Many people were angered when HBO aired “Gasland,” a purported documentary produced by Josh Fox about shale gas development and its impacts on communities and the environment. The backlash within the oil and gas industry was severe, and the reaction among landowners in the Marcellus shale was a combination of outrage and more than a little fear.

Hoping to rebut the movie’s allegations, a production company approached the Joint Landowner Coalition, a group of about 70,000 landowners in New York and Pennsylvania, and asked for a volunteer to help it produce a movie to correct some of Fox’s misrepresentations. The coalition suggested Shelly DePue.

image- DePue

DePue listened as experts debunked the claims put forth in ‘Gasland.’ (Images courtesy of Energy In Depth)

DePue and her husband own a dairy farm in Susquehanna County, Pa., and already have one gas well drilled on their property. They had seen “Gasland,” and while they were dismayed by its fear-mongering approach, they also were concerned about some of the allegations, particularly regarding hydraulic fracturing.

“We had seen the movie, and we were like, ‘Really?’” said DePue. “We knew about the flaming faucet – that sort of thing happens around here too. So we agreed to do this.”

“This” was traveling around the country, film crew at hand, interviewing experts on both sides of the debate lined up by the production company to get to the bottom of the fracturing issue and to produce a film called “Truthland.” DePue said scheduling took a long time, but she drove all over Pennsylvania as well making trips to Louisiana, Texas, and Colorado to talk to people about various aspects of shale drilling and completions.

“I was up front with them,” she said. “I’m not any big important person. I just wanted to know, after watching the movie, how much of it was true.”

The experts

DePue and Scott talking

Scott Roberts, former deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, describes how wells are cased and cemented. Later the cased well was exposed to explosives and suffered no damage.

The movie depicts DePue and her family developing a list of questions based on “Gasland.” These included the chemicals included in frac fluid, the safety of the water for drinking and bathing, the legitimacy of Fox’s claim that oil companies were routinely ignoring environmental regulations, and the potential impact on crops and livestock. They also wanted to know if the well construction was strong enough to keep fluids from migrating into surrounding formations.

DePue’s journey began with a visit to John Hanger, the former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PDEP). DePue said Hanger also was in “Gasland” and was eager to set the record straight.

Hanger told her that “Gasland” attempts to simplify the concept of gas drilling, but it’s actually a very complex procedure and needs to be treated and regulated like an industrial process. “You can’t do an industrial process and have zero effect on the environment,” he said.

Joseph Martin, a professor at Drexel University in Pennsylvania, told DePue the methane that is being detected in the water supply lies within 30 m (100 ft) of the surface. He also pointed out the obvious – the oil companies do not want the methane leaving the well because they sell it and make profit. And he said that the industry is under intense scrutiny and tight regulations.

Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University, explained the concept of hydraulic fracturing and told her that the friction reducers used in frac fluid are similar to dish detergent. Several million wells have been fraced over the years, he said, and the process takes place deep enough in the earth that the groundwater and aquifers are not affected.

Gary Hanson, the director of the Red River Watershed Management Institute in Caddo Parish, La., had choice words for Fox. “The guy doesn’t understand the industry,” he told DePue. “He tells a story. I have a difficult time going through the whole movie.” DePue was surprised to find that even people on the “green” side of the issue gave her rational responses. “Terry Engelder’s passion is the Marcellus shale,” she said. “But what about the PDEP? What about the Environmental Protection Agency? What about the Environmental Defense Fund? To be fair, you have to talk to both sides.

I think those people went out on a limb because I’m sure their colleagues wouldn’t agree with some of what they said. But they were honest. That’s all we asked.”

DePue talked to Jim Marston at the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, Texas. She admitted to being nervous about what he might say. But Marston promoted natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to renewables, adding that it needs to be produced in a way that minimizes the footprint and that some companies are doing better than others. He told her that he has issues with Fox’s conclusion that hydraulic fracturing is to blame for problems in shale fields. “It’s actually just poor well construction,” he said.

. Michael Webber, the associate director at the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas, explained that even though fracturing requires a considerable amount of water, it actually uses less water per unit than solar or nuclear energy. He also said natural gas is good for the country’s national security, economy, and environment.

DePue’s final interview was with Scott Roberts, former deputy secretary of the PDEP. Roberts set up an experiment to showcase just how well these wells are constructed. His team put high-powered explosives into a well bore and set them off. The casing was unaffected by the blast.

Setting the record straight

Fox did not return calls requesting him to be interviewed by DePue, so his opinion of the film is unknown. DePue has no problem sharing her opinion of his film. But when asked what she would say if she had the chance to talk to him, she hesitated.

“I guess I would say, ‘Do you really believe al of this?’” she said. “It just blows my mind that somebody could go about this to instill fear. He thinks we’re destroying the world, but this world is going to be here until God says it’s not. That’s all there is to it.

“A little bit of knowledge is so dangerous,” she added. “He provided half-truths. He knows the truth but doesn’t bother telling it? Shame on him. I think that’s what I would say to him. ‘You knew the truth, but you didn’t bother telling it. Why not?’”