Film Review: Gasland

Ready to be outraged? The devastation chronicled in Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland hits very close to home. Offered almost $100,000 dollars for drilling rights to his family’s land in northeast Pennsylvania (which sits atop the vast natural gas deposits of the Marcellus Shale), Fox sets off on a mission to discover how the extraction of natural gas affects local water supplies and residents’ health. The news isn’t good.

The focus of the film is hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a method of extraction that involves the injection of millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into deep wells. The pressure fractures the shale, allowing the gas to flow more freely. In 2005, the Bush/Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act—companies are not even required to disclose which chemicals they are using.

Though natural gas is often touted as a “clean” alternative, Gasland makes it clear that the costs—groundwater contamination, air pollution, health issues, explosions—are prohibitively high. The stories of the desperate people Fox meets and the shots of gorgeous landscapes marred by well after well are nothing short of heartbreaking. Fortunately, the film is brisk, thoughtful and occasionally droll, an approach that eases the burden of the subject a bit. Plus, there’s a banjo.

Some viewers might take issue with the way Fox injects himself into the action—like a younger, more svelte Michael Moore in cooler glasses—but others will be relieved to have a tour guide/surrogate on this emotionally exhausting journey. He earns special props for his reaction as he lights a Colorado family’s tap water on fire; it’s a pitch perfect blend of boyish glee and horror.

With the Marcellus Shale (and subsequently, the Delaware River watershed) under increasing threats from the energy industry, this film is a well-timed call to arms. You’ll never think of natural gas the same way again. —Lee Stabert

Running on HBO through 2012; for information, visit