Oscar's Attention Irks Gas Industry

Wall Street Journal
26 February 2011
By Ben Casselman

"Gasland," a low-budget documentary about alleged perils of natural-gas drilling, is up for an Oscar on Sunday, much to the chagrin of energy executives.

In fact, the natural-gas industry is so infuriated by the film that officials mounted an unsuccessful effort earlier this month to have it barred from the Academy Awards.

Watch a clip from the documentary, 'Gasland,' about the effect of natural gas drilling on rural landowners. The Oscar nominated HBO film can currently be seen on HBO.

Their objections drew more attention to the film—and to what some in the natural-gas business think is a worsening image problem for the industry.

Much of the controversy has centered on a process called hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking," in which water and chemicals are injected into the ground to break open gas-bearing rocks. Environmental groups say the process can contaminate drinking-water supplies, a charge the industry denies.

The industry says it has drilled tens of thousands of wells with only a handful of minor incidents of contamination, none of which were conclusively tied to the fracturing process.

Josh Fox speaks during a recent news conference on Capitol Hill.

Natural-gas drilling "must absolutely be done safely," said Lee Fuller, executive director of the industry coalition Energy in Depth, in a statement, adding that "state governments have ably and effectively regulated hydraulic fracturing."

The industry also says the film is unfair and inaccurate. It points out that state regulators have found that some examples of contamination cited by the film weren't caused by drilling.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state's regulatory agency, said in a recent statement that tests provided "evidence that oil and gas activity did not contaminate" two of the water wells discussed in the film, but the regulator found drilling-related contamination in a third well featured in "Gasland."

"You don't want to get drowned out," said Tom Price, senior vice president of government relations for Chesapeake Energy Corp., a big gas producer. "We need to be able to respond objectively and accurately."

Director Josh Fox said he stands by his film.

Accustomed to operating in areas like Texas and Oklahoma with long histories of oil and gas production, drillers have in recent years moved into new regions, like Pennsylvania and Ohio, where many residents might never have seen a drilling rig. The drilling boom there has brought jobs and revenue, but also has sparked fears of water contamination and air pollution.

Some drilling supporters say "Gasland" underscores the industry's failure to address the public's concerns over fracturing.

The industry was "told over and over again by friends of theirs that this was really going to pick up steam," said Tim Wirth, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, who has been both a major supporter of the industry and a vocal critic of its public-relations strategy.

—Kris Maher contributed to this article.

Write to Ben Casselman at ben.casselman@wsj.com