Interview: Josh Fox, Director of Gasland

Earlier this week, I sat down with Josh Fox, the director of the Academy Award nominated documentary Gasland. The issue at hand was the Delaware River Basin Commission’s decision on whether or not to allow fracking in the region — and thus putting 15.6 million citizens’ drinking water at risk. I reported on that plan, with Fox’s input, in this piece yesterday. And I shared the video Fox made with Bill McKibben, which called on Vice President Joe Biden to protect his state from fracking.

Today, perhaps due to the pressure from environmental groups and activists like Fox, it was announced that the vote on the plan will be delayed.

But our conversation encompassed much more than the danger fracking posed to the Delaware. As we sipped beer and munched turkey wraps, our discussion moved from the Delaware Basin to civil disobedience against extreme energy to the fact that fracking is far from a partisan issue.

What would happen if the Delaware River Basin Commission voted to approve new regulations allowing fracking in the region?
Josh Fox: “These regulations would allow more fracking to begin in the river basin. 20,000 gas wells. That is what we’ve working to prevent.”

What has the public response to this proposal been?
“[The DRBC] received 69,800 public comments overwhelmingly against drilling in the basin. They somehow absorbed those in seven months. And just to put that in perspective, the New York state environmental review only garnered 14,000 public comments for the whole of New York state. They took two years to digest that stuff. Somehow, the River Basin Commission could absorb those in 7 months. And then, the regulations are worse. They’re weaker. So your setbacks in the last set of regulations were 500 feet from the river. Now it’s 300 feet from the river. You can drill 300 feet from the river. Which means effectively you can drill under the river. And they will. And this the source of drinking water for 15.6 million people.

“The industry is basically policing themselves. They are in charge of reporting any incidents or wastewater or any of that. There’s no enforcement involved in the regulation, there’s limit on gas wells, no spacing requirements in the regulations. It’s basically a free for all.

“20,000 gas wells or more is what they’re admitting to. That would be the permanent industrialization of the upper Delaware. The wild and scenic designated river, the source of tourism for 5.4 million people a year. The drinking water source of nearly 16 million people.”

The legality of the vote itself has been thrown into question, correct?
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of New York is suing the river basin commission right now, because they’re in violation of the compact. NEPA [The National Environmental Policy Act] requires them to do a cumulative impact study. Which would be a 1 or 2 year review of what would happen to the river basin on cumulative scale. Not one well, not ten wells, not 30 wells. 20,000 wells. What does it look like? What happens in that instance? Damn sure that the results of that would be the permanent industrialization of the river. They are refusing to do it. They are issuing regulations in advance of doing it, and that is illegal. And it’s not just me saying that, it’s the Attorney General of New York State saying that. That means that this is an illegal hearing. That means that the River Basin Commission goes ahead with a vote, has lost their legal authority, and they have lost their moral authority.

What role does industry pressure play?
You have enormous downward pressure from the gas industry on every level of politics, every level of representative government. 747 million dollars lobbying congress since 2005 to get the exemption for the Safe Drinking water Act. That’s a lot of cheddar for the mousetrap. They’re involved at every level.

“You name it they’re doing it. From television ads to local ads to smear campaigns to intimidation tactics to writing the regulations themselves to soft-selling people to strong-arming people, every trick in the book. And I don’t know why they haven’t figured out that the River Basin isn’t going down without a fight.”

Why is that?
“I’ve always thought that this is incredibly foolish for them to propose. I never would have made Gasland had they not walked into the Delaware River Basin. It would never have raised the ire of the city government in New York City if they had not said, ‘We’re going to drilling the New York City watershed.’

“We could celebrate victory on Monday. We could have this meeting cancelled and go back for an environmental review which is what really needs to happen. You could take the River basin off limits like in the same way New Yok City did with its water shed. Or you could see a sustained campaign of both civil disobedience and protest that i’m sure Obama or who ever votes for these regulations is not going to want hanging on their heads. Because there are hundreds of thousands of people already going crazy about this stuff. They will not be able to put one well into that river basin without it being swarmed.

Do you see more civil disobedience movements rising up against fracking?
“This movement is very knowledgable in an increasing capacity, as we saw with Keystone XL, in the methods of nonviolent peaceful direct action and civil disobedience. And that is an American invention–it starts with Henry David Thoreau–and it is our last resort as citizens wishing to exert our will as a democracy when our democracy has been overthrown by moneyed interests. And that is exactly what you’re seeing happen now. So I have no doubt that you will engage a campaign that has already begun — that is one movement — which is against extreme energy. Dr. James Hansen was very eloquent on the fact that tar sands, fracking, deepwater drilling, and mountaintop removal all fit into one category, and that’s extreme energy.”

So you think that opposition to fracking has only just begun.
“Oil and gas like to talk about shale gas as being a game changer. And it is, just not the way they think it is … Now, you have shale gas invading people where they live — 25% of the country lives near shale — if they screw something up you have to pay for it. That’s something that everyone understands.

Do you see it moving across partisan lines? Why aren’t more Republicans working to stop fracking?”
“I’ve got friends all over the country — this movement against fracking is by no means partisan. I got handed a great card from a friend of mine who lives in Dimmock that says “Don’t Tread On Me” against Marcellus Shale development. It’s not a partisan issue to figure out that you’re getting robbed, that they’re getting off scot free.”

What about in Washington?
“I can’t even get an appointment with a Republican in Congress. Except Greg Ball from New York state. Out there, their own constituents — when I took Greg Wald on a tour of Pennslyvania, I was taking him to house ofter house after house filled with republicans. And yet if you go to Congress, if you go to the Senate, if you look at any of these presidential candidates on the republican side, they’re not listening. Besides that, they’re used to selling out their own constituents.”

How clear is it that this is a result of industry interests and lobbying efforts?
“We’ve had a fundamental change in our democracy due to Citizens United. Our democracy is on the scaffold.
I asked Brad Miller of North Carolina, tell me about the influence of oil and gas on Congress. He goes, ‘Influence? Try ownership.” And he goes, “Are we rolling yet?” And I say, “Yeah,” and he says ‘Oh, I was just chatting.”

“The citizen’s voice currently is the smallest voice in Washington. To get somebody’s attention, you might have to go and do what they did in front of the White House. Look at the trend out there. You have people out in the streets all over the country. Why? Because they’re being disenfranchised, and their interests are not being represented in our elected government. And I’m proud of this moment. I think we’re going to see a lot more of that on Monday.”

About Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant is a founding editor of the Utopianist.. When he's not helming the Utopianist, he is TreeHugger's politics writer, contributes the Getting Samy Out of Burma column to, and freelances for the likes of Salon and Paste. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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