Local Marcellus Shale debate featured in film

Erin M. Burns Oct 31, 2010

The 2010 film Gasland was screened in McConomy last Tuesday, followed by a panel discussion.

Gasland focuses on the current debate over the Marcellus Shale, with special attention paid to the potential health risks posed by hydraulic fracturing, the process by which natural gas is removed from the ground.

Shale formations have recently been discovered in Europe, Northern Africa, and the northeastern United States. The debate over the Marcellus Shale is especially relevant in Pennsylvania, however, because the state is home to most of the formation. Panelist Wendy Arons, an associate professor in the drama department at Carnegie Mellon, pointed out that “the world will be looking to Harrisburg to pioneer the legislation on the massive reserves of natural gas,” a fact that Gasland’s director, writer, and star, Josh Fox, is certainly aware of.

Fox narrates the film, which begins in May 2008 when he receives a letter from a natural gas company asking to lease his land. While traveling from Pennsylvania to the Four Corners, Fox interviews people who have experienced serious, often life-threatening, complications from nearby hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Fracking involves shooting tens of thousands of gallons of fluids into the ground to loosen gas deposits. Fracking fluids, as they are often called, consist of hundreds of chemicals, a number of which are known carcinogens. A significant portion of Gasland is devoted to investigating fracking fluids. Fox reveals that the complete list of chemicals used in the fluids is protected as a trade secret, a fact that prevents environmental and human health organizations from being able to adequately monitor the impact of fracking. The film’s official website, gaslandthemovie.com, describes the film as “part verite travelogue, part exposé, part mystery, part bluegrass banjo meltdown, part showdown.”

Last week’s event panel featured Arons, as well as Dan Volz and Steven Cleghorn. Volz, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, also serves as the director for the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities and of the Environmental Health Risk Assessment Certificate Program, and he has worked on educating local communities to the potential risks of the Marcellus Shale.

With his wife, Cleghorn is the co-founder and co-owner of Paradise Gardens and Farm, the first organic farm and licensed goat dairy and creamery in Jefferson County, about two hours northeast of Pittsburgh.Cleghorn first heard of the Marcellus Shale a couple of months ago at a town meeting devoted to discussion of a scheduled well less than a mile from his farm. “All I could think about was our sweet little goats, part of God’s creatures, and decided that I’m not going to let these gas people roll over us, at least not without a fight,” he said.

Since then, Cleghorn has rallied against drilling in his town, using his local connections and his faith to dissuade neighbors from signing leases. Cleghorn approaches the debate from a perspective that is different from that of many anti-fracking advocates. He strictly avoids mention of global warming — though he expressed his own belief in its validity — and instead relies on his Christian background to convince others not to covet and avoid letting greed take precedence over the well-being of “God’s creatures.”

On Tuesday, Cleghorn voiced his personal disappointments with the “rapacious nature of these companies” and, in summing up the current climate of rapid technological growth with little or outdated regulations on which Gasland is focused, commented that “unfortunately, in our culture, what is possible becomes mandatory, with respect to technology.”

Gasland won a number of awards, including a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize, a Big Sky Documentary Film Festival Artistic Vision award, and a Yale Environmental Film Festival Grand Jury Prize.

A march against fracking by the Marcellus Shale Protest group will begin on Allegheny Landing on the North Shore at noon on Wednesday. More information can be found at www.marcellusprotest.org.