Half of Fracking Stories Rely on Hollywood Hit Jobs

The flaming water faucet shown in the anti-natural gas drilling film “Gasland,” has become the first thing many people think of when they hear of gas drilling, or “fracking.” But that claim turned out to be completely wrong. Investigators determined that Colorado water well had been drilled into a pocket of methane and had nothing to do with fracking. Josh Fox’s follow up, “GasLand II” debuted at Tribeca Film Festival and aired on HBO July 8, 2013.

In spite of that inaccuracy and others, Hollywood movies and agenda-driven documentaries that have portrayed natural gas drilling as a major threat have been used in network news reports. Celebrity anti-fracking activists have also been interviewed on the subject. Between Jan. 1, 2010, and April 30, 2013, fully half (18 of 36) of broadcast network news reports discussing fracking have mentioned or cited one of those films, or included a famous opponent of fracking.

There is much more to the gas drilling issue, but the networks have been more focused on the “controversy,” the alleged dangers or the claims of water contamination and earthquakes. By keeping the focus there, ABC, CBS and NBC have often ignored the fact that fracking has been going on for 50 years, and there have been 1.2 million fracked gas wells in the U.S, according to Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon. “Where are the 1.2 million environmental disasters?” McClendon asked in a Wall Street Journal discussion of fracking.

There is another side to this story that the media have downplayed. That story includes the economic revitalization of small towns, booming businesses and startups in the midst of a struggling economy, improved medical facilities, and those who desperately want to lease their property but aren’t being allowed to by regulators.

Rex Catlin, the CEO of Endless Mountains Health Systems, told the Media Research Center he thinks most people in Susquehanna County, Pa., consider the gas companies to be “good neighbors.”

Before seeing the entire process, dairy farmer Charles Clark of Springville, Pa., thought that fracking would devastate the land. He’s since changed his mind, leased his own property for gas pipeline and started a land restoration company to regreen the areas after the drilling is finished. Clark expects to have 10 employees by the end of 2013, for the regreening “hobby” he started in 2012.

Others like Sandra French of Wayne County, Pa., have leased their property, but are in limbo due to government intervention. French “would love it,” if the gas companies could drill on her property to help her afford to keep the land that has been in her family more than 150 years, but the Delaware River Basin Commission has instituted a moratorium on drilling leaving her struggling.

Responding to claims of fracking causing water wells to go bad, French told the MRC even without drilling on her property, three of her water wells over the years have become contaminated as “nature takes its course.”  

Flammable Water is Scary, but Predates Hydraulic Fracturing

The “GasLand” footage of a flaming tap was frightening, but misleading. Yet it appeared in at least seven news stories about fracking, nearly 20 percent of the time.

If tap water has methane in it it can be flammable, but what viewers of Josh Fox’s film and of the network news reports that showed that clip or referenced it may not know is that in some places tap water has been flammable for decades.

When another documentary filmmaker, Phelim McAleer challenged Fox by pointing out that people could light their water on fire before natural gas drilling, Fox admitted to knowing about reports in New York State dating back to 1936 about lighting water on fire. He claimed it was not “relevant.” Viewers might disagree.

In Pennsylvania, flammable water dates back at least to the 18th century. According to the history of Salt Springs State Park, so much methane came to the surface that settlers found a way to “capture the escaping gas” and use it for cooking and lighting.

None of those facts made their way into network stories mentioning “GasLand” either. Neither did the results of the Colorado investigation of the flammable water shown in the movie. As Popular Mechanics wrote in a series on fracking myths, the flaming tap “appears a damning indictment of the gas drilling nearby. But Colorado officials determined the gas wells weren’t to blame; instead, the homeowner’s own water well had been drilled into a naturally occurring pocket of methane.”

Popular Mechanics did note that that methane from shallow deposits can intrude on groundwater, near fracking sites. There have been instances of poorly constructed drilling well casings that led to methane migration, according to State Impact by NPR.

Another complaint, this time from Pennsylvania about contaminated water, was not found to be because of fracking. On April 29, 2013, State Impact by NPR reported that Pennsylvania’s Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) found, after a 16-month investigation, that gas drilling did not lead to the contamination of water wells in Franklin Township. Colleen Connolly of the DEP said isotopic testing “showed the methane ‘fingerprint’ did not match the methane extracted from WPX Energy gas wells.”

Yet the TV news shows helped this frightening image of flaming tap water become nearly synonymous with fracking by showing the clip in at least seven news stories in recent years (another story also showed a flaming tap, but not the one from “GasLand”), including the Jan. 11, 2013, “Today” show.

Jeff Rossen, NBC’s national investigative correspondent, began a scary report that morning saying “It is quite a sight. I mean, could you imagine turning on the faucet in your kitchen, in your bathroom and the water suddenly ignites, in some cases creating a fireball right in your house?”

Rossen’s report was about a Cleveland family dealing with the “nightmare” scenario of flammable water, which he connected to gas drilling, long before he admitted near the end of the report that “the cause of their flaming water is still unclear” and an investigation is going on. Rossen’s report also mentioned the “anti-drilling documentary ‘GasLand,’” showing that flaming tap water without explanation that it had nothing to do with fracking. He also said critics want tougher laws to “protect homeowners.”

The left likes to say that fracking is unregulated (or that it has too little regulation), but local and state regulations abound. According to George Stark, Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation’s director of external affairs, it takes about 3 years and 40 permits before they can do anything on a drilling site.

Josh Fox’s follow up film, “GasLand Part II” debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 21, 2013, with little media fanfare.  In fact, some of the only stories about the film came through alternative outlets like Breitbart.com which reported that farmers who had purchased tickets to see the film were denied admission and later a reporter had her press credentials ripped from her neck and was later arrested. But the follow up film may get more buzz when it premieres on HBO July 8, 2013.

The industry has a seven-page document in which they argue there were many errors and misleading statements in Fox’s first film, some of which even The New York Times has conceded. The Times also reported in January 2013, that a leaked analysis by the New York State Health Department found that “hydrofracking could be conducted safely in New York.”

Hollywood Fears and Celeb Fracktivists Get 50 Percent of Attention

The network news media consider hydraulic fracturing for oil and/or natural gas to be very “controversial,” even though fracturing has been going on since 1947 and there were 514,637 producing gas wells in 2011, according to the EIA. The number of fracked oil and gas wells in U.S. history is well over 1 million.

Still, ABC, CBS and NBC news have focused a lot of their attention on Hollywood and celebrity criticism of the practice that has seen a resurgence thanks to horizontal drilling.

In addition to “GasLand,” an independent anti-fracking movie called “Split Estate” and Matt Damon’s movie “Promised Land” have been talked about on broadcast network news programming since Jan. 1, 2010. “Split Estate” is so obscure that BoxOfficeMojo, a website that tracks box office sales and rankings, doesn’t list it.

Other celebrities like Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon have also been interviewed about their anti-fracking campaign, without rebuttal from the other side. A full 50 percent of networks news stories (18 of 36) in that time that talked about fracking mention one of those movies, or included a celebrity or artist on the subject. In contrast, an independent film called “Fracknation” that highlighted local support for “fracking” and challenged some of the claims made in Fox’s film called was not even mentioned once those news reports.

Singer Yoko Ono and her son Sean Lennon, who started the protest group “Artists Against Fracking,” appeared on CBS’s “This Morning” Aug. 29, 2012, without opposition for 5 minutes 20 seconds. The two of them made a number of disparaging and unsupportable claims like, “They’re going to make it dirty water,” “it’s not clean at all,” “they can’t protect the aquifers,” and “you cannot do it safely.” Although the interview was about fracking, King did veer into other topics with them before the interview concluded.

Neither cited any evidence to bolster their attacks on fracking and CBS failed to include anyone to rebut the claims. Even co-anchor Gayle King admitted the issue was “to be continued” “because the other side isn’t here.”  Although CBS has mentioned fracking in stories since that interview, they have not given any proponents of fracking a lengthy segment to provide the “other side.”

But according to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, “There is no evidence that the controversial ‘fracking’ technique used to extract natural gas trapped in rocks deep beneath the ground pollutes drinking water” the UK Daily Mail reported on Feb. 15, 2012. “They concluded that there is no evidence that fracking directly contaminates groundwater and any pollution is more likely to be due to above-ground spills of water produced by the drilling process.”

In May 2011, The New York Times had to run a correction saying there were not “numerous” cases of water pollution from fracking, “there are few documented cases” the paper restated.

Susan Brantley, a geosciences professor at Penn State, wrote a piece for The New York Times called “The Facts on Fracking.” In it she wrote, “In one study of 200 private water wells in the fracking regions of Pennsylvania, water quality was the same before and soon after drilling in all wells except one. The only surprise from that study was that many of the wells failed drinking water regulations before drilling started. But trucking and storage accidents have spilled fracking fluids and brines, leading to contamination of water and soils that had to be cleaned up.”

Anti-fracking Movies Tank at Box Office, Even After Media Praise

Box office propaganda isn’t always popular, as the makers of “Promised Land” and “Split Estate” have found. Even network promotion of Matt Damon’s movie didn’t result in a box office smash.

“Promised Land” did poorly at the box office and has made just over $7.5 million domestically, even after the networks promoted it extensively. Actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski made separate appearances on NBC’s “Today” show, to talk about the movie. Although neither actor directly attacked fracking in the interviews, the movie was promoted by the appearances.  

An E! correspondent on “Today” called the movie “intellectual,” and at another time co-host Matt Lauer called it “fantastic.” While the network claimed the movie “doesn’t get on a soap box,” and Damon himself said he was just trying to start a conversation about the subject, the movie had a clear anti-fracking bent and made the gas company the real villain that will find a way to take advantage of small-town people.

In the film, a wise and amiable character named Frank Yates tells Damon’s character, Steve Butler, “You came here offering us money trying to help us. All we had to do is scorch the earth beneath our feet.”

The movie ranked 10th its opening weekend, behind “The Guilt Trip,” according to BoxOfficeMojo.

“Split Estate” was also mentioned in a couple of network stories. The film aired on Planet Green in 2009 and in 2010, but isn’t listed on BoxOfficeMojo and has a nearly blank Internet Movie Database page. The film’s website tells people to take action by supporting federal regulation of fracking.

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Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour is the Assistant Managing Editor for the MRC's Business and Media Institute.