Something Rotten in Gasland
Every mention of the movie Gasland includes a reference to the supposed $100,000 lease offer that Josh Fox says he received from a natural gas company — an offer, the story goes, that he magnanimously turned down so he could save the world from natural gas. Indeed, if you Google “Josh Fox” and “$100,000,” you get 31,700 results — including these examples:
No. 1 – “Would you poison the planet for $100,000? According to a recent article, filmmaker Josh Fox faced this question when he received a $100,000 offer in exchange for the natural gas drilling rights to his property in the Delaware River Basin. Instead of taking the money and keeping quiet, he decided to use his talents to make a film that exposes the harsh reality of America’s natural gas drilling campaign.”
No. 2 – “What do you do when a gas company offers nearly $100,000 for the right to drill on your land? If you’re Josh Fox, you refuse the money — then make an award-winning documentary portraying the natural gas industry as an environmental menace that ruins water, air and lives.”
No. 3 – “In 2008, filmmaker Josh Fox received a $100,000 offer to lease his 19 acres in northeastern Pennsylvania for drilling by the booming natural gas industry. Fox promptly responded with a decisive “no thanks.” Then he set off on a road trip across 24 states to investigate the environmental impact of natural gas drilling on local communities.”
The narrator of this Gasland trailer says Fox, in 2006, received a letter in the mail offering him $100,000 for permission to drill for natural gas on his land. Actually, the offer came to him in May 2008 — at least according to what he told the Huffington Post. But considering all the other distortions the movie presents in the name of art, this is a very tiny error. The $100,ooo offer, however, is central to the carefully cultivated narrative of an easy-going, banjo-pluckin’, resident of tiny and rural Milanville, Pa. who passes on what amounts to more than three years’ salary for most folks in our area so that he can instead slay the evil natural gas industry.
But here’s a question for you: What if there was no offer of $100,000 to begin with? Do a little digging, and you find out pretty quick that Fox’s entire backstory is a sham, something long suspected by the local residents who couldn’t imagine how Fox was issued a lease bonus with a value per acre twice that what anyone else had received. As far as we can tell, only one journalist actually questioned the story of the $100,000 offer: Mike Soraghan of E&E News in Washington. Here, in his New York Times report, is some of what he learned:
In the movie’s opening segments, Fox often refers to the 19.5 acres in Milanville, Pa., as “my land.” He also talks about “my $100,000” in reference to money offered by a gas company that wanted to drill on the land. Fox says that he was offered a “signing bonus” of $4,750 an acre, for a total of $92,625. He rounded that figure up to $100,000.
As one might sense from the history Fox relates about the place, it is owned by his family, specifically his father. Many supporters of drilling in the area have questioned any implication that Fox is a local, saying he is a New Yorker whose family has a weekend property in the area.
Nearby landowners who have leased their land have frequently questioned Fox’s assertion that he stood to make $100,000 to allow drilling on the land. Fox forwarded to Greenwire a proposed lease agreement that would have added up to as much as $90,000, assuming 5 acres of land disturbance beyond the basic, 5-acre well pad. He said he no longer has documents of earlier offerings, which were slightly more generous.
Apparently, Fox told Soraghan he received a $4,750 per acre lease bonus payment (he said the same to PBS). But when pressed for documentation, Fox relied not only upon the lease bonus payment, but also a $3,000 per acre fee for disturbing 10 acres of land on the assumption that he would receive a well. There are several major problems with Fox’s story:
1. Although reporters continue to take Fox’s explanation at face value, anyone at all familiar with gas leasing knows very few properties actually receive wells because the production units typically approach 640 acres in size or thereabouts with the well pad (on which are located 6-8 wells) situated in the center. Smaller properties seldom get wells because it is difficult to achieve required isolation distances on such properties.
Fox’s property (actually belonging his father) consists of two parcels totaling 19.29 acres. One of the parcels is fairly steep in parts and lies between John Davis Road and Milanville Road. The other is situated between John Davis Road and a stream. Both are relatively narrow (each about 500 feet wide) and given that a typical well pad is just slightly less than 500 feet square and requires fairly level ground — and ground that’s at least 500 feet from any major stream, building, well or septic system (under the terms of the lease he displays) — there is simply no possibility of a gas well being located on the Fox property.
Therefore, the additional $30,000 is not real. It is a complete myth. Disturbance payments (well fees) are not the same as lease bonus payments — the former are rarely paid, even on large properties. They are contingent fees and, in this particular instance, would never have been realized under any conceivable circumstance.
2. The lease depicted in Gasland is easily identifiable because every company’s lease document has a unique format. I have copies of the lease documents for every company that has done business in Damascus Township (where the Fox parcels are located) or made offers there. These include Chesapeake Energy, North Coast Energy, Cabot Oil and Gas and Hess Corporation (Hess/Newfield joint venture).
One of those lease documents, and only one, precisely conforms with the format and wording of the document displayed in Gasland. That is the Hess lease and, more specifically, a draft version of that lease that was distributed in the summer of 2009. You can compare for yourself by freezing the screen from one of the movie trailers and matching it up with this draft lease. No other leases match in any respect.
This is important because Hess wasn’t operating in the area, making offers or even doing gas deals in 2006 or May 2008 — the two dates between which Fox has alternated most frequently when asked when his offer letter arrived. Truth is, Hess didn’t even start making offers until the summer of 2009, just in time for the film’s production schedule, but more than a year after Fox claimed everything had taken place. He got no offer from Hess in 2008 (or probably ever, as Hess largely avoided that area of Damascus Twp.) and, obviously, later substituted the widely distributed draft Hess lease for whatever standard document he did receive, if anything.
He had a good reason to substitute the Hess lease for whatever offer he may have received from one of the other companies, however, because it was the only one structured to provide not only a basic well fee ($15,000 for 5 acres of disturbance) but also offer $3,000 per acre for any disturbance above that.
Fox, in other words, could only construct his theoretical $100,000 offer by relying upon the Hess lease and some extraordinarily faulty assumptions about getting wells drilled on his property. Therefore, the lease depicted in the film, and the one to which he apparently refers in his explanation to E&E News, is not the one he actually received.
3. As mentioned, there were simply no companies making offers in Damascus Twp. or elsewhere in the region in 2006. There were three companies making offers in early 2008, however. These included Chesapeake, North Coast and Cabot. North Coast dropped out of the picture around March 2008, after a landowner group with which I was associated didn’t accept its group offer. Chesepeake and Cabot made a variety of offers that ranged between $2,000 – $2,650 per acre.
So: If the $2,650 figure was applied to the Fox parcels, they would have yielded lease bonus payments totaling $51,118 — about half what Fox says he was offered. If we round-up the acreage to 20 acres, apply the highest Hess offer from Damascus Twp. ($3,000 per acre over several payments across both exploratory and development phases) and add in the mythical $30,000 for disturbance, we get $90,000, which one assumes is what Fox gave to E&E News. It is utter nonsense, of course, but one can follow the logic.
The problem, for Fox, is that there was no Hess offer made in 2008, Hess not even being in the game at that point. Moreover, the assumption of well fees that were not realizable, combined with his stretching of the $90,000 to $100,000, means the whole thing is a sham. Fox may have received an offer in 2008 for something on the order of $50,000 but it was more likely far less than that — in part due to his small property size, and in part due to his lack of affiliation with any of landowner group negotiating for higher rates.
What does all this tell us? Well, at a minimum, it demonstrates Fox doesn’t care much for details or getting them straight. Being an “artist” is, to him, a license to to distort the facts in service of a larger “truth” — ends always justifying the means. That’s essentially what he says about his flaming faucet lies and what he said about his anti-American movie “Memorial Day” when he told an interviewer: “To do the film we got totally immersed in a different kind of reality. A deeply uncomfortable reality that we had to go into with equal parts reckless abandon and dire seriousness. It was an exercise in total immersion. Everything in the film was planned, every scene was either scripted or outlined beforehand–but everything really happened, because it was real, in a sense, we were immersed in that reality.”
Clearly, he also created such a new reality with his oft-repeated story about a $100,000 offer that turns out, like most of Gasland, to be a fairy tale. Unfortunately, he has been able to market that fairy tale to a gullible group of journalists who report what Fox says uncritically, recognizing that to do additional research would be to put at risk a great story.
It also demonstrates Fox is nothing like the altruistic pose he loves to strike. He didn’t get a $100,000 offer and whatever he turned down, if anything, was much, much less, especially as compared to the $5,000-$7,500 per engagement speaking fees he now commands as result of the film’s popularity. He has used Gasland to acquire fame and is busy turning that fame into money. Word around town is that Gasland 2 is already in production — a film that HBO paid him $750,000 in upfront money to shoot. Not bad for a small-town kid from New York City — with a summer home in Wayne County, Pa.!
UPDATE: An astute reader of this blog observed the title of this post was a play on the famous words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (“Something is rotten in the State of Denmark”), which he found supremely ironic given that the speaker in the play was a fellow named “Marcellus.”
UPDATE II: We subsequently discovered the Park Foundation has also paid Josh Fox ($75,000 each in 2010 and 2011) for his “grass roots social engagement campaign around Gasland.” So much for altruism.