When Josh Fox received notice that a natural gas company was interested in drilling a well on his property in exchange for $100,000, he set out to investigate exactly how the towering derricks and squat-looking wells that dot the land in some 34 states affect the lives of those whose backyards have suddenly become a goldmine for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
In 2010, Fox released his first documentary on fracking. The film, called "Gasland," brought to light the widespread water contamination, air pollution and health hazards associated with the practice of injecting pressurized water and chemicals deep underground to fracture rock formations that then release natural gas.
Gas companies have heralded natural gas as the next great energy source, arguing that this resource, located just under people's feet, will help the country transition away from its dependency on foreign oil. But Fox found a much starker reality. [Top 10 Ways to Destroy Earth]
Traveling across the country and speaking to citizens whose lives the natural gas industry has forever changed, Fox uncovered wells that leak fracking chemicals into communities' water supplies; natural gas fields that spew potent methane into the atmosphere; and men, women and children whose health has deteriorated since their backyards became "gaslands."
In a series of particularly memorable scenes, farmers in Wyoming, Texas and Pennsylvania demonstrate the level of contamination by lighting their tap water on fire. In the film, cameras capture Fox's stunned expression as flames engulf a man's kitchen faucet.
Now, Fox has released a sequel, "Gasland Part II," which made its debut earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The documentary premieres tonight (July 8) at 9 p.m. EDT on HBO (check local listings).
LiveScience sat down with Fox to discuss why he made a sequel, what has happened since he stopped filming and why he thinks gas companies have stolen our democracy.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
LiveScience: Does "Gasland Part II" pick up where the first film left off?
Josh Fox: All documentaries or investigations start with a question, and my question of the first film was, "What's actually happening in all these gas areas around the United States?" What I found was widespread water contamination, air pollution, health crises and fragmentation of communities.
I wanted to ask with this next film, "Why wasn't the government responding?" We have multinational oil and gas companies going in and invading peoples' backyards all across the country, causing this huge outcry. Why wasn't our government sticking up for Americans, for peoples' human rights in the face of this onslaught? In the first film, we were watching people light their water on fire. The second film is really about watching the oil and gas industry light our democracy on fire.
LiveScience: Since you finished filming, a lot has happened. Where do you see the movement now?
Fox: I think the movement has refocused on [President] Obama. I think that we're seeing entirely the wrong message, and frankly, entirely the wrong science being embraced. The moment that Barack Obama rolled out all those natural gas talking points in the State of the Union address in 2012, and once we saw the position of the Obama administration change toward natural gas, we've seen [Environmental Protection Agency] investigations dissolve.
I couldn't be happier that the president clearly cares about addressing climate change, the most important thing we're facing as a human race. But he's got entirely the wrong plan. What we've got is the wholesale embrace of fracking domestically, internationally and for export. And this couldn't be further from what we really need to do to address climate change. The president's speech focused on carbon emissions. Now, coal-fire powered plants create a lot of carbon dioxide. However, methane is up to 105 times more potent for warming than carbon dioxide is in the 20-year timeframe. In the short window, methane inhabits the atmosphere for a shorter time period. It disperses quicker, but in that time period, it's a much greater warming agent. So, in the 20-year timeframe, this means that you have one pound of methane equal to 100 pounds of carbon dioxide. That means if there's any more than 1 percent leakage of methane into the atmosphere, when you add the carbon dioxide that results from burning it, plus 1 percent or more methane vented into the atmosphere of total production, you're going to have a situation where you're at a par or worse than coal in a 20-year timeframe. What we're seeing in the field is between 7 and 17 percent of methane is leaking out of the total production and delivery systems. This is a disaster. [6 Politicians Who Got the Science Wrong]
LiveScience: Do you have any indication that anyone in the White House has seen either of the films?
Fox: I've met with the Council on Environmental Equality several times over the last three years in Washington. I don't know much more than that. I know the EPA under Lisa Jackson was using the film as a training film. They were saying, "Here are the issues that we want you to go out and investigate."
We're calling upon President Obama — we know he's met with the natural gas industry. We're asking him, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Valerie Jarrett [senior advisor to the president] to meet with the families in "Gasland 2," who are emblematic of what this drilling campaign is doing to people. We need them to meet with the scientists and engineers in the film, who are telling this message in no uncertain terms, that these wells crack and leak, and their engineering is fatally flawed.
LiveScience: How much did you know about fracking before you started researching and filming "Gasland," and what was the most surprising or shocking thing you found out in this whole process?
Fox: I knew nothing about fracking. I'd never heard about it, and I knew nothing about natural gas. I was campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008 when this whole thing happened. I had given a few months of my time to that effort in Pennsylvania. I wasn't focused on it at all, but it totally changed my life.
We went around, and we were seeing people light their water on fire at taps, lighting their garden hoses on fire with 15-foot flames shooting out of water wells, and people who have been ravished and have fracking chemicals in their lungs because they're surrounded by all these gas wells. But I have to say that still the most shocking moment for me is when I was sitting at home in 2012, watching the State of the Union address, and Barack Obama embraces and promotes this form of drilling. It was really a moment where I thought, what's going on? And then, even more shocking than that, just a few weeks later, watching all those investigations from EPA fold, fall apart, crumble, get attacked, get shelved or disappear. That has been the most shocking thing to me, that in the United States of America, in the 21st century, we can't stand up for the human rights of our own citizens in the face of drilling companies who are coming in and creating real harm. Call me naïve or whatever, but I still find that shocking. [Top 10 Alternative Energy Bets]
LiveScience: Are there any updates on your property or the properties of your neighbors?
Fox: I reveal in the second film that the property directly across from me has been leased, which means that if they were to open up drilling in the Delaware River Basin, they would drill directly across from me, and my property overnight would become worthless. Thankfully, the Delaware River Basin Commission has stopped drilling in the river basin because of immense public pressure.
New York State is very hotly contentious, and if New York decides to open up for drilling, it's very possible that the Delaware River Basin will also reverse its decision. So, the fight in New York State is very much alive, and citizens are battling every day to get their message to Governor Cuomo.
LiveScience: Overall, are you optimistic?
Fox: I have to be. The first movie begins with the lines, "I'm not a pessimist. I've always had a great deal of faith in people, that we wouldn't succumb to frenzy or rage or greed, and figure out a solution without destroying the things that we love." I still think that's true. I think this is a dark hour. I think this is a difficult time. I have to have faith that we're going to succeed in transforming where we get our energy from. The big worry is whether or not we're going to do it before it's too late. And I think nobody knows the answer to that.
What gives me positivity and optimism is working with people on the ground. The best solution to being depressed or feeling isolated in this is to go out and work with people. I know when this first came to my door, I felt isolated. I felt scared, I felt alone, like there was nothing I could do. Since then, I've been surrounded by people in all parts of the globe working on this issue. That's an amazing, positive experience.
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Denise Chow was the assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. Before joining the Live Science team in 2013, she spent two years as a staff writer for Space.com, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University.