Feature

The undercover fox

G Magazine

Upon uncovering the devastating impacts of mining for natural gas while researching his new documentary 'GasLand', Josh Fox is a man on an ongoing mission.

Fox

“I want to talk about these things from a very personal place and this is my personal life now,” says Fox.

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Josh Fox is a man of many talents: founder and Artistic director of International Wow film and theatre company, playwright, film-maker and banjo-playing musician among other things. Environmental detective and documentary provocateur were roles, however, he had not yet taken on, nor expected to.

That was until he received a letter from a natural gas company, offering a substantial sum of money to lease the land and river bank which surrounds his parents’ Milanville, Pennsylvania home, for natural gas extraction in an area which has been labelled “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas”.

“I looked at the letter and remember thinking that ‘This is weird’,” says Fox. “Immediately it was followed by a whole bunch of other letters that said, ‘Don’t lease now. You can make more money if you all lease together’. And that is when I got concerned, because the letter was not only for me. It was the whole neighbourhood and then the whole state. I didn’t know how deep it would go, or how far it would take me.”

At this stage Fox was knee-deep in high-profile work projects. His largest theatrical production to date, Surrender, had been nominated for a prestigious Drama Desk award, and his debut film, Memorial Day, had just premiered.

Yet unbeknown to Fox, an 18-month road trip across America’s heartland, exposing the disastrous environmental consequences of the largest natural gas boom in history, lay ahead as his next adventure.

The resulting documentary, GasLand, would end up taking Fox all over the world as he documented the impacts of natural gas extraction using hydraulic fraction. In this process, also known as ‘fracking’, tonnes of water and sand mixed with numerous chemical accelerants are poured into a wellborn drilled into the earth, causing a mini-earthquake and releasing gas.

It was the little publicised aftermath of heavily polluted river streams, poisoned crops and livestock, and even human illness, however, that would strike fear and sadness into Fox’s heart.

“The people at the gas industry were saying that it’s all puppy dogs and rainbows, and everyone will make a lot of money,” says Fox. “Then my neighbours, who I really trust, and some of whom are very intelligent and have bioengineering degrees from Columbia University, said that this process looks like a massive industrial project on our beloved home.”

Fox tore up the natural gas company permission to lease, packed his camera, and hit the road for answers. “I love the American West. I love road trips. I’m a hobo, or whatever you want to call it, at heart. So I was like, if this is gonna take me out West, if this is gonna be an investigation, then I am the man to do this job.”

Following the golden rule of where there is smoke there is fire (literally in this case), Fox travelled as far as
Utah, Texas, and Wyoming. But first he checked in on neighbouring Dimock, Pennsylvania, where natural gas drilling was already taking place, an experience Fox called “mind-blowing”.

There he witnessed firsthand the devastating results that natural gas extraction has brought upon the community, where even tap water proved to be deadly. One resident after another set their contaminated drinking water alight in front of him, revealing how the toxic chemicals and gas from fracking had seeped into the ground water system.

In town after town, Fox met people from different ideological and social backgrounds, yet they all told the same shocking tale. But rather than remaining a story solely about loss and injustice, GasLand shines as an example of adversity bringing out the best in humanity.

Fox says of the sense of connection he and his interviewees shared: “There is that kind of kinship, there is...evidence that we are in the same boat.” Evidence is something GasLand does not lack. The doco presents a large amount of technical information about the mining process in digestible gulps, coupled with Fox’s poetic lyricism on the damage which this supposedly ‘green’ energy boom has wrought upon his country.

“There was a lot of scientific study, and we had advisors to help us with all of that,” he says. “We’re making sure that all of our data was up-to-date. There were people researching this from the perspective of finding out their problems as we were coming to their town. It’s not like we hired a specific researcher for the film. We pulled from the field of people who were working on the science and came to them as experts.”

Those same experts are now sorely needed in Australia, where, at the time of writing, fracking is already underway in Queensland and New South Wales, despite oppostion from farmers’ and environmental groups.

Although Federal Minister for the Environment Tony Burke has stressed that the Commonwealth Government is taking every precaution to protect the environment from pollution and contamination, that comes as little comfort to Fox, who is all too familiar with the damaging potential of the mining.

“Given the little bit that I know, the evidence that I have seen, the pleas of the people...I can’t agree with that.”

Predictably, battle lines have been drawn in the political field with right and left disputing the environmental impact of natural gas extraction. For Fox, politics is not what GasLand is preaching.

“I made this film so that it is non-partisan,” he says. “People in this film are on the side of the Republican party, people in this film are on the side of the Democrat party...That is where I land. I want to talk about these things from a very personal place and this is my personal life now.”

“But at the same time there are geopolitical forces at work here and the innovations of technology that will carry the planet forward are being repressed by the fossil fuel industry... I think there is more work to be done on the big picture and I will do it.”