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Gasland uses cheap tricks to obscure important point

Credit: Patrick Gage Kelley/Contributing Editor Credit: Patrick Gage Kelley/Contributing Editor
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I hate documentaries. I’ve always thought of them as glorified propaganda and don’t typically think they are a good way to find out about things. I know this judgment isn’t fair, but it’s been my experience that people get fanatical when it comes to documentaries. They believe things because they saw them, and they don’t think too much beyond that.

I made an exception to my rule against documentaries, though, for Gasland, which is the story of the Marcellus Shale and hydraulic fracturing. The Marcellus Shale is a rock formation under most of Pennsylvania and parts of New York and West Virginia. It surfaces near Marcellus, N.Y.; hence the name. It is estimated to hold trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Years ago, the Marcellus Shale wouldn’t have mattered at all because there was no way to get the natural gas out of a shale formation. However, a drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has changed that. But because the technique is new, not all of the environmental effects of the chemicals used in the process are known, and therefore its use is contentious.

All of this is the background for Josh Fox’s Gasland. Fox owns property in northeast Pennsylvania and was contacted about leasing his land for drilling. He said he wanted to learn more, and that project expanded to become Gasland.

I loved the premise of the movie. I think it’s important to understand where energy comes from, especially considering how current the issue of energy is. I think it’s a noble cause to understand the process of fracking before discrediting it.

In the film, Fox travels across the country getting testimonials of people whose lives have been affected by hydraulic fracturing. He tries to get a gamut of opinions, but is turned down for interviews by all of the major natural gas companies.

But as I watched the film, my problems with documentaries were quick to resurface. It features a series of scenes in which people are able to light their tap water on fire. After researching it, I found that the reasons the water was “flammable” were unrelated to the nearby drilling. Fox kept the footage anyway. This trick works to discredit the rest of the film, even though there don’t seem to be problems with its overall accuracy.

Using a scene that is more extreme than average seems pretty standard for a documentary. Even worse is when Fox reads the chemicals used in fracking fluid. There is nothing factually wrong about this part of the movie. He simply reads a list. The disturbing part of the scene, though, is the way Fox demonizes the chemicals. Carboxymethyl hydroxypropyl guar shouldn’t be inherently scary. If it’s found to be carcinogenic, that is of course a reason for alarm. But all Fox did was to say a lot of chemicals quickly for dramatic effect.
This probably seems like a really small issue, but I watched the film with an audience of Pittsburgh locals who gasped more with the increasing number of syllables, despite having no idea what each chemical does or its side effects. Playing on an audience’s ignorance is not okay.

I loved the idea of Gasland because I thought it would be a good way to educate people about the energy industry — an industry not many people take the time to learn about. Instead, Fox used tricks and played on people’s lack of knowledge for a more dramatic effect.