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Gas Land

Oil and gas. I can’t seem to get away from the stuff. My mother once joked that it is in my blood. I was born in a land made obscenely rich by massive oil finds, started out wanting to be a doctor or architect but ended up seduced by rocks and working in the oil industry for a decade and now own property and live right on top of one of the most prolific American gas shales.

Last night, when I turned on HBO’s GASLAND, a documentary about the hydraulic fracturing of shales for oil and gas removal and its human and environmental impacts, imagine my surprise when it started with the Devonian Marcellus shale that sits about half a mile below this Ohio town and runs all the way east into Pennsylvania and southern New York and south into West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, Tennessee and northern Alabama.


First, a short primer on hydraulic fracturing: Conventional drilling is tapping into porous rock, sandstone for instance, and pumping out oil and gas. Hydraulic fracturing involves breaking non-porous rock, in this case shales, with a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and proprietary chemical mixes, which releases oil or gas into the well. The controversy here comes from two things: 1) Hydraulically fracturing rock impacts adjacent aquifer horizons by exposing them to oil, gas and chemicals through the fractures and 2) the Energy Policy Act of 2005 included the exemption of hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act (recommended by a special task force on energy policy convened by Vice President Dick Cheney, FYI). It seems that fracking of the Marcellus shale east of here has had documented negative effects on the health of humans, water sources and wildlife.

GASLAND takes director Jason Fox and his production crew from his home in Pennsylvania to various places in America where fracking is on the rise to tap these unconventional sources of energy, i.e. not regular crude oil or coal but oil and gas shales, as the quality of life of the people of these regions decreases. I am as wary of non-scientists “doing science” as it gets and am not partial to the Michael-Moore-And-Me “folksy” style of exposé, but Fox is on to something here.


It is the beginning of the third month of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. GASLAND‘s parallels with this disaster alone are startling.

– Area residents and fauna take ill as hydraulic fracturing intensifies and companies blame it on anything but the chemicals required for said fracturing. Even when no one got sick and water coming out of pipes wasn’t flammable until then.

– The well blowouts and pipe leaks. They are everywhere.

– Halliburton is everywhere.

– State regulatory agencies are mismanaged and underfunded bodies that seem to operate on behalf of energy companies and not the people they represent. “There is no one here to help you. Find a lawyer.”

– Legal and public relations arms of the energy companies expertly stonewall the media.

– Legislative hearings are dog-and-pony shows in which energy company executives state that they follow the law and that they have published the chemical composition of their raw materials but are unwilling to hand those documents over to lawmakers.

– One legislator uses the hearing to stump for his next campaign and apologizes to the energy companies for this hassle while thanking them for the jobs they have created in the region.

– Louisiana is always terminally screwed. Never mind its own production, refining and pipeline activity, which pollutes the coastline and has created Cancer Alley between Baton Rouge and Plaquemines Parish, the state receives one-third of the nation’s oil and gas drilling waste via the Mississippi and other streams in its drainage basin.

– Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is as useless now as he was then. As Colorado senator, he voted for the 2005 Energy Policy Act with the hydraulic fracturing provision intact (then Senator Obama of Illinois, Senators Landrieu and Vitter of Louisiana, Senator Kohl of Wisconsin and both senators of Ohio and Pennsylvania respectively also voting Yea, surprise surprise).


The pros of offshore drilling, hydraulic fracturing and other conventional energy-extraction methods: Jobs, revenue and independence from foreign energy sources.

The cons: Water and land pollution; human and animal illness, chromosomal abnormalities and death; long-term environmental destruction.

Jobs and revenue are great, but we have to get past looking at energy in these terms. As D says, “When horses were replaced by automobiles, the guys clearing horseshit from roads and stables complained about lost jobs.” Times change and our resources are limited. A barrel unused is a barrel in reserve.

If we don’t take this opportunity to check our energy consumption and use oil, gas and coal but only to evolve into our next, more sustainable set of energy sources, we are going to be left with neither and will have polluted our soil and drinking water in the process. Given our growing rate of consumption, we will also have to return to importing fuel after having depleted ours.

Fast, easy and cheap. We get to pick two.

8 comments… add one
  • Patrix June 22, 2010, 2:16 PM

    You “own property and live right on top of one of the most prolific American gas shales.” But do you own mineral rights for your land? We had to sign away any mineral rights when we bought our home.

    • Maitri June 22, 2010, 2:18 PM

      Yes, we do. It’s a pretty sad little percentage, but still.

  • Joshua June 23, 2010, 4:51 PM

    Stop depressing me!!!!!!

    Kidding aside, you and I both know good n well that Americans will never wake up to issues like this, much less make the move towards a better future. So I guess I wasn’t kidding when I said stop depressing me.

  • DocFilmsFanMan June 24, 2010, 10:37 AM

    For other documentaries on this subject, definitely check out: Gas Odyssey http://www.gasodyssey.com/ and Haynesville http://www.haynesvillemovie.com/

  • Andy June 26, 2010, 5:58 PM

    They say “If we don’t support drilling, then we support foreign oil and even terrorism” I don’t want to see our water wasted or destroyed, so I guess I’d rather support foreign oil. We are smarter than this and we need to “wake-up” and blog’s like this will help spread the word. Thank You! If we don’t do something….we will be buying “foreign water”.

  • Tim August 4, 2010, 2:56 PM

    Maitri, I watched Gasland with the same feelings: initially, dread that a non-scientist was going to do a chatty and sensational look at natural gas extraction. But after I while, I started to see that he probably has a point. A little melodramatic at times, but nothing that undid the basic premise of the movie: we’re totally ignoring bad side effects in favor of quick and easy money.

    Solution? Repeal the exemptions to the Safe Water Act. Will that happen? Doubtful. Perhaps when 2,000 people are dead and the evidence is piled as high as the Washington monument the politicians will find motivation to do the morally responsible thing.

    Until then, thanks for blogging about this, and peace,


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