Pennsylvanian home owner Josh Fox suspected something funny was going on when he received a letter in September 2006 from a natural gas company offering him over US$100,000 to “explore” his family’s property.

Unlike many of his neighbours, Fox refused to sign on the dotted line. He started asking questions and began making a documentary about natural gas mining despite having no experience in filmmaking.

He knew he was onto something big several months later when he watched one of his neighbours turn on the kitchen tap and light the water that came out of it on fire.

Fox’s award-winning documentary Gasland, which opens in Australia this week, is a frighteningly real riff on the “something’s funny in the water” horror story concept – a film about the production of natural gas and particularly the impact hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) has on people and the environment.

Fracking — or “coal seam exploration,” as it is known here — occurs when a hole is drilled hundreds of metres into the ground and is pumped full of highly toxic chemicals mixed with water. This forces the rock base to crack and releases the natural gas contained within. A large part of the mixture remains underground, which means some of it resurfaces, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Gasland documents the funny things that began happening to the water in Fox’s community. It turned a different colour, became thicker and started to smell funny. Reports surfaced about animals losing their hair, families getting sick and one who could prove their water was so contaminated it had become flammable.

In the US the natural gas industry was granted an exemption from standard environmental controls — namely the 1972 Clean Water Act — by the Bush administration in 2005. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney is a major stakeholder in Halliburton, one of the main players in natural gas exploration.

Fox went cross-country and encountered the same story from state to state. The film’s overarching hypothesis is simple: that the perception of natural gas as a clean energy resource dangerously ignores the process by which it is captured. He arrived in Australia last week, just at a time in which our own debate about fracking is starting to generate headlines.

At a Q&A discussion panel held on the weekend after a screening of the film at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova, Greens MP Adam Bandt was asked whether Australia was immune to the problems associated with some 500,000 natural gas mining sites in America.

His response was simple: “it’s already happening.”

Yesterday The Sun-Herald’s Heath Ashton broke a story about the NSW government granting approval for gas miner Macquarie Energy to begin drilling a test well.

In Queensland three coal seam exploration projects have recently been given a green light. Farmers are witnessing a growing number of gas mines dot their land, inspiring some to stage a “lock the gate” campaign, which is unusual in the sense that farmers and environmentalists are fighting for the same cause.

The Greens believe Queensland will have up to 40,000 coal seam wells by 2030. Unsurprisingly, the natural gas industry in Australia are lobbying hard against the film’s findings.

One of Bandt’s fellow panelists, Dr Shane Huntington from Triple R, arrived at the cinema wielding a wad of documents. He said they were sent to him by representatives of the gas mining industry to “inform” him of the their take on the science prior to the film’s screening.

“I’ve heard two versions of this story in the last 24 hours,” he said.

“One was from a group that has a lot at stake (and) one from a person who has little or nothing personally but a lot at stake for the rest of us. I’m tending towards one, which I’m sure all of you are, but the reality is they (the natural gas industry) are damn good at putting this crap out.”

The natural gas debate arrives in Australia at an interesting time. After admitting to — *gasp* — not having much in common with Bob Katter, Bandt used our current hung parliament as a cause for optimism on energy related legislation.

“One of the good things about the election results and where we’re at now is that no party has total power over what happens in parliament,” he said. “Every piece of legislation needs the support of people working on the cross benches.”

The Greens are pushing for a moratorium on natural gas production and an ongoing public debate.

Generating media interest is something Josh Fox has been remarkably successful in achieving. He has toured with the film since January and has appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, inspired stories from CNN and 60 Minutes and even a fracking-themed episode of CSI.

Hundreds of grass roots organisations have sprouted up to campaign against fracking and natural gas mining. In Australia, the list is growing.

Early indications suggest natural gas debate is generating substantial media exposure, which, according to Bandt, is partly attributed to the government’s current parliamentary structure.

“Before if the two parties agreed on something it wasn’t conflict, therefore it wasn’t a news story, therefore it wasn’t reported,” he said.

“Now we’re in an era where there’s a lot more sunlight being shone on these things and the government can’t presume it will get its way on energy related issues.”

Josh Fox is staying in Australia after the Gasland PR tour concludes. In coming weeks he will visit the Hunter Valley with a view to filming a sequel.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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