Frack us: the dangers of gas fracking



This documentary looks at the shared experiences of Americans living in Pennsylvania, where extensive gas development in the Marcellus shale has been impacting the economic and environmental fortunes of the region since 2008 or so. Released in 2014, the film takes a peek into the lives of people living and working around the gas wells in Pennsylvania and the impacts the industry has had on their lives and property.


For over a decade, the development of shale gas formations in the United States via advances in hydraulic fracturing and other unconventional production methods has had immense repercussions for energy markets around the world and for the humans inhabiting the places the oil companies come to plumb the shales. Hydraulic fracturing is a well stimulation technique in which sand and other proppants suspended in fluids are forced at high pressure through rock cracks to free hydrocarbons to flow to the surface. The process both requires the use of significant volumes of water in the fracturing process and produces vast amounts of waste as water composed of water injected during well drilling and completion, along with water occurring naturally in the rock formation (together, 'produced water'), returns to the surface. Depending on the geologic composition of the formation, produced water contains a mixture of oils, solids, salts, metals, hydrocarbons, and naturally occurring radioactive materials that makes its treatment difficult. The industry oil and gas industry purports to use best practices and take careful precautions to ensure the safety of the surrounding environment, but these activities present immense challenges for protecting humans, animals, and the environment from water, air, and noise pollution.

Frack US  succeeds at conveying a human and moving view of the experiences of local residents since the oil and gas industry descended on the farms and towns of northeastern Pennsylvania, letting the people tell their own stories and show the harmful effects of production-induced contamination on their bodies and properties. The filmmakers trail, among others, a gentleman exposed to radiation and other pollution through his work transporting wastewater contaminated with myriad chemicals; a family that discovered too late they lacked the right to prohibit access to their land by mineral rights holders; an activist documenting the deterioration of water supplies and road conditions who is prohibited by injunction from approaching well-pads and other property owned by Cabot Oil and Gas; and a citizen collecting data to understand how activity in certain locations is impacting the region’s ecosystems. The stories are compelling but incomplete, often leaving the viewer with incomplete understanding and more questions. The film unfolds as a litany of complaints from the lips of the subjects, but more detail is needed to explain the details of why or how the impact is occurring and, other than an aborted attempt to speak with someone at the local Department of Environmental Protection office, no efforts are made to talk to policymakers or industry personnel (or at least no mention is made of unsuccessful efforts).

One theme that runs through the film is that of the importance of freedom in speech in the United States and whether that right is worth anything if no one is listening. It is a question with emotional power, but not a particularly appropriate one in this instance, where the issues are better posed as concerns for health and safety powers, property rights, nuisance and environmental law, regulatory capture of agencies, and the power of industry vs citizen engagement. The filmmakers are Russian, which while perhaps bringing a useful 'outsiders’ perspective' to the issue, may have hindered full exploration and understanding of the forces at work in the cultural, policy, and market arenas.

In sum, the film is a valid effort to convey the human costs of hydraulic fracturing but is not particularly well executed, such that it loses much of its power of persuasion—failing to leave this viewer, at least, with a sense of where the problematic policy levers lie and how they might be addressed. The message is valuable—reminding humans that, in the end, we cannot eat or drink money, as we could the fruit of a healthy environment—but the film is only the opening of the conversation, and it does so with a tone that raises doubts as to how serious and substantive the discussion of the forces at work would be.

Regina Buono



Additional Info

  • Director: undefined
  • Producer: RT
  • Language: English
  • Year: 2014
  • Duration (min): 53
  • Theme: Domestic water, Water quality, pollution, Water and health, Water and community
  • Access: Free
  • Country: USA
  • Technical quality (star): Technical quality (star)
  • Academic interest (star): Academic interest (star)
  • Societal interest (star): Societal interest (star)
  • Technical quality: 2
  • Academic quality: 2
  • Social interest: 3