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Half of Fracking Stories Rely on Hollywood Hit Jobs

News reports give platform to artists, celebs and anti-drilling documentaries in 50 percent of reports.
  • Half of Stories about Hydraulic Fracturing Rely on Hollywood Attacks: From the well known anti-fracking flick “GasLand,” to Matt Damon and John Krasinski’s drama that depicts gas companies as the villain, networks news stories have used movies or celebrity anti-fracking activists in 18 of 36 reports discussing the issue.

  • CBS Morning Show Gives Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon 5 Minutes 20 Seconds to Bash Fracking: Gayle King interviewed the founders of Artists Against Fracking, who blasted the practice of natural gas retrieval as “not clean at all,” and claimed aquifers cannot be protected, but without any evidence or opposition. In spite of King’s admission that the issue was “to be continued,” CBS has not given the same treatment to any supporters of the practice.

  • Fracking Supports Many Jobs, Spurs Business Activity: IHS Global Insight has found that the fracking industry supported 1.7 million jobs in 2012 alone. Gas and drilling employment has gone up 61 percent since 2005, according to American Enterprise Institute. In Northeast Pennsylvania, new businesses have opened, existing businesses have expanded and communities are being revitalized because of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for gas.

The flaming water faucet shown in the anti-natural gas drilling film “Gasland,” has become the first thing many people think of when they hear of gas drilling, or “fracking.” But that claim turned out to be completely wrong. Investigators determined that Colorado water well had been drilled into a pocket of methane and had nothing to do with fracking. Josh Fox’s follow up, “GasLand II” debuted at Tribeca Film Festival and will air on HBO July 8, 2013.

In spite of that inaccuracy and others, Hollywood movies and agenda-driven documentaries that have portrayed natural gas drilling as a major threat have been used in network news reports. Celebrity anti-fracking activists have also been interviewed on the subject. Between Jan. 1, 2010, and April 30, 2013, fully half (18 of 36) of broadcast network news reports discussing fracking have mentioned or cited one of those films, or included a famous opponent of fracking.

There is much more to the gas drilling issue, but the networks have been more focused on the “controversy,” the danger or the claims of water contamination and earthquakes. By keeping the focus there, ABC, CBS and NBC have often ignored the fact that fracking has been going on for 50 years, and there have been 1.2 million fracked gas wells in the U.S, according to Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon. “Where are the 1.2 million environmental disasters?” McClendon asked in a Wall Street Journal discussion of fracking.

There is another side to this story that the media have downplayed. That story includes the economic revitalization of small towns, booming businesses and startups in the midst of a struggling economy, improved medical facilities, and those who desperately want to lease their property but aren’t being allowed to by regulators.

Rex Catlin, the CEO of Endless Mountains Health Systems, told the Media Research Center (MRC) he thinks most people in Susquehanna County, Pa., consider the gas companies to be “good neighbors.”

Before seeing the entire process, dairy farmer Charles Clark of Springville, Pa., thought that fracking would devastate the land. He’s since changed his mind, leased his own property for gas pipeline and started a land restoration company to regreen the areas after the drilling is finished. Clark expects to have 10 employees by the end of 2013, for the regreening “hobby” he started in 2012.

Others like Sandra French of Wayne County, Pa., have leased their property, but are in limbo due to government intervention. French “would love it,” if the gas companies could drill on her property to help her afford to keep the land that has been in her family more than 150 years, but the Delaware River Basin Commission has instituted a moratorium on drilling leaving her struggling.

Responding to claims of fracking causing water wells to go bad, French told the MRC even without drilling on her property, three of her water wells over the years have become contaminated as “nature takes its course.”  

Flammable Water is Scary, but Predates Hydraulic Fracturing

The “GasLand” footage of a flaming tap was frightening, but misleading. Yet it appeared in at least seven news stories about fracking, nearly 20 percent of the time.

If tap water has methane in it it can be flammable, but what viewers of Josh Fox’s film and of the network news reports that showed that clip or referenced it may not know is that in some places tap water has been flammable for decades.

When another documentary filmmaker, Phelim McAleer challenged Fox by pointing out that people could light their water on fire before natural gas drilling, Fox admitted to knowing about reports in New York State dating back to 1936 about lighting water on fire. He claimed it was not “relevant.” Viewers might disagree.

In Pennsylvania, flammable water dates back at least to the 18th century. According to the history of Salt Springs State Park, so much methane came to the surface that settlers found a way to “capture the escaping gas” and use it for cooking and lighting.

None of those facts made their way into network stories mentioning “GasLand” either. Neither did the results of the Colorado investigation of the flammable water shown in the movie. As Popular Mechanics wrote in a series on fracking myths, the flaming tap “appears a damning indictment of the gas drilling nearby. But Colorado officials determined the gas wells weren’t to blame; instead, the homeowner’s own water well had been drilled into a naturally occurring pocket of methane.”

Popular Mechanics did note that that methane from shallow deposits can intrude on groundwater, near fracking sites. There have been instances of poorly constructed drilling well casings that led to methane migration, according to State Impact by NPR.

Another complaint, this time from Pennsylvania about contaminated water, was not found to be because of fracking. On April 29, 2013, State Impact by NPR reported that Pennsylvania’s Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) found, after a 16-month investigation, that gas drilling did not lead to the contamination of water wells in Franklin Township. Colleen Connolly of the DEP said isotopic testing “showed the methane ‘fingerprint’ did not match the methane extracted from WPX Energy gas wells.”

Yet the TV news shows helped this frightening image of flaming tap water become nearly synonymous with fracking by showing the clip in at least seven news stories in recent years (another story also showed a flaming tap, but not the one from “GasLand”), including the Jan. 11, 2013, “Today” show.

Jeff Rossen, NBC’s national investigative correspondent, began a scary report that morning saying “It is quite a sight. I mean, could you imagine turning on the faucet in your kitchen, in your bathroom and the water suddenly ignites, in some cases creating a fireball right in your house?”

Rossen’s report was about a Cleveland family dealing with the “nightmare” scenario of flammable water, which he connected to gas drilling, long before he admitted near the end of the report that “the cause of their flaming water is still unclear” and an investigation is going on. Rossen’s report also mentioned the “anti-drilling documentary ‘GasLand,’” showing that flaming tap water without explanation that it had nothing to do with fracking. He also said critics want tougher laws to “protect homeowners.”

The left likes to say that fracking is unregulated (or that it has too little regulation), but local and state regulations abound. According to George Stark, Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation’s director of external affairs, it takes about 3 years and 40 permits before they can do anything on a drilling site.

Josh Fox’s follow up film, “GasLand Part II” debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 21, 2013, with little media fanfare.  In fact, some of the only stories about the film came through alternative outlets like Breitbart.com which reported that farmers who had purchased tickets to see the film were denied admission and later a reporter had her press credentials ripped from her neck and was later arrested. But the follow up film may get more buzz when it premieres on HBO July 8, 2013.

The industry has a seven-page document in which they argue there were many errors and misleading statements in Fox’s first film, some of which even The New York Times has conceded. The Times also reported in January 2013, that a leaked analysis by the New York State Health Department found that “hydrofracking could be conducted safely in New York.

Hollywood Fears and Celeb Fracktivists Get 50 Percent of Attention

The network news media consider hydraulic fracturing for oil and/or natural gas to be very “controversial,” even though fracturing has been going on since 1947 and there were 514,637 producing gas wells in 2011, according to the EIA. The number of fracked oil and gas wells in U.S. history is well over 1 million.

Still, ABC, CBS and NBC news have focused a lot of their attention on Hollywood and celebrity criticism of the practice that has seen a resurgence thanks to horizontal drilling.

In addition to “GasLand,” an independent anti-fracking movie called “Split Estate” and Matt Damon’s movie “Promised Land” have been talked about on broadcast network news programming since Jan. 1, 2010. “Split Estate” is so obscure that BoxOfficeMojo, a website that tracks box office sales and rankings, doesn’t list it.

Other celebrities like Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon have also been interviewed about their anti-fracking campaign, without rebuttal from the other side. A full 50 percent of networks news stories (18 of 36) in that time that talked about fracking mention one of those movies, or included a celebrity or artist on the subject. In contrast, an independent film called “Fracknation” that highlighted local support for “fracking” and challenged some of the claims made in Fox’s film called was not even mentioned once those news reports.

Singer Yoko Ono and her son Sean Lennon, who started the protest group “Artists Against Fracking,” appeared on CBS’s “This Morning” Aug. 29, 2012, without opposition for 5 minutes 20 seconds. The two of them made a number of disparaging and unsupportable claims like, “They’re going to make it dirty water,” “it’s not clean at all,” “they can’t protect the aquifers,” and “you cannot do it safely.” Although the interview was about fracking, King did veer into other topics with them before the interview concluded.

Neither cited any evidence to bolster their attacks on fracking and CBS failed to include anyone to rebut the claims. Even co-anchor Gayle King admitted the issue was “to be continued” “because the other side isn’t here.”  Although CBS has mentioned fracking in stories since that interview, they have not given any proponents of fracking a lengthy segment to provide the “other side.”

But according to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, “There is no evidence that the controversial ‘fracking’ technique used to extract natural gas trapped in rocks deep beneath the ground pollutes drinking water” the UK Daily Mail reported on Feb. 15, 2012. “They concluded that there is no evidence that fracking directly contaminates groundwater and any pollution is more likely to be due to above-ground spills of water produced by the drilling process.”

In May 2011, The New York Times had to run a correction saying there were not “numerous” cases of water pollution from fracking, “there are few documented cases” the paper restated.

Susan Brantley, a geosciences professor at Penn State, wrote a piece for The New York Times called “The Facts on Fracking.” In it she wrote, “In one study of 200 private water wells in the fracking regions of Pennsylvania, water quality was the same before and soon after drilling in all wells except one. The only surprise from that study was that many of the wells failed drinking water regulations before drilling started. But trucking and storage accidents have spilled fracking fluids and brines, leading to contamination of water and soils that had to be cleaned up.”

Anti-fracking Movies Tank at Box Office, Even After Media Praise

Box office propaganda isn’t always popular, as the makers of “Promised Land” and “Split Estate” have found. Even network promotion of Matt Damon’s movie didn’t result in a box office smash.

“Promised Land” did poorly at the box office and has made just over $7.5 million domestically, even after the networks promoted it extensively. Actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski made separate appearances on NBC’s “Today” show, to talk about the movie. Although neither actor directly attacked fracking in the interviews, the movie was promoted by the appearances.  

An E! correspondent on “Today” called the movie “intellectual,” and at another time co-host Matt Lauer called it “fantastic.” While the network claimed the movie “doesn’t get on a soap box,” and Damon himself said he was just trying to start a conversation about the subject, the movie had a clear anti-fracking bent and made the gas company the real villain that will find a way to take advantage of small-town people.

In the film, a wise and amiable character named Frank Yates tells Damon’s character, Steve Butler, “You came here offering us money trying to help us. All we had to do is scorch the earth beneath our feet.”

The movie ranked 10th its opening weekend, behind “The Guilt Trip,” according to BoxOfficeMojo.

“Split Estate” was also mentioned in a couple of network stories. The film aired on Planet Green in 2009 and in 2010, but isn’t listed on BoxOfficeMojo and has a nearly blank Internet Movie Database page. The film’s website tells people to take action by supporting federal regulation of fracking.

Drilling Proponents Speak of Economic, Community Benefits in Pennsylvania

In addition to leaving the narrative up to Hollywood in half the stories, there were additional negative stories about safety concerns such as minor earthquakes and pollution worries. Positive stories about fracking were a rarity on the networks, which were far more focused on potential problems than the prosperity that natural gas drilling has brought to places across the country.

Travel to Northeast Pennsylvania and there are many folks who tell a very different story than the ones you will hear from much of ABC, CBS and NBC’s morning and evening news programming. You’ll hear about and see economic revitalization of small towns, booming businesses, new hospitals and farmers who desperately want to lease their properties get short shrift by the networks.

The rolling hills are dotted here and there with producing gas wells, some painted green so that they blend in better with their surroundings. The economic benefits of those wells are obvious, from the busy parking lots at farm and tractor stores, to obviously new barns and roofs, to packed hotels and busy restaurants.

Catlin said that in Susquehanna County Cabot Oil & Gas expedited the creation of a new hospital in the Montrose, Pa., area. He explained that Cabot said they would donate $1 million and match another million if it could be raised. When they raised $1.2 million, Cabot matched it and there was another private donation for $1 million too. The plan to build and raise money for the hospital had gone on for 8 to 10 years according to Catlin, but when Cabot jumped in the remaining funds came in just 4 months.

Catlin says business are also seeing banner years because of the gas industry, and charities are also blessed with much higher donations. He thinks that most people consider the gas companies to be “good neighbors.”

Clark, a dairy farmer and owner of Kozy Kountry Farm LLC, told MRC he did not support gas drilling when it first moved into his area, but seeing it up close changed his mind. He has since leased his property for the companies to run gas pipeline and he has even started up a side business regreening areas after drilling has taken place or pipeline has been laid.

Clark said he started his own company last year and it is growing rapidly and he’s made several hundred thousand dollars, employed four people and expects to have 10 employees by the end of 2013.

Others haven’t been as lucky. The Manhattan Institute compared the economic effects of hydraulic fracturing on local economies in New York state and in Pennsylvania and found that Pennsylvania counties with fracked wells “have performed better across economic indicators than those that have no wells.” They also concluded that “had New York allowed its counties to fully exploit the Marcellus Shale, those counties would have seen income-growth rates of up to 15 percent for a given four-year period, or as much as 6 percent more than they are experiencing.”

Pennsylvania residents prevented from drilling know that all too well. French, a Wayne County Pa. resident, and semi-retired nurse wishes the gas companies could drill on her land. She signed a lease five years ago, but regulators at the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) have put a drilling moratorium in place that keeps her from reaping the benefits. Fox and other fracktivists planned to protest a DRBC meeting in November 2011, to pressure them not to allow fracking in the area.

“It would be nice if they would drill. I would appreciate it. I would love it,” French said. She said that even with Social Security and her pension, it is hard to afford to keep the property that has been in her family for over 150 years.

She also says that water wells in the area often go bad, or become full of methane or other things, simply because there is so much gas in the ground in the region. Even without drilling on her property, she says three wells over the years have become contaminated as “nature takes its course.” According to French, the nearest fracked well is 30 to 40 miles from her home.

Curt Coccodrilli heads up the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance (NWPOA), a group of landowners who also want fracking for gas to be allowed in Wayne County, Pa. He told MRC that the Wayne/Susquehanna county line is the “dividing line between poverty and prosperity” because of the DRBC’s moratorium.

“Farms are literally collapsing in Wayne County,” Coccodrilli said. He and other landowners “consider [the moratorium] a taking of our property rights.”

He also faulted the news media “that is so biased” against fracking. Coccodrilli thinks “fracking can be done safely,” and emphasized that landowners care deeply about their water supply and said property owners should make sure their leases include specifics about water protection, well siting, and things like that.

One of the problem areas focused on by the networks was the concerns about fracking and earthquakes. There have been in some cases of tremors linked to wastewater disposal wells from fracking. But The Heritage Foundation’s environmental expert, Nick Loris, told the MRC that this is a “completely overblown phenomena.”

As Loris said, it wasn’t fracking — it’s the injection wells. But even tremors caused by those wells are relatively rare. He pointed out that geothermal energy, a supposed “clean” energy promoted by the left, has caused many tremors in California. In contrast, there have been about eight instances of injection well caused tremors. Since there are around 30,000 fracking wells in the US. Rather than putting that into perspective, CBS aired 5 stories linking fracking to earthquakes.

Wastewater recycling is also becoming an alternative to injection wells or pits, according to Stark, of Cabot Oil & Gas. Stark says Cabot has, for the past two years, found a way to recycle all of its wastewater in a “closed loop system.” They truck in all their water, collect all the flowback water, the water is separated from the waste which is turned into sludge cakes and sent to landfills, and the water is reused.

Methodology

The Business and Media Institute analyzed Nexis transcripts from ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news programs that mentioned “hydraulic fracturing,” or “fracking,” or “Gasland” or “Promised Land” from Jan. 1, 2010, through April 30, 2013. All stories mentioning the phrase “promised land” that had nothing to do with the Matt Damon movie were discarded.