REASON TO WATCH: Extreme cautionary film on natural gas drilling; winner of the Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
WHEN/WHERE: Monday at 9 on HBO
THE DOCUMENTARY "Gasland"
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Filmmaker Josh Fox's hippie parents built a house deep in the Pennysylvania woods the Pennsylvania woods when he was a baby, and he lived there for parts of his life. One day, a letter arrived in the mail. A gas company wanted to lease the land the house sat on. He'd gross about $100,000. Fox was tempted, then decided to investigate. He'd heard of people whose wells were so contaminated that they could set a glass of water on fire.
"Was I going to become a natural-gas-drilling detective? Well, OK. I guess," he says. And off he went - to nearby Dimock, Pa., a hotbed of drilling, where, in fact, a man does set his kitchen faucet on fire; out to Colorado and Wyoming, where he meets a man who tried to dig a new well and unleashed a gushing natural-gas blowout instead. Along the way, he meets sick, besieged people, dying animals and sees water water everywhere - and not a drop to drink.
MY SAY Fox's stunning documentary largely attempts to explore the process of "hydraulic fracturing" or "fracking," in which petroleum engineers blast huge volumes of water and other chemical compounds deep into the Earth to fracture the rock, releasing its precious and abundant gas.
"Gasland" occasionally confuses reputed "fracking" pollution of ground water with pollution caused by escaping gas, but it's hard to fault Fox. No one knows, or is saying, exactly what the fracking brew is made of. That's a big industry secret. But "Gasland" does establish that it's made of very scary stuff, and that such drilling is ruinous to the environment and public health. Fox is an excellent travel companion - for "Gasland" is a road film - because he is always calm, reasonable, occasionally witty and compassionate. He never strikes an angry, bitter note (but there are a few anxious ones). He even plays the banjo for us in the gas patch while wearing a gas mask.
BOTTOM LINE In the best tradition of polemical journalism, Fox picks up the thread of his important story and follows it wherever it leads him. He doesn't get all the answers he needs or we need, but enough to bolster his powerful conclusion. A must-watch.