How flaming tap water ignited the fracking controversy: Gasland vs. FrackNation

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Environmentalists have valid concerns about the petroleum industry. Oil wells and pipelines deface the natural environment. Petroleum is toxic and produces air pollution when burned. Oil spills are difficult to clean up, and disposing of waste oil presents a variety of problems. Therefore, the unexpected expansion of oil reserves made possible by improved drilling technologies is very bad news for some environmentalists.

On the other hand, where would the world be without petroleum? Would trains and ships still be powered by coal? Would trucks and automobiles exist? What would be the status of the many pharmaceuticals, plastics, dyes, fertilizers, building materials, detergents and the many other products derived from petroleum? While the production, transport and use of petroleum is not trouble free, governments have addressed most of the problems with regulatory protocols, the violations of which can bring heavy fines.

This brings us to a pair of dueling video documentaries about the two engineering technologies most responsible for the current petroleum glut. The first technology is horizontal drilling, an engineering feat that enables a steel drill pipe in a vertical well to be gradually curved until it is boring parallel with the surface. This enables the pipe to be drilled thousands of feet through a layer of oil- and gas-bearing shale. The second technology is hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” a process in which water and sand is injected at very high pressure through the pipe into the surrounding strata. The grains of sand hold open the cracks that are created by the water, and this allows oil and gas locked in the rock to enter the drill pipe and be brought to the surface.

While horizontal drilling and fracking have been around for decades, their use has greatly expanded in recent years. The result has been a boom in U.S. oil and gas production that has contributed to the sharp decline in the global price of oil.

Fracking has created thousands of jobs, reduced the price of gasoline and enriched many landowners who have leased their mineral rights to oil and gas production companies. But there are negative sides to fracking. In the Eagleford region of South Texas, the heavy trucks that provide gravel for roads and base for drilling rigs have been involved in many accidents and caused major damage to paved roads. Some people living near active wells have complained about noise, dust and health effects they attribute to poor air quality. These concerns are not unique to fracking, for they have long been associated with oil and gas drilling and pumping.

The clash over the beneficial and negative sides of fracking has created an epic environmental controversy. On one hand is a technology that has essentially made the US energy independent while greatly reducing the price of fuel, at least for the time being. On the other side are property owners and environmental organizations that oppose the disruption and possible health hazards associated with fracking.

The debate over fracking has led to many articles, scientific papers and video documentaries. The first major documentary was created by Josh Fox, a film maker who strongly opposes fracking. In 2010 Fox released his award winning documentary “Gasland,” a film that depicts the impact of fracking on the health of people who believe their water wells have been contaminated with natural gas from nearby fracking operations. The film's most dramatic scene occurs when Ft. Lupton, Colorado, resident Mike Markham holds a lighter next to water emerging from a faucet. After several seconds, Markham jumps back as a yard-wide ball of fire explodes from the sink.

This dramatic demonstration seemed to make the case for contamination of water wells with natural gas tapped by nearby fracked wells. That was certainly my reaction. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature of 2011. While the film did not receive the award, it earned several others, including an Emmy, Environmental Media Award, Yale Environmental Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize.

There's much more to this story, however, as Phelim McAleer points out in “FrackNation,” a slickly produced rebuttal to “Gasland.” McAleer's film is professionally shot and edited, and there is none of the distracting jerkiness of the many hand-held camera scenes throughout “Gasland.” Like Fox, McAleer interviewed individuals and families in fracking areas, which remained scenic, at least from the highway perspectives that were shown. Instead of the criticism from locals that Fox reported, McAleer's subjects were uncritical of fracking and some were smiling recipients of royalties from gas companies. The only interviewees who were unhappy resided in areas where fracking operations had been ended by government actions.

Both “Gasland” and “FrackNation” have received many reviews, some in major publications like The New York Times and USA Today. Environmentalists tend to praise “Gasland,” while conservatives laud “FrackNation. Petroleum-connected organizations have also chimed in. For example, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) sharply criticized “Gasland” in Gasland Debunked, a report citing what it claimed were some 17 factual errors in the documentary. Josh Fox provided detailed responses to the criticisms in Gasland Debunked in Affirming Gasland. Hundreds of online reviews, reports and scientific papers cover every imaginable attribute and criticism of fracking, yet the controversy over fracking ignited by “Gasland” only grows louder. The opposing sides are often strident in expressing their views, and some of the online comments about both films are spiked with strings of profanity and name calling.

Rather than rehash what has been reviewed so thoroughly online, on television and in the print media, this review will concentrate on the flaming water faucet in Colorado and explore how that dramatic scene, which has become an icon of the anti-fracking movement, symbolizes the most significant problem with “Gasland” and how “FrackNation” was right to expose it.

The flaming faucet scene in “Gasland” is what attracted the attention of Irish documentary maker Phelim McAleer. During a question-and-answer session at a 2011 screening of the film in Chicago, this exchange took place between McAleer and Josh Fox:

McAleer: There's a [flaming water] report from 1976 . . .
Fox: Well, I don't care about the report from 1976. There were reports from 1936 that people say they can light their water on fire in New York State.
McAleer: I'm curious why you didn't include relevant reports from 1976 or from 1936 in the documentary? Most people watching your film would think that lighting your water started with fracking. You have said yourself people lit their water long before fracking started. Isn't that correct?
Fox: Yes, but it's not relevant.

This and other curious responses by Fox to the most dramatic scene in “Gasland” motivated McAleer to post a video of their exchange on YouTube. Fox quickly claimed copyright infringement, and YouTube took it down. The same thing happened when McAleer posted the exchange on Vimeo. (YouTube later reversed its decision, and the exchange can be seen in an excerpt from “FrackNation” on YouTube.)

McAleer decided that the best response to “Gasland” and Josh Fox was a rebuttal documentary. In an effort to be neutral, he sought support from the public by posting his plan for "FrackNation" on Kickstarter, an online fund raising site. The campaign was begun on February 6, 2012, and by April 6 the proposed film had received $212,265 from 3,305 backers in 26 countries.

While FrackNation covers the background and interviews various fracking supporters who reside in oil and gas country, an underlying theme is the flaming water made famous by Fox in “Gasland.” Fox's documentary was released in January 2010, and it did not mention that on May 23, 2008, the same Mike Markham who ignited a fireball from a faucet in his home in Colorado, filed a formal complaint about methane in his drinking water with the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission (COGCC). Water samples from Markham's well were tested by Empact Analytical Systems and Evergreen Analytical Laboratory. On September 30, 2008, more than a year prior to the release of “Gasland,” Markham's complaint was resolved by the COGCC with the finding that his flammable water did indeed contain methane. However:

Dissolved methane in well water appears to be biogenic [natural] in origin. Tests were positive for iron related bacteria and sulfate reducing bacteria. There are no indications of oil & gas related impacts to well water."

Does the finding of natural methane in Markham's well water contradict Josh Fox's contention that the fracking he so opposes was responsible for the most memorable moment in his film? After the flaming faucet scene was criticized in Gasland Debunked, Fox asked Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University: "Can drilling and/or hydraulic fracturing liberate biogenic natural gas into a fresh water aquifer?"

In Affirming Gasland, Prof. Ingraffea replied: "Yes, definitely. The drilling process itself can induce migration of biogenic gas by disturbance of previously blocked migration paths through joint sets or faults, or by puncturing pressurized biogenic gas pockets and allowing migration through an as-yet un-cemented annulus, or th[r]ough a faulty cement job.”

We are not told if Prof. Ingraffea was informed that methane was present in wells in the Ft. Lupton area long before fracking was begun. Nor was this fact disclosed in “Gasland.” Instead, viewers (including me) were left with the distinct impression that natural gas from fracking caused a water faucet to become a flame thrower.

I decided to take a closer look at the matter and soon found the following from a report by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources that included critical information about Markham's well that was not presented in “Gasland”:

Indeed, the water well completion report for Mr. Markham's well shows that it penetrated at least four different coal beds. The occurrence of methane in the coals of the Laramie Formation has been well documented in numerous publications by the Colorado Geological Survey, the United States Geological Survey, and the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists dating back more than 30 years. For example, a 1976 publication by the Colorado Division of Water Resources states that the aquifer contains “troublesome amounts of . . . methane.”

Fox does not disclose these details in “Gasland.” Nor does he inform us if Prof. Ingraffea was advised about this for his response in Gasland Affirmed.

There's still more pre-fracking background to Markham's flaming faucet, for a 1983 meeting abstract in the American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin states: “Methane-rich gas commonly occurs in ground water in the Denver basin, southern Weld County, Colorado. The gas generally is in solution in the ground water of the aquifer. However, exsolution resulting from reduction to hydrostatic pressure during water production may create free gas, which can accumulate in wells and buildings and pose an explosion and fire hazard.” [Bolding added.]

This abstract also states that the maximum aquifer depth is 500 feet, while the natural gas is found at “depths of 7,500 to 8,500 feet.” While the sandstone underlying the aquifer is described as “low-permeability,” the report concludes: “Occasionally, gases from water wells are almost identical in both chemical and isotopic composition to gases produced from the underlying Wattenberg [gas] field in the immediate area. These gases are also interpreted to be of thermogenic origin and probably migrated from deeper reservoirs.”

Thus, many years before fracking began in the Ft. Lupton area, biogenic methane and possibly some thermogenic methane was seeping into water wells and buildings, where it posed “an explosion and fire hazard.” This was well known in the Ft. Lupton area, but Fox provided none of this information in his film because, as he told McAleer, it was “not relevant.”

What is relevant is that Josh Fox knowingly misled viewers like me by blaming fracking for what has become Markham's iconic flaming water faucet. Phelim McAleer deserves credit for challenging Fox face-to-face and then setting the record straight in “FrackNation.”

The question for Josh Fox is why he devoted so much attention to a spectacular flaming faucet created by naturally occurring methane when he could have devoted the time to real examples of contaminated water caused by fracking that have occurred elsewhere. My conclusion is that this lapse raises questions about the accuracy of other matters covered in Fox's film. You can read both praise and criticism of both “Gasland” and “FrackNation” in many online reviews and draw your own conclusions.
The history of flaming water might also be of interest. For example, there's the famous burning water well of Colfax, Louisiana, the location of which is marked with an historical marker bearing this text:

Visitors to this spot were once greeted with a curious sight, a burning well. In 1889 a driller named L. B. Hart completed an artesian well at 1,103 feet. The water was salty, and it bubbled with gas. Hart struck a match near the flow, and promptly got his beard singed when the bubbles ignited. During its lifetime, the well ebbed or flowed in response to the levels of the nearby Red River. With the advent of each new eruption someone would light up the unusual landmark. Thousands of tourists remembered Colfax by the image of its famous burning well. Ripley once featured it in his "Believe It or Not" as a well that spewed both fire and water....”

Flaming water goes back much farther in the US. A 1937 historical marker in Bristol, New York, reads:
“Burning Springs – 1/12 mile west, in 1669, Seneca Indians Brought Robert Cavelier Sieur De LaSalle to see water that burned. Afterward, the Spring became a Mecca for Explorers.”

Much earlier examples of naturally flaming gas are given here.

About the Reviewer
Forrest Mims, an amateur scientist and Rolex Award recipient whose research has appeared in leading scientific journals, was named one of the "50 Best Brains in Science” by Discover Magazine. He has written more than a thousand journal, magazine and newspaper articles and more than 50 books. His science is featured at forrestmims.org. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Email him at fmims@aol.com.


Disclosure: Amidst the noise of reviewers like me, the fracking industry has lined up against “Gasland” and in support of “FrackNation,” while environmental organizations have taken the opposite positions. So it seems appropriate for me to disclose that I have no direct connections with either camp, nor do I own any petroleum stock (or any stock at all). I do, however, have an indirect connection with fracking, for the heavily fracked Eagleford play in South Central Texas is nearby, and some of the roads I drive (in a gasoline fueled pickup) have been damaged by heavy trucks loaded with gravel for constructing well pads. There are also a fair number of accidents in my area involving truck traffic in and out of the Eagleford. Another indirect connection is representation of my county since 2002 on the AIR Technical Committee of the Alamo Area Council of Governments (a voluntary appointment with no compensation), so I am familiar with air quality concerns from fracking in the Eagleford. Finally, I have a direct connection with biogenic methane, for the bottom of the Geronimo Creek that borders my place is a prolific methane generator. Decomposing leaves and other organic matter on the creek bottom generate the gas, which emerges in swarms of bubbles, some the size of a bowling ball, when the bottom of the creek is poked with a long pole. The activity of turtles along the bottom of the creek can be monitored by observing the trails of methane bubbles they leave behind.


Image source: Gasland. Directed by Josh Fox. Performed by Josh Fox. USA: HBO Documentary Films, 2010. DVD.

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