Study: Junk Science Film ‘Pivotal’ to Anti-Fracking Movement

A new study by the American Sociological Association (ASA) comes to a pretty obvious conclusion: a film that has been debunked by the New York Times, state regulators, and numerous scientists is the very foundation of the anti-fracking movement. In other words, the entire campaign of groups who want to ban shale development is built on the junk science of Josh Fox’s Gasland films.  As the study’s press release puts it,

“screenings of Gasland in different locations had an effect on the mobilization of local campaigns against the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing; in turn, those local mobilizations made local policymakers significantly more likely to take action to ban the practice of fracking.”

The study singles out the iconic scenes in Gasland saying that viewers were particularly affected by witnessing “people set fire to tap water allegedly contaminated by fracking in Pennsylvania and other states.”

The study itself is yet to be published, but since publicity surrounding it brings the thoroughly discredited Gasland documentaries back into the spotlight, it’s worth taking a trip down memory lane and recalling just how bad (and deceptive) these films were.

As for the flaming faucets and garden hoses: regulators found that the methane in those wells was naturally occurring and not from shale development.  In fact, two years before Gasland was even released, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) investigated the flaming faucet of the first film and determined that the landowner had drilled his water well through four separate coal seams, which were loaded with methane.  “There are no indications of oil & gas related impacts to water well,” according to the COGCC report.  After Gasland was released, COGCC noted once again that the landowner’s water well “contained biogenic gas that was not related to oil and gas activity.”

Fast forward to 2013: the second Gasland film features a man in Parker County, Texas who lights the end of a garden hose on fire.  Of course, the audience is supposed to believe this is a result of fracking.  But the Texas District Count issued a ruling in 2012, which found that the landowner had conspired with a local consultant to

“…intentionally attach a garden hose to a gas vent – not to a water line – and then light and burn the gas from the end of the nozzle of the hose. The demonstration was not done for scientific study but to provide local and national news media a deceptive video, calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning … [and] alarm the EPA.”

Not only that but Texas regulators continued to investigate that incident and later determined again that the methane was from natural seepage from a shallower rock formation, the Strawn formation. They concluded that natural gas wells “have not contributed and are not contributing to contamination of any domestic water wells.”  If that’s not enough, last May the Texas Railroad Commission released a major report, which found that no wells in Parker County, Texas had experienced well integrity problems and that all of them were complying with rules and regulations.

EID highlighted pictures  that were taken of flaming hoses from water wells that occurred roughly half a decade before Range Resources drilled its wells in Parker County.  The water wells in these pictures are only about half a mile away from the well that produced the infamous Gasland “flaming hose.”

The flaming faucets weren’t the only claims in Gasland that were false.  Of course, EID completed a comprehensive debunks of both Gasland and Gasland II giving a minute by minute rebuttal that exposed everything wrong with the film, including its claims about flaming faucets, seismicity, chemical disclosure, and oil and gas producers being “exempt” from federal laws.  In these debunks, EID also exposed the cast of characters in Fox’s film including the Mayor of DISH, Texas, Calvin Tillman, who plays a starring role.  In Gasland, Tillman claims natural gas development in his community created a range of health problems for local residents.

But the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – which is responsible for regulating air emissions in the state – evaluated Tillman’s claims, specifically a report from Wolf Eagle Environmental that supposedly found harmful levels of benzene concentrations in DISH.  It turned out that Tillman’s consultants had taken a snapshot measurement and suggested it was what residents were being exposed to over a long period of time, which is in no way scientifically sound. In 2013, when Tillman’s group tried exactly this same method in another study, the TCEQ stated such procedures are “not scientifically appropriate.”

In February, 2011, the New York Times published an almost 5,000 word rebuttal to the film, which explained, “We read the documents, the ones Fox and EID refer to, and many more. We called the experts and people involved and succeeded in ‘running to ground’ many of the major points of contention.”  The article touched on a number of points including the film’s claims about benzene:

“State health officials determined that there were not abnormal levels of benzene in the blood of people of Dish. The study found that, “For the majority of the participants, the levels of [volatile organic compounds] measured in blood were similar to those measured in the general U.S. population, suggesting that their exposures to these contaminants were not different than those received by people living in other areas of the U.S.”

Taxpayer footing the bill for fracking bans? Thanks, Gasland

The new AMA study touts Galsand’s ability to inspire local fracking bans.  But the reality is, since local bans are unconstitutional, all anti-fracking groups have done is impose burdensome legal costs on taxpayers in these communities, without even achieving their stated goal.

The group spearheading a lot of these efforts, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), has already forced Lafayette, Colorado to pay nearly $60,000 in legal fees. Reuters reports:

“The city of Lafayette, Colorado, has already paid some $60,000 so far defending its 2013 CELDF-authored community bill of rights in court, knowing the effort is a form of legal disobedience.”

The Texas Tribune recently reported that a ban on fracking in Denton, Texas has “cost the city some $220,000 in legal fees alone.” Mora County, New Mexico, one of the poorest counties in New Mexico is even facing possible bankruptcy because of its fracking ban.  Mora County resident Frank Splendoria said this about CELDF and the local ban passed in his community:

“It was totally foolish to begin with, to even try this. How do you pass an ordinance that’s going to override the state and the federal constitution? I don’t know if they were playing us in Mora County as suckers or they were sincere in their beliefs. I would probably tend to the former rather than the latter, given that Mora County was the first county to try this and failed miserably at it. I don’t know where we would find the money. If you look at the county’s budget, they barely have enough money to provide the bare essential services … (The ban) hasn’t made any sense to anyone with any sense to begin with.” (emphasis added)

CELDF doesn’t seem to mind that it’s costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. The group’s founder Thomas Linzey told Reuters,

“And if a town goes bankrupt trying to defend one of our ordinances, well, perhaps that’s exactly what is needed to trigger a national movement.”

Foundation of junk science

The bottom line is that this new study finds that the anti-fracking movement is based on a fraud – on a flaming faucet and hose that had absolutely nothing to do with fracking and everything to do with spreading false information to incite fear in the public.

This this is not unlike what we’ve seen with the anti-vaccine movement, which was based solely on one dubious study that was retracted after it received so much criticism.  The only difference here is that anti-fracking activists are still celebrating Gasland as their Bible!

But the public has already caught on:  A poll released last year found that the public trusts Josh Fox and the Gasland films dead last for getting the facts on fracking.  We’ll be curious to see if that little tidbit makes it into the forthcoming ASA report?

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