Appalachian Basin

Fox’s Phony Firewater Frenzy Over Gasland Part II

Gasland Part II is coming and, like most sequels, it’s likely to be a dud. But Josh Fox says he plans on generating a “frenzy” to hype the movie, and it will find a receptive audience among those who want to clear out rural America so they can have it for themselves.

When Gasland came out a few years ago, the anti-development crowd in the Upper Delaware region, one Josh Fox claims as his own when he’s not in New York, jumped on it like a fox pouncing on a rabbit (forgive the pun).  Apparently funded with help from Debra Winger, who has a home a few miles from the Delaware River, the movie was, nonetheless, quickly debunked on the facts.  The infamous flaming faucet, $100,000 offer and pretty much everything else turned out to be far from the truth.  Yet it undeniably had an impact and gave the hapless producer of fourth-rate avante-garde films a new aura of semi-respectability.

Fox has also received grants from the Park Foundation and worked with groups such as the NRDC to promote Gasland.  He has done so through the auspices of Sweet Jane Productions, Inc., a non-profit corporation that operates from a natural gas heated building in Brooklyn under the trade name of International Wow Company.  He has also taken money from New York State, New York City and the National Endowment for the Arts, but it is Gasland that has earned him the attention he craved. He started getting invited to posh Manhattan events and even earned a few bucks from the film’s success with True Believers.

Now, he hopes to regain that fame, and once again with the help of HBO. Gasland Part II premieres in New York City on Sunday, and based on a recent conference call he had with supporters, the movie will be a retread — as fact-free and phony as as the first installment.  Nevertheless, he plans to leverage the help of a compliant media to create some more “frenzy.” He may succeed, but, if what he said to supporters is any guide, there’s not much “there” there.

The first sign there isn’t likely to be much to Gasland Part II comes from the mere fact it is a sequel.  Real documentary makers don’t do sequels – they make their point the first time.  Then, there is this image Fox uses to promote the sequel:


It takes an extra dose of smugness to promote flaming scenery with your own photo embedded in the background when the flaming faucet scene from the original movie (the tagline for which was “Can you light your water on fire?”) proved to be its major undoing.  The Colorado Oil and Gas Commission quickly exposed the deceit involved in that sleight of hand, and Phelim McAleer captured Fox admitting as much, making Gasland perhaps the best example of a famous scene that should have been left on the cutting room floor.

What will Fox offer beyond this and all that “occupy” hyperbole he likes to throw in every discussion?  He tells his supporters, incredibly enough, that he plans on concentrating on methane emissions and well casing failures.  That’s somewhat surprising because these issues originate with a couple of Park Foundation-financed folks whose work hasn’t held up so well upon further investigation.

Readers might want to do a little investigating of their own before seeing the movie, and we have a few suggestions…

Methane Emissions

Cornell profs Bob Howarth and Tony Ingraffea have made methane emissions a centerpiece of their relentless NIMBY campaign against natural gas.  They are fond of claiming natural gas, though clean burning, is somehow dirtier than anything else due its emissions over the life cycle of its production and use.  This notion has been contradicted by no less an authority than Cornell’s own Larry Cathles, as well as most of the academic and regulatory community.  Cathles observes this about the Howarth/Ingraffea work (emphasis added):

“…their analysis is seriously flawed in that they significantly overestimate the fugitive emissions associated with unconventional gas extraction, undervalue the contribution of “green technologies” to reducing those emissions to a level approaching that of conventional gas, base their comparison between gas and coal on heat rather than electricity generation (almost the sole use of coal), and assume a time interval over which to compute the relative climate impact of gas compared to coal that does not capture the contrast between the long residence time of CO2 and the short residence time of methane in the atmosphere.”

That’s just the beginning.  Howarth and Ingraffea like to say their work was peer-reviewed, but was so was Cathles’ work. The former’s conclusions, moreover, have been pilloried by just about every credible scientific organization out there who is looking at this issue.  I served on a panel with Howarth a few months back at Cornell and challenged him to address some of the criticisms, but he would not — offering only that he had “confidence in his work.”

Unfortunately for him, others in his field do not.  Energy In Depth assembled a convenient list of some of the most significant rebuttals contradicting Tony Ingraffea’s assertion he and Howarth had not received “any intense peer criticism.” Apparently, critiques from Carnegie Mellon University, MIT, Cornell University and the National Energy Technology Laboratory don’t count as intense.  Check it out here, and while you’re at it, take a look at some of Energy In Depth’s previous work on this subject:

Perhaps the best debunking, though, comes from real world evidence that the United States is meeting unsigned Kyoto Treaty targets for greenhouse gas emissions precisely because of natural gas conversions.  Fox and friends are now focusing on methane emissions and largely ignoring carbon emissions, but even the methane data that anti-fracking folks use is not credible. But don’t just take our word for it — here’s what researchers from Carnegie Mellon said in an analysis partially funded by the Sierra Club:

“We don’t think they’re [Howarth & Ingraffea] using credible data and some of the assumptions they’re making are biased. And the comparison they make at the end, my biggest problem, is wrong.”

It appears Josh Fox has an affinity for biased work that lacks credible data.  One might say that was Gasland, and it sure seems as if Gasland Part II will be more of the same.

Well Casing Failures

Tony Ingraffea has been fairly successful in getting his well casing failures argument repeated ad nauseum by his disciples, but as the saying goes: A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has time to put on its pants.  He routinely claims 60 percent of well casings fail, but Energy In Depth dug into the sources of Tony’s statistics and found this (selected excerpts):

Opponents of responsible shale development have been using that “60 percent fail” statistic ever since Cornell professor (and anti-natural gas activist) Anthony Ingraffea invented it and passed it along to Josh Fox, Yoko Ono, and numerous other anti-shale audiences, including some among our friends to the north.

Let’s start by taking a look at these “industry documents” that opponents would have us believe are the Holy Grail of anti-shale activism. The main source is a decade-old article in Oilfield Review examining what’s known as sustained casing pressure, or SCP. There is indeed a graph on the second page detailing that, over a 30 year time span, 60 percent of wells will be affected by SCP.

But what’s listed in the caption – and what no activist ever mentions – is just as if not more important: the graph refers to offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico. The data came directly from the now-defunct Minerals Management Service, which was the federal agency tasked with regulating offshore oil and gas development in federal waters.

The caption also states clearly: “These data do not include wells in state waters or land locations.”

So, right off the bat, we can see that opponents are trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes by pretending that casing pressure in offshore wells is actually referring to wells developed onshore in deep shale formations. Even worse, the documentation explicitly states it does not refer to onshore production, which is where shale development is actually occurring!

After a little arithmetic, we find the incidence rate is actually six percent — dramatically better than 60 percent, and certainly much less alarming. But even this is based on the assumption that pressure data for offshore wells is materially relevant to onshore shale development. Thankfully, there are data available that show the actual failure risk of onshore wells.

An August 2011 report from the Ground Water Protection Council examined more than 34,000 wells drilled and completed in the state of Ohio between 1983 and 2007. The data show only 12 incidents related to failures of (or graduate erosions to) casing or cement – a failure rate of 0.03 percent. Most of those incidents (more than 80 percent) occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, too, before modern technology and updated state regulations came online over the past decade.

That same GWPC report also looked at more than 187,000 wells drilled and completed in Texas. The Lone Star State is the largest oil and natural gas producing state in the country by far, so it stands to reason that high failure rates – if they existed – would be present there. As it turns out, there were only 21 incidents related to well integrity, which works out to an error rate of 0.01 percent.

So, if we’re interested in understanding well integrity for shale development, which should we trust more: Data from 15,500 shut-in and temporarily abandoned offshore wells, or an analysis of more than 200,000 onshore wells, including tens of thousands of wells that were stimulated with hydraulic fracturing? The answer is clearly the latter – unless, of course, your interests lie in cherry picking and misrepresenting data to craft a pre-determined narrative.

Fox’s remarks to his supporters suggest he will further cherry pick and misrepresent the data in Gasland Part II. Why? Well, let’s be honest: he’s darn good at it.  The truth isn’t all that relevant to the filmmaker, and he even told us so.  That’s why I don’t expect much from Gasland Part II.  We can safely predict there won’t be anything factually new in the movie. What it is likely to be is a rehash of what got him attention in the first place: a falsehood about flaming faucets or “firewater” – and it’s as phony as it ever was.

There is one thing that’s new, though.  Fox says he plans to go after “some of the big green organizations” he suggests have sold out.  Now that could be interesting!


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