Film is a powerful medium for communicating the look of things, so in a state as visually stunning as Colorado, what better way to deliver a message to the governor? Dear Governor Hickenlooper is a letter in cinematic form, a plea for protection for the land and its citizens. Through the lens of this film, hydraulic fracturing stars as the new gunslinger, the armed interloper in the black hat.
Dear Governor Hickenlooper is the brainchild of David Holbrooke, director of Telluride's Mountain Film Festival and co-producer of this film along with Stash Wislocki. Holbrooke was inspired by last year's Dear Governor Cuomo, a film addressed to that governor requesting a ban on fracking in New York State, which is targeted but not yet licensed. After seeing the film, Holbrooke envisioned a sister film for Colorado, one of the top oil- and gas-producing states in the country, where the fracking industry is booming in a veritable gold rush.
Holbrooke issued a call for entries from filmmakers and artists around the state to submit works that tell stories about hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking. This inventive approach to making a documentary works well for this material -- in casting a wide net, it accommodates the broad range of issues surrounding the subject.
Director Wislocki culled the entries into a sampler portraying the fracking industry in Colorado. Sponsored by outdoor retailers Patagonia and Osprey, Dear Governor Hickenlooper premiered May 24 at the 2014 Mountain Film Festival.
The film documents the issues associated with fracking, the drilling for oil and gas from layers of shale deep within the ground. Problems range from disfiguring the landscape to contaminating drinking water to exponentially increasing greenhouse gasses. Weaving together the dispirit stories is the knowledgeable narrator Shane Davis, an ex-oil worker, biologist and founder of Fractivist.com.
Dear Governor Hickenlooper opens with some charming animation entitled Fracking 101 that illustrates the fundamentals of the process, with an informative voiceover by Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, a structural engineer from Cornell University. Dr. Ingraffea reports that given the multi-thousand-foot length of drilling pipes, it's impossible to know where a pipe may crack, how much gas or chemicals may leak out, or where they will go once loose underground. He says up to 9 percent of methane produced by fracking leaks into the air.
Methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas, 20 times more efficient at trapping warming solar radiation than carbon dioxide. Fracking also jeopardizes the fresh water supply of Colorado, which is already suffering from drought. Hydraulic wells are pumped with between 2 to 8 million gallons of fresh local water that returns to the surface unusable, contaminated with chemicals and heavy metals.
Another segment in the film features an interview with a farmer whose land is jeopardized by proposed drill pads nearby. She worries that like many farmers in the Midwest, her drinking water well may be contaminated, fouling the fresh water for both her livestock and her family. A gag order passed in the state of Colorado prevents doctors from informing patients if their blood tests positive for fracking fluids, which can include a host of toxic heavy chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde, and petroleum distillates. Not knowing the source of a malady makes it a lot harder to get better.
The film's website includes links to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission website, with includes some remarkable information. By their own admission, of the over 5,000 fracking spills reported, 43 percent have contaminated the local groundwater.
An interview with endocrinologist Dr. Theo Colborn addresses the substantial damage to the human system that can be caused by fracking chemicals. She cites an increased incidence of illnesses in areas close to fracking sites, from cancers to respiratory distress to liver failure. When air quality was tested near some fracking sites, results showed a rate of noxious gases three times that of New York City.
In the multitude of factors that have dovetailed to produce the current state of affairs, a major game changer was the passing by Congress of the 2005 federal statute known as the Halliburton loophole, which exempts fracking from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The bill was signed by President Bush under the watchful eye of Dick Cheney, former CEO of the oil and gas giant Halliburton and conveniently vice president at the time.
With regulation lifted, fracking companies are no longer required to maintain a safe distance from housing, schools, or water reservoirs. They are no longer required to inform the public exactly what chemicals they use during the fracking process. If companies buy underground mineral rights, they can legally access oil and gas from the surface even if they don't own the land. And if anyone living close to the sites suffers in the process -- loss of livestock due to well poisoning, illness from contaminated air and water, devalued property due to the proximity of wells -- they have no recourse.
Fracking site near community playground in Weld County. Copyright Dear Governor Hickenlooper
On a more positive note, another film segment focuses on the rising success of a Colorado solar panel company. With upwards of 300 sunny days a year in much of the state, Colorado is a likely candidate for solar power, creating new and local jobs.
Some lovely sequences in the film are the long pans of the pristine Thompson Divide wilderness targeted by the industry. In a bit of good news, there is now a moratorium against fracking in the Thomas Divide.
Dear Governor Hickenlooper functions as both an informative missive and a call to action. Of the many hazards headed our way in this century with climate change, much of it is out of our hands. We can't stop droughts from mounting, hurricanes from blowing, or waters from rising. But we can control the processes of industrial mining, we can curtail the polluting of our air, land and water by the oil and gas industry. Bans have passed in various Colorado counties, and Colorado voters can look for a statewide ballot initiative in November.
Photos provided by film director Stash Wislocki