Energy group targets Oscar-nominated ‘Gasland’
Oscar voters understand the technicalities of things like costuming, visual effects and sound editing. But those who vote on the Academy Award for documentary feature may have to study up on the complexities of “fracking,” a controversial energy industry practice examined in the nominated documentary “Gasland.”
Energy in Depth, a group representing oil and natural gas producers, has sent a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences arguing that “Gasland” should be ineligible for best documentary feature because it contains inaccuracies. While other industries have launched public relations campaigns to discredit documentaries — health insurers targeted Michael Moore’s “Sicko” in 2007, for instance, and Dole challenged a 2009 documentary called “Bananas!” — this is the first time an industry group has appealed directly to the academy.
In the letter signed by its executive director, Lee O. Fuller, Energy in Depth called “Gasland” “an expression of stylized fiction.”
“The many errors, inconsistencies and outright falsehoods catalogued … cast serious doubt on ‘Gasland’s’ worthiness for this most honored award, and directly violate both the letter and spirit of the published criteria that presumably must be met by ‘Gasland’s’ competitors in this category,” the letter said. Energy in Depth is a coalition of industry groups including the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Assn. and the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.
In “Gasland,” director Josh Fox learns that the land near his Pennsylvania home has been designated for hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a process that involves blasting water, sand and chemicals into underground rock to extract oil or gas. Fox, whose previous film “Memorial Day” was about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq, sets out on a road trip to fracking sites around the U.S. to learn more about the process.
Energy in Depth sent its letter to the academy, not to the 5,755 voting members individually. The industry group also published the letter on its website and issued a news release, but it wasn’t until the filmmakers themselves began publicizing Energy in Depth’s campaign that many in Hollywood took notice of it.
“I was not previously aware of this letter,” said Arnold Schwartzman, a member and former chairman of the academy’s documentary film screening committee, when asked to comment about it. “However, I don’t think the academy’s role should include that of an investigation agency.” Attempts to reach the chairman of the documentary committee, Rob Epstein, were unsuccessful.
In one dramatic scene highlighted in the trailer for “Gasland,” a man in Fort Lupton, Colo., lights his tap water on fire, and the implication is that fracking contaminated his well with methane. Challenging the scene, Energy in Depth pointed to a Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission investigation that found the methane in Fort Lupton was “biogenic” — that is, naturally occurring.
According to Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of engineering at Cornell University and an expert on fracking who has seen “Gasland” three times, there’s no doubt that the methane in the man’s tap came from nature. The relevant question is whether it would have been released without fracking; in his opinion, the flammable gas probably was released by fracking.
“It’s nitpicking on the part of the industry,” Ingraffea said. “It was a direct result of one step of many in the hydrofracturing process. They cannot deny that a person was able to set his faucet on fire because of fracking.”
The industry group has also taken issue with the film’s assertion that fracking involves “a mix of over 596 chemicals.” A viewer could get the impression that hundreds of chemicals are used in every single frack job, when in fact the list covers all the chemicals the industry has used, from which they select a much smaller number on each job, typically fewer than 12, according to Energy in Depth.
“A large percentage of that academy probably doesn’t have the full context,” said Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the industry group.”That’s why we wrote the letter.”
Energy in Depth began raising objections to “Gasland” when the documentary first aired on HBO last June. In July, the director issued a 39-page document rebutting Energy in Depth’s claims.
“We stand by our film,” Fox said when asked how academy members should make sense of the controversy. “Think of yourselves not as a member of the academy, but as someone sitting in a house in Pennsylvania and you were sold a bill of goods. Put yourself in those shoes.”
Compared with documentaries like “Sicko” or the environmental film “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Gasland” has been seen by few people. The film took in only $30,000 in a small theatrical release in the fall. But in recent months Fox has shown “Gasland” to members of Congress and at the Environmental Protection Agency, and held community screenings in 100 cities.
“The movie has contributed to public awareness,” said Ingraffea, pointing to a December poll conducted for the nonprofit Civil Society Institute that found 45% of Americans very or somewhat aware of the controversy about fracking.
Energy in Depth’s letter to the academy may have only increased that awareness, according to Wendell Potter, a former communications executive who helped the health insurance industry craft its campaign against “Sicko.” That industry enlisted pundits to characterize Moore as extreme, and coded its references to Moore in internal documents, referring to him as “Hollywood” so the filmmaker couldn’t use the public relations campaign to his own advantage.
“What they did writing the letter to the academy was drawing more attention to the movie than it otherwise would have gotten,” said Potter, who later testified against the HMO industry before Congress, and has written a book called “Deadly Spin” about corporate PR. “This kind of action might actually result in more members of the academy voting for it. They’ve given the film another lease on life.”
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