What do you do when a gas company offers nearly $100,000 for the right to drill on your land?
If you're Pennsylvanian Josh Fox, you refuse the money -- then make an award-winning documentary portraying the natural gas industry as an environmental menace that ruins water, air and lives.
In "Gasland," which premiered on HBO this summer and screens tonight at The Piazza at Schmidt's, Fox presents a frightening scenario in which tens of thousands of drilling rigs take over the landscape, gas companies exploit legal loopholes to inject toxins into the ground and residents living nearby contract severe, unexplained illnesses.
This isn't some dystopian nightmare, Fox says, but the harsh reality in communities from Texas to Colorado to Pennsylvania.
"People are feeling completely upended," the 37-year-old filmmaker said in an interview at his woodland home near the Pennsylvania-New York border, where gas companies have been leasing thousands of acres of pristine watershed land in anticipation of a drilling boom.
Fox says the natural gas industry is selling the American public a lie. The industry calls "Gasland" a deeply flawed piece of propaganda.
Whatever the truth, Fox's film arrives at a fraught time. Between the gulf oil spill and several recent mishaps involving natural gas extraction, the public is focused on energy -- and the increasingly complicated ways we are getting it.
Just as the gulf catastrophe illustrated the hazards of unchecked deep-water oil drilling, so, too, are gas companies failing to make investments that will safeguard the environment when something goes wrong, Fox argues.
"After a while, the gas rig just seemed like a car made in 1890 ... something fundamentally unsafe," he declares in "Gasland." He wonders aloud whether it's better to force gas companies to clean up their act "or just say, 'The hell with it. Can't we build a solar panel instead?' "
Bespectacled, unshaven and the product of "hippie parents," Fox made his name as an avant-garde theater director in New York City. He took an interest in drilling after a gas company approached him in 2008 about leasing his family's wooded 20-acre spread in Milanville, near the Delaware River, where he has lived since childhood.
To Fox, the offer seemed too good to be true.
"That was nearly $100,000 right in my hands," he says in the film. "Could it be that easy?"
Intent on finding out, he casts himself in the role of a "natural gas drilling detective," hopping into his beat-up 1992 Toyota for a cross-country tour of places where large-scale drilling is already under way.
He begins in Dimock, Susquehanna County, where an exploding water well revealed methane contamination that has ruined residents' drinking water supplies. He's handed a jar of mysterious yellow-brown liquid and asked to find out what's in it, setting up the film's principal drama.
From there, Fox heads west. He hears the same story in town after town: contaminated water; fouled air; mysterious illnesses; a deceived citizenry; regulators who aren't regulating.
"Gasland" has won critical acclaim -- including a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival -- but the industry has challenged its veracity. A 4,000-word rebuttal by a coalition of gas and oil producers asserts that Fox botched the facts, misstating the drilling process and the regulations that govern it, and spotlighting citizens whose claims have already been investigated and debunked.
"The object of the film is to shock, and not to enlighten," said Chris Tucker, spokesman for the Energy in Depth coalition. "If that's the kind of project you're trying to do, you're not going to let a few silly facts get in the way."
Fox insists that "Gasland" is accurate, rejecting the Energy in Depth analysis as a "ridiculous mischaracterization" of the film.
"The industry smears anybody who comes out and says what's actually happening. That's the kind of tactic they're well-known for," he said.
Fox is screening "Gasland" in towns throughout Pennsylvania and New York, hoping it will persuade on-the-fence homeowners to tell the gas companies to scram. You can catch a screening in Philadelphia on Friday, September 3, 2010 at The Piazza in Northern Liberties. Fox will be there to answer questions.