It's now been precisely three years since I penned a piece for Foolish investors about "Gasland", a documentary flick about hydraulic fracturing that was produced and directed by a then rookie Pennsylvania filmmaker named Josh Fox.
The film was unleashed just as BP's Macondo well was fouling the Gulf of Mexico with millions of gallons of gushing oil, and so the world was sensitized to the real or imagined ravages of hydrocarbon production. Partially as a result, "Gasland" ultimately packed something of a wallop in intensifying criticism of fracking as a potential fouler of water tables, not to mention the air.
A follow-up fracking film
Last Monday evening, HBO hosted "Gasland Part II", Fox's second cinematic iteration of the anti-fracking theme. To the extent possible, I'll avoid describing my conclusions about the latest film. I've been in and around the conventional energy industry for too long for my take on the movie not to be somewhat biased. My spouse asked, however, as we watched the second part together, "Is this all true?" She then immediately responded to her own query: "It can't be all wrong."
About 24 hours later, after having digested the latest film, she noted that its contents had seemed considerably "heavier" than Fox's prior effort, which copped an award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. I suspect her conclusion presages those of lots of viewers who will see "Gasland Part II" during the coming months.
As BP's tragedy has reinforced for us, oil and gas operations can lead to spills, environmental damage, and even death. About a year after Fox's first film was released, Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) experienced a spill in Bradford County, Pa. That's in the Marcellus Shale, where both films are centered and where Chesapeake has a major presence.
Far and wide
Fox's latest version ranges somewhat more widely than its predecessor. Oh sure, there's plenty of attention to environmental damage attributable to Cabot Oil & Gas' (NYSE: COG ) fracking operations in Dimock, Pa., the epicenter of the first film. But the follow-up also spends considerable time in Pavillion, Wyo., where the Environmental Protection Agency has contended that hydraulic fracturing by Encana (NYSE: ECA ) has sullied the local aquifer. Only lately has the EPA turned over a second investigation into the matter to Wyoming state authorities.
Other stops include the Barnett Shale, near Fort Worth. There, Fox revisits Dish, Texas, a Denton County town whose name derives from the satellite company having promised free service in exchange for the adoption of the appellation. Fox spends time with Dish's mayor, who's had to relocate due to his sons' frequent nosebleeds, which he attributes to fracking.
Also during Fox's revisit to the Barnett, Range Resources (NYSE: RRC ) suffers a degree of ignominy for having drilled beneath a couple's 8,000-square-foot "dream house". As in a similar display in the first version, the owner is able to demonstrate flames shooting from his lighted garden hose.
The second "Gasland" also touches down briefly in Queensland, Australia, where anti-fracking protests have begun. It then moves to a description of "demonstrations across Europe". Named as specific sites are the U.K., Bulgaria, Romania, France, and Canada. Little did we know that our neighbors to the north had hightailed it across the pond. Poland, where Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) has undertaken an ambitious shale drilling program is essentially unmentioned.
Over time, the second "Gasland" is likely to have a greater effect than its predecessor in stirring up anti-fracking sentiment. Beyond that it'll easily top "Promised Land", Matt Damon's late 2012 Hollywood movie that almost certainly was intended to have the same effect, but fizzled with nary of whimper of publicity or attendant consternation.
The EPA is involved in a giant study of fracking's effects on the environment to be released in 2014. Should Fox's second film set off a crescendo of ire, which is possible, and should it be followed by a report by the agency that expresses difficulties with fracking's safety, companies attempting to ply their trade in the Marcellus, the Eagle Ford, the Bakken, or the Haynesville might well encounter increased regulatory roadblocks to their efforts. We can only wait and watch.