‘Gasland’ Star Brings More of the Same to California

Calvin Tillman, former mayor of DISH, Tex., and a prominent figure in the egregiously misleading and dishonest anti-fracking “documentaries” Gasland and Gasland 2, visited California last week to tell his story to “ban fracking” activists in hopes of breathing life into a movement that has twice been soundly defeated in our state. It was the same story he told in both Gasland films, and the story that has been thoroughly debunked by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

EID has covered Mr. Tillman’s road shows in Michigan and Ohio, and we have  already reviewed and critiqued the lessons he draws from his personal experience while mayor of DISH at some length. A good summary can be found here.

Because Mr. Tillman came to California just as our state is implementing the nation’s toughest restrictions on the oil and gas industry — and on hydraulic fracturing in particular — we believe that it is important to hold activists to account for the “information” they share.

Tillman made a number of stops in the Golden State, giving succor to the most hardcore of the “ban fracking” activists who, never content with getting exactly what they once asked for, are seeking to circumvent the regulatory process by pushing for local “bans” on fracking. EID caught up with Tillman in Santa Maria (where onshore fracking doesn’t happen) and Hollister (where there isn’t any oil development).

Sketchy Friends

At the outset, it should be noted that Mr. Tillman is a personally affable and even-keeled person, and seems to genuinely believe what he says. We have no doubt of his sincerity when he speaks of his love for his family and his concern for their well-being.

Unfortunately, he has aligned himself with some of the extreme anti-energy campaigners on the environmental fringe – specifically groups like Earthworks.

Earthworks — part of the industry that has grown up around the anti-fracking cause, supported financially by the activist Park Foundation — has staked out a rabidly anti-development position that doesn’t allow for debate, only ideological purity. Similar to other extremist groups like Food and Water Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks wants to ban hydraulic fracturing altogether, so it has no place in a good-faith discussion of how best to regulate this decades-old, well understood and proven technology. To achieve its goals, Earthworks will write almost anything it can get away with, regardless of whether what it writes is true or not.  A recent example of its dishonesty can be found here.

Tillman says that he meets with Earthworks’ Sharon Wilson weekly, and her credentials as a contributor to any rational discussion is made pretty clear in this tweet:


So, giving Tillman the benefit of the doubt, it is no wonder that what he says doesn’t stand up to scrutiny given that he is being influenced by extreme anti-industry activists.

Santa Maria

Tillman spoke to a group of about 65 people in Santa Maria. His approach was to scare the crowd into action. Taking advantage of the fact that the media, due to Tillman’s activist friends, has frequently misrepresented hydraulic fracturing, Tillman wasted no time in alarming the crowd with simple misstatements of fact.


Calvin Tillman, former mayor of DISH, Tex.

“That’s all going to change!”

Tillman took scaremongering to new heights when he showed a satellite image of his former home in DISH, which, remember, is in a gas field in North Texas, and pointed out the wells that surrounded his property.

Texas has enjoyed significant growth thanks to the shale revolution, and Tillman used this fact to suggest to the audience, absent any evidence whatsoever, that their backyards could very soon be home to “hundreds of thousands of wells.”

“You live in a beautiful place that people want to come to,” he said. “That’s all going to change.”

This elicited gasps from the audience, because of course they weren’t in a position to know that this is utter nonsense.

The facts: Santa Barbara County is currently home to about 1,200 wells. California as a whole – the third largest energy producing state in the country – has just over 50,000 active wells, mostly in Kern County far from population centers or potable groundwater. The idea that people in scenic Santa Maria (or people anywhere in California) will be surrounded by “hundreds of thousands” of new oil wells in short order – or even in the foreseeable future – doesn’t withstand a moment of critical thought.

While we hope that California will continue its energy leadership, and we hope that the industry will continue to grow and provide new jobs, revenues and economic activity, this growth will be incremental. It will be based on sober analyses of where opportunities lie. It will take place in a highly regulated environment in which nothing happens quickly (does anything happen quickly in California?), and, of course, it will depend on continued innovation to develop the technologies that allow the industry to access hydrocarbon resources.

Water. Knowing that water-related issues are always important in California, especially with our state facing a major drought, Tillman repeated the canard that water used in oil and gas development is “removed from the [water] cycle forever.”

This is something that anyone with a passing understanding of energy development would recognize as preposterous. Leaving aside that all of the hydraulic fracturing done last year, statewide, used about as much water as one golf course, much of the water used in the oil development process – whether fracking or not – is reused and recycled, often in a closed-loop system.

This also ignores that billions of gallons of water that oil development produces – water that was never previously in the water cycle. For each barrel of oil produced, nearly ten barrels of water are produced as well. This water is also used, reused, recycled, or disposed of under the strictest of regulations and, as the New York Times recently pointed out, it is also often treated and sold to California farmers for the irrigation of crops. The industry is actually a net producer of usable water in some regions of the state.

It’s not all going to change?

Mr. Tillman took a great risk by blatantly contradicting himself about 30 minutes after his “that’s all going to change” scare. Fortunately for him, the audience of activists was enthralled with his story and didn’t seem to notice.

When asked about potential economic impacts of further development – development which, according to Tillman, would include “hundreds of thousands” of new wells – he dismissed these impacts as insignificant.

“There will not be a windfall that everyone will notice,” he said, while allowing that “there might be an uptick” in jobs but that they would be filled by Texans rather than Californians. While no evidence of this claim was presented, and while Californians generally frown on being told that any state (perhaps Texas in particular) can best us in our workforce — both skilled and trainable —  it is safe to say that the massive increase in employment, tax revenue, and economic activity generated by “hundreds of thousands of wells” would be something that wouldn’t escape anyone’s notice (though, as noted before, no such rapid “boom” is likely to occur.)

Also, to be clear: California has a long history of oil production, and there are plenty of skilled workers for the oil patch in the Golden State. In some regions, workers may initially come from elsewhere until the skills gap can be filled with local employees. With a century of oil exploration experience, suggesting California’s workforce isn’t up to the task is mind boggling.

Argument by anecdote

Mr. Tillman made a host of other misstatements and half-truths. For example, he claimed the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), the industry’s regulator, “doesn’t know what wells are fracked.” They have, in fact, known for some time, and Mr. Tillman could know too by visiting He also repeated the falsehood that a Pennsylvania family — including its children — has been subjected to a “gag order” preventing them from speaking about shale development and fracking.

Mr. Tillman’s biggest problem, however, is that he doesn’t share data, only stories. Any shred of scientific information that is independently verifiable to a skeptical listener is missing from his tales. Tillman’s stories — about his time living in DISH, about the causes of health problems for his son, and about discoveries he has made in his subsequent career as an anti-industry activist — are full of ominous-sounding implications. But, in no cases are any of these stories backed-up by actual data. As noted above, the only times when scientists and regulators have investigated Mr. Tillman’s claims about industry impacts, they have been found to be incorrect.

When asked questions about things to which he had no data, he would answer with lessons drawn from his singular experience.

Tillman admitted this. “This is based on my life, not science,” he told a questioner. At one point, he responded to another questioner by recounting his personal experiences in DISH, asking “does that sound anecdotal?”

Given that this is the dictionary definition of “anecdotal,” yes. Yes it does.


The bucolic agricultural community of Hollister was the next place EID encountered Mr. Tillman’s roadshow. Local activists managed to attract about 70 people on Saturday afternoon to hear Tillman and San Benito County Supervisor Robert Rivas.

Mr. Rivas took the podium first, and, having clearly been influenced by the relentless misinformation campaign in which he was now complicit, said that fracking “imposes danger to our water supply, our air quality, local infrastructure and quality of life.”

Oil and gas production is, of course, heavily regulated, and the industry works very hard to ensure that environmental impacts are minimized from its activities; industry employees live in these communities too.  Mr. Rivas should know, however, that federal and state regulators – including the Secretary of Energy, the Secretary of the Interior, the EPA Administrator and the California Department of Conservation – have all said that fracking has never caused groundwater to be contaminated. He should know that air quality is also heavily regulated, and that fracking occurs many thousands of feet, usually miles, below ground under billions of tons of impermeable rock. And he should know that a robust energy industry provides much-needed jobs, state and local tax revenue, and economic activity that make like better for everyone in San Benito County and throughout California.

Finally, as a San Benito County Supervisor, surely Mr. Rivas is aware that there is no oil production in his country and certainly no fracking. After endorsing a ban on all “high-intensity petroleum operations” (whatever those are), Rivas called for immediate steps to “build our economy around” solar and wind power, starting now. Not serious stuff.

No data to see here…

Mr. Rivas then introduced Tillman, whose presentation remained the same as it was in Santa Maria. To his credit, though, he told people in a town with no oil development that they can expect to see only “tens of thousands of wells” spring up in the near future.

The most notable thing about the Hollister event was that Tillman was pressed more about specifics, but he continued to refuse to provide concrete information. He would say that regulators examined images from his group’s FLIR camera, purporting to show VOCs, but made no mention of what regulators actually concluded, or what these VOCs were and whether they approached any limits that would make them harmful.

He once again repeated his claim that California would have to import most of its new oil jobs if production took off, and insulted state regulators by claiming that they don’t have the health and safety of Californians at heart when this, of course, is integral to their mission.

When confronted with the fact that there is no fracking in San Benito County, Tillman shifted gears and talked about steam-injection, the most common enhanced oil recovery technique, which has been in use in California since the 1950s. He made a bizarre claim that this method can contaminate aquifers, but he didn’t explain how and, of course, with no oil development there is no steam injection in the county, either.

Also on display was the desperate tactic of accusing the industry of lying without evidence or justification. He even questioned whether or not hydraulic fracturing was occurring under his audience’s feet.

“Industry will tell you they won’t do hydraulic fracturing, or they’ll do it elsewhere or whatever,” he said, adding that audience members should know the industry isn’t telling the truth “because their lips are moving.”

Ok, then.

Tillman then suggested that if the industry isn’t using fracking on a particular well, then “I’m betting they’ve already tried that,” evincing a misunderstanding of how geological and economic concerns determine which well-completion techniques will be used on any given wells. Oil and gas production is expensive, and industry experts invest a great deal to ensure that their operations will be as productive as possible. Contrary to Tillman’s suggestion, guesswork is removed from the equation to the greatest degree possible.

Following some Earthworks-style hyperbole from local activists, the good folks at the Hollister event listened politely, and then drove off (in their mostly low-mileage trucks and SUVs) to enjoy their Saturday, while the Tillman roadshow went on to a final stop.


Calvin Tillman’s personal story is his alone, and he is free — indeed obligated — to make whatever personal decisions he needs to make for the good of his family. We respect that.  In the ongoing debate about safe and responsible energy development, however, it is important that scientists, industry, regulators and environmental advocates operate from the best scientific information and not on anecdote and wild claims made by groups like Earthworks, whose goal is to shut down all domestic oil and gas production.

We welcome visitors to our state, and we welcome an honest and robust debate over the best ways to ensure that energy development is done safely and effectively. Hopefully the next time Mr. Tillman visits to talk to people about oil and gas-related issue, he will be a bit more knowledgeable about California’s geology, geography and economy, and free of the political bedfellows that are making a mockery out of serious discourse about critical issues like our energy future.

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