PITTSBURGH - FrackNation is a new documentary that attacks opponents of fracking for oil and gas, but it also raises a bigger question: Is it possible to criticize environmentalists without being a tool for big industry?
Fracking - or hydraulic fracturing - is a method of stimulating oil and gas from deep underground that has led to a historic boom in U.S. production while also stoking controversy over its possible impact on the environment and human health. FrackNation, an independent documentary produced by Los Angeles-based filmmakers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, addresses the issue from an unusual perspective.
The release of the documentary - it is set to air Tuesday on cable channel AXS - is clearly an attempt to play off a current Hollywood film on fracking, Promised Land, which stars Matt Damon. But the David vs. Goliath roles are turned upside down, since McAleer's pro-fracking production received thousands of small donations on the fund-raising site Kickstarter, while Damon's film, which has an anti-fracking angle, had millions of dollars in funding, including some from the United Arab Emirates.
McAleer says anti-fracking activists have based their crusade on faulty claims and a disdain for the actual wishes of many people in the rural communities where land is drilled. His main target is Josh Fox, the director of Gasland, the 2010 award-winning, anti-drilling documentary that has inspired many critics of fracking.
One leading environmentalist welcomed FrackNation's take and said he can't wait to see it.
"It's great this guy's done this documentary. I think it's sort of a second wave to the more hysterical first reaction" to fracking, said Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, a Berkeley, Calif., nonprofit that argues for new ways to address environmental problems.
Like a genial Michael Moore with an Irish accent, McAleer narrates his confrontations with fracking opponents. Though some of McAleer's questions are simplistic and leading, it's startling to see how some critics of fracking react.
Fox dodges McAleer's questions, hangs up on him, and even uses his lawyers to try to have trailers for FrackNation removed from YouTube and Vimeo.
Shellenberger, who hasn't seen the film yet, said it's interesting that McAleer used low-budget counterculture tactics to make a pro-drilling argument. He welcomed the fact that FrackNation also presents the views of numerous people in rural areas who say gas drilling is a benefit, not a curse.
For example, Montrose, Pa., farmer Ron White and his son say that the royalties from drilling have helped keep the family farm in business, and that his water and land haven't been harmed by a nearby gas well.
But though FrackNation discredits some of the most extreme anti-fracking rhetoric, it also sometimes goes too far in dismissing legitimate concerns. For example, in tiny Dimock, Pa., where drinking water wells were tainted with methane, McAleer leaves viewers with the impression that drilling never caused problems for about a dozen families.
In fact, state environmental regulators determined that a drilling company contaminated the aquifer underneath homes there with explosive levels of methane, and they issued huge fines. The state later determined that the company had fixed the problems, and most of the families reportedly reached an out-of-court settlement.