwater pollution is it is a lot easier to prevent rather than remediate.

      But Pennsylvania with all it’s coal seams and abandoned mines has plenty of ways for methane and other contaminants to migrate into an aquifer. When the reservoir is deep (say 5000 feet or deeper) it is EXTREMELEY unlikely that a frack would go from the reservoir to the aquifer. Your best means of fluid mingling is, of course, the well. This has been known for almost 100 years which is why surface casing is run and why there are regulations concerning disposal of well fluids and temporary storage of well fluids in the pits.

      I fail to see the relevance or the abandoned and orphaned wells in PA because no gas wells are drilled in PA under that old regulatory framework. The operator is liable to plug and abandon the well. If you think the plug and abandon procedures and requirements are inadequate, you should make your case technically.

      • Donald Roessler

        If I had methane in my water well I would capture it and use it to heat my house and water and run a genset for electricity.

    • Donald Roessler

      Scott you know that DEP report you source your information for how many wells has been plugged is 13 years old right ?? Plus how does that prove Frac’ing is bad ??

  • Donald Roessler

    Can someone explain how you can get “Weapons Grade Uranium” in your water well when Uranium has to be processed to become “Weapons Grade” ??

    FrackNation “Meet The Sautners”

    • Iris Marie Bloom

      Water tests have shown more than one type of uranium in drinking water in Dimock. This is disturbing but not incredibly surprising, given how many times Cabot drill bits pierced that aquifer (for example, in one botched episode, Cabot drilled hole after hole attempting to retrieve an expensive piece of equipment — piercing the aquifer again and again without protective layers in place — and that’s just one incident). A SUNY Buffalo scientist showed in 2010 that fracking “mobilizes” uranium from the shale layer. That is sciencespeak for “unlocks uranium from the shale layer where uranium is chemically and structurally bonded” — those bonds are broken by the physical and chemical processes in fracking. You can see a report about that geologist’s study here — Fracking releases uranium in Marcellus shale, UB research finds – UB Reporter

  • Skip Heiss

    McAleer clearly is trying to make environmental groups differentiate
    between a general claim of what “Fracking” is, as you have done, and
    what the fracturing process actually is – a stage of long process of
    well creation and operation. He has openly admitted that there are
    dangers and challenges. He is trying to get the different parties
    responsible for creating energy to address the natural gas production
    process from an objective point of view and not from reactionary
    knee-jerking created by disingenuous journalism.

  • TheProspector

    Susan: 1) It’s “faze”, not “phase” and 2) I think DEP agreed that Cabot caused the methane migration, but it had nothing to do with fracking — it had already occurred before any fracking was begun. Some will say that this is a distinction without a difference, but we must differentiate between drilling and fracking. They are two different things. In the Marcellus, the drilling process will eventually include fracking, but it’s like all dogs are mammals, but not all mammals are dogs.

    • Susan Phillips

      You’re right on #1, I stand corrected. On #2, we’ve explained the DEP’s decision on Dimock and the distinction between fracking and methane migration, and other impacts of the entire extraction process in dozens of articles including this one.

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