The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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How HBO's 'Gasland' documentary hit the natural gas biz where it hurts

October 19, 2010 |  9:03 pm

Gasland Amid my column Monday talking about the latest hot-button documentaries, I found myself wondering, for all the media attention lavished on controversial documentaries like "Fahrenheit 9/11," do they really change anyone's minds — or do they just preach to the converted? I mean, if "An Inconvenient Truth" really raised people's consciousness about global warming, then why have recent studies found that fewer people than ever believe that climate change is caused by man-made forces? Wasn't anyone paying attention when Al Gore was up there lecturing? Or did skeptics avoid the movie to start with?

I suspect Davis Guggenheim is wondering the same thing about his new film, "Waiting For 'Superman,' " a searing indictment of the nation's public school system that has spawned a zillion feature stories and op-ed pieces. Will all that attention inspire a new round of public school advocacy — or simply dissolve into a puddle of shrugs and indignation?

Or maybe issue-oriented documentaries can wreak a little havoc after all. This summer HBO aired "Gasland," a muckraking documentary by Josh Fox about the environmental and health hazards involved in the current U.S. obsession with drilling for natural gas. The film, with its tales of greed and profiteering, played a bit like a horror movie: In some scenes, flames could be seen jetting out of  kitchen faucets, with methane having transformed tap water into a fire hazard.

Is Congress likely to rewrite any of its environmental legislation in response to the issues raised by the movie? Don't bet on it, even though the EPA has been investigating (even before the film's release) the effects of the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing. The movie did briefly hit energy firms  where it hurts — their stock price. As this story from Barrons Online noted, the day after the documentary aired this past summer, shares of Cabot Oil & Gas, depicted unfavorably in the film, dropped 7%, while shares in Chesapeake Energy, a large player in the search for shale gas, fell 2.8%. The film struck such a nerve that a natural gas industry group issued a point-by-point rebuttal the next day.

So while nothing earth-shaking happened — I mean, Angelina Jolie could grab more attention with a wave of her hand — something happened nonetheless. And while it would be easy to downplay the long-term impact, since the Barrons story notes that with inexpensive fuel needed during the nation's economic downturn, "the probability of a prohibitive federal regulation remains low," the documentary caused a little ripple in the world of consumer protection against environmental hazards. So maybe this was a documentary that managed to make a tiny difference after all. 

Photo: Fires flaring from one of Iraq's oil processing plants outside of Kirkuk.

Credit: Khalid Mohammed