NEW YORK A new documentary purporting to expose the hazards of onshore natural gas drilling illustrates its point with startling images of people setting fire to water flowing from faucets in their homes.
"GasLand," which premiers on cable's HBO on June 21, fuels the debate over shale gas and the extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, which involves blasting millions of gallons of water, sand and diluted chemicals into shale rock, breaking it apart to free the gas.
It comes at a time of heightened environmental awareness and scrutiny of the energy industry due to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Advocates promote shale gas as an abundant and relatively clean source of energy within the United States but critics including "GasLand" director Josh Fox assert there are environmental and health risks.
Fox, a Pennsylvania playwright, calls the industry's contention that such drilling is harmless too good to be true. He started asking questions about when his family was offered $100,000 plus royalties to allow hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking," on their property.
"I don't think it's a gold mine. I think it's a trap," Fox said. He turned down the offer but many neighbors took the money.
The documentary traces Fox's cross-country journey and includes interviews with families who signed leases with the gas industry and now regret it.
In Colorado, Fox shows families setting tap water alight due to what they say is gas that entered the water during the drilling process. Colorado authorities ruled out that scenario at one of the homes where Fox filmed.
"The film started with just a basic inquiry into what was happening with gas drilling," Fox told Reuters in an interview. "Quickly, though, I found out that it was a complete disaster for all the places that I visited."
The film, Fox's first feature-length documentary, won the Special Jury Prize for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival.
The gas industry disputes the film's findings, saying for example that methane migration that allows water to catch fire can occur naturally.
"This filmmaker, while well-intentioned, is getting a lot of attention but he's not qualified at all to be an authority on this issue," said Jim Smith, a spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association in New York, an industry group.
In a lengthy "debunking" of the film, Chris Tucker at the Washington-based industry group Energy in Depth wrote, "Accuracy is too often pushed aside for simplicity, evidence too often sacrificed for exaggeration."
Fox's home sits on the massive Marcellus Shale formation, which extends across much of Pennsylvania and parts of West Virginia, Ohio and New York, and is the nation's largest known shale reserve.
His inquiry led him to the northeast Pennsylvania town of Dimock, where residents say gas drilling by Cabot Oil & Gas Corp contaminated their water wells with toxic chemicals, causing sickness and reducing property values.
The state's Department of Environmental Protection has since said Cabot contaminated the drinking water of 14 homes in Dimock by failing to comply with a order to fix defective well casings that discharged natural gas into ground water.
"The whole town was turned completely upside down," Fox said. "None of that stuff is mentioned when land men come to somebody's front door or send them a letter in the mail saying, 'Hey we're going to give you $100,000.'"
Smith said that while what happened in Dimock was "unacceptable," it was the result of operator error. He said there have been no cases of drinking water contamination that can be tied to fracking.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)