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University of Texas scientist blasts Gasland as propaganda unsupported by facts

Josh Fox
Josh Fox
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A University of Texas geoscientist has claimed that a documentary filmmaker, who many point to as having catalyzed the anti-fracking environmental movement, did so by using propaganda and ignoring facts. In the July 2014 issue of EM: The Magazine for Environmental Managers, Dr. Ian J. Duncan charged that Josh Fox, who made the documentary Gasland, not only ignored evidence that did not support the claims in the film, but also said that the factual errors were irrelevant.

Dr. Ian J. Duncan charged that Gasland is highly skilled propagada
University of Texas, Bureau of Economic Geology

As many people know, hydraulic fracturing of underground gas formations has generated a firestorm of controversy about its safety and effects on the environment. A major contributor to the public's interest in "fracking" has been Josh Fox's Oscar nominated documentary Gasland. That film, and its sequel Gasland Part II, portrayed fracking as a dangerous and poorly regulated technique that results in contaminated drinking water, excessive methane emissions due to leaks, and household water taps that can be set on fire due to gas leaking from nearby fracked wells.

As the center of oil and gas production in California, residents of Bakersfield and Kern County have a keen interest in fracking efforts. An expansion of fracking in California has been discussed in those areas a great deal the last few years.

In the EM article, Dr. Duncan, who leads the Earth Systems and Environment group at UT's Bureau of Economic Geology, pointed out numerous claims made by those who oppose fracking that are unsubstantiated by facts. For example, many of Gasland's compelling images are of homeowners turning on their water faucets and lighting them on fire, which occurs because the water is contaminated with methane. According to Duncan, Gasland portrays the methane as coming from nearby gas wells. However, Duncan asserts that it has been well documented that water wells in the areas shown have been contaminated with methane for as long as they have existed as a "pre-existing, natural phenomenon." He wrote that this has been documented in scientific studies, work done by the U.S. Geologic Survey, and other publications.

In another example, Duncan described a scene in Gasland in which Fox asks a homeowner if she realized her water well was contaminated with a man made chemical, trichloromethane, which was listed in a lab report from the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). The implication was that the chemical had to have come from fracking chemicals used in nearby gas wells. However, Duncan said that the trichloromethane, in fact, was added to the water samples by the laboratory as an internal quality control check. Adding known amounts of marker chemicals is routinely done in order to ensure that analytical equipment is operating properly.

Duncan also claimed in his article that gas leakage rates from gas wells are not as high as have been reported. He cited recent studies that have shown significantly lower rates of leakage.

As a result of all of these factual errors and Duncan's claims that Fox chose to ignore them, Duncan said that Gasland should be viewed not as if it was based on science nor even as a documentary. Instead, he said, it should be considered a "highly skilled piece of propaganda."

Notwithstanding his claims, Duncan did admit in the EM article that there are risks to fracking. He noted that his review of the scientific literature has not revealed what he refers to as compelling evidence that shale gas development has resulted in drinking water contamination. However, he also said that he has found several examples associated with tight gas sand wells where limited contamination has occurred. He attributed these cases to improper well design or casing problems related to cement.

EM is a monthly publication of The Air & Waste Management Association (AWMA). With more than 5,000 members, 34 Sections, and 100 Chapters worldwide, AWMA asserts that it is the leading environmental association for environmental professionals in the world. In addition to EM, AWMA publishes the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association (JA&WMA), which since 1951 has been one of the oldest continuously published, peer-reviewed, technical environmental journals in the world.

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