'We cannot have democracy without freedom from fossil fuels'
The public response to Gasland was phenomenal. Were you surprised? And what did you learn from it?
What I learnt was how many places were under siege from fracking. We were surprised that we got into the Sundance festival. This tiny operation that was working for $2,000 and $3,000 – that was our budget, you know. It was truly surprising that we had acceptance by the mainstream.
I knew that fracking was happening all across America and that this was beginning to be proposed all over the world and that there were people in a state of total crisis from this new energy development. I think it was kind of an appropriate reaction to how many places right now in the US are in a crisis mode, either over the proposal to drill or the consequences of the contamination of drilling.
What I think I learnt was that no matter how popular something is you still have to campaign. We would show 10 or 20 or 30 minutes [of the film] on the side of the road on the side of the Delaware River before it was even done. We would go out there and use it to educate people. We’ve never stopped doing that. I’ve done a tour of 250 cities.
The oil and gas industry reaction was quite predictable. They denied any wrongdoing...
Well, I was actually quite surprised that they attacked the film at all. I thought they would completely ignore it. I couldn’t believe they were casting so much attention on the movie. They got people to watch it who would never have watched it!
Can you tell us what forms that attack took and the kind of money the industry must have sunk into it?
They spent hundreds of millions of dollars simply trying to combat the message of the film in every conceivable form. If you search my name or the name of the film on Google, you come up with their misinformation campaign. They’ve done YouTube videos, they’ve done two feature films, they go on the news, they’ve bought ads promoting natural gas – so it’s not just me that they are fighting, it’s the truth and the science: that drilling contaminates people. They have a very steep uphill climb. They’re asking people to go and industrialize their towns. Once you industrialize your town, your quality of life is gone. The character and integrity of those areas is gone.
On the internet you’ve been called anything from a liar to a Luddite. What kind of influence on public perception has this had?
Well, I think it creates doubt; that is their tactic. It’s very much like the tobacco industry, you know. When the tobacco industry was shown to be harming people’s health, they went out and created bogus reports. They engaged universities in fake science. They did everything they possibly could in the media to create doubt. That confuses people.
They completely deny the science because it interferes with the worldview that they want to promote – and that is that we need to be dependent on oil and gas, and that they want to make money
However, I don’t think they’ve had the kind of reach that the film has, or the clips from the film – people lighting their water on fire. It’s amazing to me that we’ve kind of won this PR war. When you look at the stats in New York, the numbers in Pennsylvania, for example, or California: people overwhelmingly don’t want fracking. This really is a growing consciousness over time about what this proposal really means. So I don’t think it really works, but it creates delay. I mean, look at what they did with climate change – there will be certain people who will deny this for personal gain till the end of time. The Catholic Church just in 2000 apologized to Galileo, you know. So science is not really what’s at issue here. They completely deny the science because it interferes with the worldview that they want to promote – and that is that we need to be dependent on oil and gas, and that they want to make money. We don’t need that dependency anymore, which is why they are getting so hysterical.
A popular tactic has been to claim that the films are factually inacurate. Something you’ve rebutted in detail in ‘Affirming Gasland’...
And in The Sky Is Pink and in Gasland 2 –we’ve gone over and over this. What really matters is that they’re trying to smear you. It’s completely befuddling that you still have people out there with these denialist reports, even though there are literally thousands of reports that were actually inspired by Gasland, that prove everything that is in Gasland, and even though there is considerable EPA [US Environmental Protection Agency] science and other science from peer-reviewed journals which shows that what we were reporting on was the truth. It’s crazy. You look at so much of the work that’s been inspired, not just by the film, but by the movement around it and by people’s concern. That’s the game, it’s to create the impression that there’s a debate, so the public doesn’t understand what’s going on.
What does fracking do to communities, in your experience?
There is a high probability that because of the drilling you are going to have water contamination, gas migration, increased levels of air pollution, depending on how close you are. There can be health problems that we are seeing develop in areas that are very typical.
You have a community that ends up being fractured, because there are inevitably people who make lots of money and are in favour of this and then there are people who are really devastated and upset and angry
You have a total industrialization of those places. You’re overrun by thousands and thousands of truck trips every single day. So you have traffic accidents going up. You have a very high fatality rate among workers in the gas industry that’s seven times the US average. A lot of that is truck accidents. You have a community that ends up being fractured, because there are inevitably people who make lots of money and are in favour of this and then there are people who are really devastated and upset and angry. The integrity of your community tends to fall apart.
Lastly, I think, you end up with the influence and dominance of oil or gas as the dominant piece of value in your community. That means the whole reason for your town’s existence is to extract oil and gas after a while. I mean, look at the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf of Mexico has now been reduced to an oil and gas zone, with an ecology that no longer functions, with a coastline that no longer serves its public, with a fish and seafood base that you can’t use anymore, with an eco-system that has crashed, with refineries all along the coast, with deterioration of the coastline, with people working in that industry who have no other choice. You reduce the value of those areas simply to the value of the oil or gas. Your schools are now sponsored by the oil and gas companies, your roads and highways are now sponsored by the oil and gas companies, you don’t have a place to combat that pervasive element. And this is what is so disturbing about what is happening, for example in the Colorado River. The head waters of the Colorado River is a beautiful, scenic watershed area and it’s overrun – 8,000 oil and gas wells cut it to pieces, woods are fragmented by the pipeline. You have toxic waste being stored on the pits and in the pad sites and on waste impoundments all behind mountains next to people’s houses. It’s a disaster area.
What message does the fracking saga in the US send out about corporate power and its influence on government and democracy?
The second film is really about the contamination of our democracy. It’s about how every dollar that the oil and gas industry has contributed to our political system has toxified the political atmosphere. Democracy is the water of our civilization, and when you have all that toxic cash running into our state and federal government, you can’t have citizens’ representation; the citizens are squeezed out of that picture. I believe that we cannot have democracy without freedom from fossil fuels, because they are so dominant in our democratic political systems, not just in the US but in Australia and other countries. What we’re seeing right now in Europe, is the population being a bit stronger. But at the same time there is still that fight to be free of those fuels long term. It’s a great struggle, but it has to underline this next chapter of human life or else we’re all in deep trouble.
People’s movements against fracking keep swelling, growing in rank...
And they keep winning, too, by the way.
...reminding President Obama that they are not as convinced as he is about fracking.
We’ve got a political zoo happening in the US right now with the Republican Party shutting down and hijacking the government [This interview was conducted in October 2013 during the US federal government shutdown]. We, the movement, submitted 250,000 signatures on a petition to get EPA to reopen the investigations in the film. But that petition is not going to do any good unless they re-open the government. That’s been hijacked by a very small group of people who are enormously wealthy, the gap between rich and poor right now or rich and normal in America is astounding and when you have a political system this influenced by money, you really have devolved into a kind of plutocratic rule where the very tiny group of people who have billions of dollars are now dictating policy over hundreds of millions of people. This situation has to change somehow; it is getting at every single person’s life in one way or another.
We’ve had some victories in the US, but the political climate is a real issue. We are living in a time of unprecedented corporate power and influence.
People’s movements, community involvement – do they give you hope?
Oh absolutely, I’m hopeful every day. The experience of making the films is devastating: watching people go through this and watching them lose their lands and watching the environment suffer. Some of the worst things I have ever seen in my entire life – places completely devastated and ruined and people who are in situations that are very bad.
But the experience of opening and touring the film is exactly the opposite. We’ve toured Gasland 2 now to about 45 cities. Most of these screenings are between 700 and a 1,000 people – we had 1,700 people come out to see the film one night in Pittsburgh. They said that was the largest environmental rally in the city’s history.
The only thing that we have is the sense of community that’s rebuilt under this crisis. The fracking movement worldwide is one big community and you can go anywhere in the world and find people who are fighting the same scenario and they’re in the same boat. These are people who you link arms with, they’re friends, they’re compadres, they’re people who will really understand what you are going through. That is something that gives life a lot of meaning.
Because it’s not just about fighting against fracking. Fracking is one of the catalysts for this change that is, I hope, going to lead us out of the fossil-fuel era. There is a value structure to sustainability that it actually feels good to participate in, it makes you feel stronger. It has to do with integrity and honesty, it has to do with democracy, it has to do with our respecting the environment long term.
This is an extended version of the interview which appeared in the December issue of New Internationalist.