For her film BACKYARD, science filmmaker Deia Schlosberg spent nearly two years crisscrossing the nation documenting how people are affected when “the industry” comes to town and begins hydro-fracking, a controversial method of oil and gas extraction. The result is five stories from four states in which residents have lost their livelihoods, experienced serious health problems or have had to abandon their homes after the fracking got underway. In each case, the industry denies that their actions contribute to any adverse impacts the individuals have experienced. It’s a compelling documentary, and a must-see for those interested in the future of energy in the United States.
Schlosberg is currently touring the nation again, this time to show her film. We caught up with her on a recent stop in Colorado to find out what we should know about hydraulic fracturing. (See her tour dates below. Note: Interview is edited for length and clarity.)
Bryan Schatz: So, Deia, why choose fracking as a topic?
Deia Schlosberg: I didn’t intend to make a film about fracking. I intended to make a film about people who could speak knowledgeably to an issue where there’s a massive dichotomy of views and understandings – about all different issues. Fracking – natural gas extraction – is one of them. I started looking for people who were on one side of the issue, but through their experience or some kind of epiphany, switched over. But – people who could speak well to both sides.
BS: Introduce us to the subjects in your film.
DS: I found Aaron who was a water hauler. He’d work on the gas pads taking flowback and production water and bring it to other sites, injection wells or other fracking sites, to reuse. While he was on that job saw all of these horrible environmental and human atrocities. He saw stuff being spilled all over, met people whose water was contaminated, heard about workers who died from some kind of toxic exposure after cleaning out condensate tanks. So, he was just like, “I can’t do this anymore. This is nuts.” Before he quit he started reporting spills and talking with regulatory agencies, and he started getting a lot of resistance telling him he was wasting their time, there’s nothing there, stop calling in, this is standard procedure.
BS: So a spill is standard procedure?
DS: Every pad, every day. There’s stuff going into the ground and the water.
BS: Who else is profiled?
DS: There’s Thomas Thompson, a railroad guy in Texas who wanted to retire in the Colorado mountains. He and his wife saved up their whole lives to build this home up above Parachute in this beautiful valley. He made it up there and was enjoying retirement, then the industry came in and ripped it all apart. He didn’t own mineral rights, just surface rights.
BS: The industry what – rents out neighboring land and does horizontal drilling to get underneath your own land?
DS: They don’t even need to do that. Their mineral rights trump your surface rights.
BS: You can’t say, ‘No, you can’t put a well on my land?’
DS: Nope. They have to give you some pay for the loss of use of that surface footprint, but it could be right in the middle of your yard.
BS: Wow. So he actually has wells on the property that he owns?
DS: Oh yeah. All over. And not just wells but they dug trenches for the gas lines. The creek that carved that valley got destroyed. They didn’t seal in the pads right, so the chemicals are leaching in to that stream system. He started having health effects from the dust and the fumes. Since I filmed, he left and went back to Texas.
BS: That was Thomas, and there’s Dick up in…?
DS: Dick is in eastern Montana. Their family has been in the area for generations farming the whole time. They have surface rights and water rights, but no mineral rights. So they got the same thing as Thomas – drilling right out their windows, which is affecting their cows and livelihoods. The cows have fallen in the trenches from the pipelines. There are constant dust clouds from the road. But the [industry] also treats the road with chemicals to reduce the dust, but it all gets kicked up anyways.
And that’s where Jacki is too. She’s also on the Bakken, but in North Dakota. She’s a rancher, certified organic, very mindful of the inputs cows were getting, and she farmed as well. Surrounding her property they drilled, her stream became contaminated; they found that it didn’t freeze in the winter anymore – and we’re talking like –30 degrees. Her cows starting getting sick and died. Her dogs got sick and died. Barn cats got sick and died.
BS: This was all after the wells went in?
DS: Yeah. She and her husband also started having health issues – shakes, weird nervous system issues, rashes, they stopped being able to shower and do laundry in their own home. She’s still there, but she’s trying to move.
For all these people, as soon as they start having these problems, their land loses all of its value. They basically have to abandon it and try and start over.
BS: And it’s not just that, right? There are various environmental acts that the industry is exempt from, how is that possible?
DS: Cheney and what’s called the Halliburton Loophole. They basically had Congress exempt the industry from these regulations – Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Right-to-Know laws, and several others – because it would hinder economic growth.
[Though the issues are serious, Schlosberg’s film isn’t all doom and gloom. Woven throughout, she shows how people are fighting back, spreading awareness, and ultimately, making a difference.]
Upcoming Show Dates
(Bend, OR, Oct. 10-13) Bend Film Festival
(Chagrin Falls, OH, Oct.2-6) Chagrin Documentary Film Festival
(Missoula, MT, Oct. 19) Womens’ Voices Leadership Summit.
(Boulder, CO, Date TBA): Nomad Theatre