Images under fire

(Sponsored Energy Section)

No image has stoked fears and rallied the anti-fracking movement quite like the “flaming faucet” scenes in the “Gasland” documentaries.

But key aspects of that depiction – and the attempt to connect the presence of methane in tap water to hydraulic fracturing – have been met with doubt and in some cases outright invalidation since the film’s debut in 2010 and the release of the “Gasland” sequel in 2013.

A counterpoint documentary “FrackNation,” produced by journalists Phelim McAleer and Ann McInhenney last year, points out that the scene in the original “Gasland” showing a Weld County resident lighting his tap water took place in an area that had witnessed flaming faucets for decades.

That’s in line with what the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission concluded about two of the Weld County landowners featured in “Gasland.” In the case of landowner Mike Markham, who is shown in “Gasland” igniting a well-water faucet with a cigarette lighter, a 2008 report by COGCC concluded, “There were no indications of oil- and gas-related impacts to (Markham’s) water well.” It was noted however, that his water well was drilled through four different coal beds containing methane gas.

The COGCC’s conclusion was similar for the case of Weld County landowner Renee McClure, who was also featured in “Gasland.” According to COGCC, her water “showed naturally occurring biogenic methane gas” unrelated to oil and gas activity in the area.

In a more troubling development, the flaming garden-hose scene that was used in “Gasland Part II” came under fire when it was reported that a Texas judge had found that the footage amounted to a hoax.

As reported in the Washington Free Beacon, Texas’ 43rd Judicial District Court found in February 2012 that landowner Steven Lipsky, “under the advice or direction” of Texas environmental activist Alisa Rich, “intentionally attached a garden hose to a gas vent – not a water line” and lit its contents on fire.

The Free Beacon went on to report what the court concluded about the flaming-hose footage used in Gasland Part II: “This demonstration was not done for scientific study but to provide local and national news media a deceptive video, calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning,” the judge found.

Similar to the Weld County cases in which the flammable water phenomenon predates hydraulic fracturing activity, photos of a flaming water well in Parker County, Texas, taken in 2005 recently surfaced, showing sufficiently high methane concentrations were present in the water years before Range Resources, the oil and gas company blamed by environmentalists for water contamination, began drilling in the area.

The Free Beacon reported on these newly uncovered Parker County photos on Feb. 6 – coincidentally the same day of a press release announcing that “FrackNation” – the counterpoint to “Gasland” – was heading to Europe for screenings in Brussels; Warsaw, Poland; and London in February.

Co-producer Phelim McAleer said he was particularly pleased to bring “FrackNation” to Poland, which is currently dependent upon Russia for its energy needs.

“I come from Ireland. I know what it means to have a large dominant neighbor next door and the problems that can bring,” McAleer said. “Shale gas offers a huge opportunity for Poland to be truly independent. I want to hear from Polish people how they feel about fracking and bring them the truth so that they make up their mind based on facts, not fiction.”