Muckraking documentaries don’t often spawn sequels, but a lot has happened in the world of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, since Josh Fox released “Gasland” in 2010.
The message of Fox’s “Gasland Part II” is that while the battles over the investigation and regulation of fracking wax and wane — with the anti-regulatory forces currently on top — thousands of additional wells that use this controversial natural-gas drilling technique are being sunk.
“Gasland Part II,” which had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and is being shown today at 9 p.m. by HBO, paints a convincing picture: Homeowners at the mercy of the oil and gas industry wait while government agencies make tentative moves toward regulation that eventually come to nothing or are reversed.
And this was before the Environmental Protection Agency last month walked away from its promise to investigate water contamination in Pavillion, Wyo., which is shown in the film as one of the most significant victories for aggrieved homeowners.
Fox works in the first-person style of colorful mudslingers like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, but his tone is more sad and mordant, his blank face a melancholy emblem of the hopelessness of the situation.
He is constantly present in the film, taking on a kind of minstrel’s or bard’s role that’s emphasized by shots of him strumming a banjo in the woods near his Pennsylvania home.
At one point he celebrates his own doggedness by beginning to run the closing credits before announcing that no, the story isn’t over yet.
The original “Gasland” grew out of a company’s effort to pay Fox for exploration rights to his land, which lies above the Marcellus shale formation and its huge reserves of natural gas.
“Part II” briefly recaps his personal history and revisits communities that were featured in “Gasland” — where shots of methane-laced water being set on fire are still de rigueur — and traces the legal and political fights of the intervening years, citing studies and statistics attesting to the health dangers of fracking.
Putting all of this material into an economical yet coherent package would be a challenge for any documentarian, and organization is not the specialty of Fox, who directed, wrote and edited “Gasland Part II.” The film runs to two hours and its anecdotal, hopscotch style starts to wear.
And, as with “Gasland,” there are questions, large and small, that can nag at you. Would it have been a bad idea to include at least one interview with a homeowner who professes to support drilling?
Did the dog with the missing leg somehow lose the limb because of fracking, as a dramatic cut would have us believe?
Most of Fox’s material isn’t open to question, however. Recordings of a gas industry conference at which public relations managers are told to study the Army’s counterinsurgency manual — because “we are dealing with an insurgency” when it comes to protesters and angry homeowners — are both hilarious and horrifying. Fox’s account of the Pennsylvania government’s hiring of a private company to monitor fracking protesters, an episode not widely covered outside the state, is particularly valuable.
It’s hard to take issue with Fox’s resigned conclusion that economic and political forces will soon spread fracking around the world, no matter how harmful critics say it may be to the environment and our health.
To provide a glimpse of the hardball tactics he’s talking about, Fox runs a Google search for his own name and puts the result on screen.
There, directly above his Wikipedia entry, we can see who has bought “JoshFox” as a search phrase: a gas-industry trade group offering the “Truth About Gasland.”