Groundswell Rising: Q&A with anti-fracking documentary director Renard Cohen

Originally posted on December 29, 2014

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

With the recent news out of New York State regarding a statewide ban on natural gas fracking, I am excited to share an interview with the director and producer of the documentary film Groundswell Rising: Protecting Our Children’s Air & Water, Renard Cohen. This documentary explains the process and dangers of “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing) for natural gas reserves caught in layers of shale, and follows activists from Colorado, Pennsylvania, and New York. These individuals educate themselves about the health problems associated with fracking and their legal rights regarding how far away from their homes natural gas companies are allowed to drill. They craft and fight for legislation to limit fracking in their area and to require the natural gas companies to pay for restoration of health and safety in their communities.

Filmed on location in several states, Groundswell Rising shows everyday people who have become activists because they see the harm the natural gas industry is doing in their lives and communities. The film shows the devastating illnesses experienced by children and adults alike, as well as natural gas workers themselves. It shows the unjust treatment of communities denied clean water, which had been promised in their leases, and the injustice of the legislative system that permits such environmental degradation and damage to community health.

I have to admit that I myself was drawn in for a long time by the natural gas industry’s self-promotion that natural gas is more “natural,” is a bridge fuel that will get us from fossil fuels to more environmentally friendly options, and that it is less harmful to the environment than conventional fossil fuels. This film does an excellent job of debunking those myths.

With cameos by Natalie Merchant, Mark Ruffalo, Bill McKibben, and Pete Seeger, the film mainly follows the activism of normal, everyday Americans who just want a safe and healthy place for their children to live. The film also spotlights Sandra Steingraber, a biologist, author, cancer survivor, and activist, who was instrumental in organizing the anti-fracking movement in New York State.

I will mention that my main critique of the film is that it showed almost explicitly white communities and activists, and this is one shortcoming rued by the directors of the film. These were the activist communities with whom the group came in contact and who reached out, requesting the film crew to come to their area. Hopefully it has the impact of showing that this is not only a problem in communities of color or in communities with low socio-economic status: most of the communities shown are areas of fairly high affluence and education. This is a problem that can arrive at the backdoor of any American community. These ones chose to fight it, and represent the many, many other communities doing the same thing.

Whole Terrain: How did you first get involved in filming these anti-fracking movements?

Renard Cohen: I didn’t know anything about fracking, but in about 2011 I was invited to a teach-in at a local library about fracking. I was asked to bring a camera. They showed a film by the scientist Dr. Theo Colborn, the first to do a film on fracking and its dangers, “What you need to know about natural gas drilling” (here is her TEDX MidAtlantic talk). Colborn’s film was eye-opening. I couldn’t believe government was allowing all this air and water pollution, animals dying, human illnesses, and so on. I met some activists from ProPublica and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, community organizers who worked in trying to get communities organized to resist fracking, and was impressed with them. I decided to make a film about the resistance to help them spread their message. Twenty people in a library is one thing, but getting the message out to thousands or millions provides a greater impact for their work.

Sandra Steinbgraber, New York author, biologist, and activist

I started attending demonstrations, bringing my camera, and I met several of the people in the film that way. We made a short film called “Heavy Fraffic” from initial interviews in Pine Creek Valley, PA. Other groups found us through this film and invited us to come to their area, or introduced us to other activists.

WT: What are some of your most memorable or poignant memories from working on this film?

RC: The stories of the people we met were very moving. David Kagan in Pine Creek Valley, PA, getting emotional and frustrated about the trucks and his love for his area (see “Heavy Fraffic“). Meeting him and seeing him go through that anguish was very moving. He has written three books on that area and a trail guide. To see it devastated like that really blew him away. Working on the film and in the resistance saved his soul.

Filming April Beach, a woman from Erie Rising in Colorado, talking about her kids (see the trailer, below). She has a lesion on her spine from living in Weld County. Her kids were getting sick, so she started Erie Rising. She was tearing up and feeling very frustrated. You could smell the smell of those facilities. The sound of it was constant. And there they were not only fracking for natural gas but also oil. It’s very real, and when Sierra Club activist, Shane Davis, is standing in front of the giant compressor, he immediately gets a headache.

And then of course Randy Moyer, a guy who worked in the industry, and seeing all his welts—that was amazing. We were supposed to shoot with Randy the day before, but he got the flu. The morning we were supposed to leave, he knocked on the door of our hotel, and I just grabbed the camera and he told his story. It was very moving.

Dave Kagan, Pine Creek Valley, PA

These people are real. They’re not making any money doing this, they’re just trying to let people know what’s happening to them so it won’t happen to others. They’re talking to us with the hope that we could get more and more people to hear them, to hear their stories. Everything was really emotional.

There’s a misconception that the only people who are impacted by this are the poor people out in the sticks who have no other option, but most of the people in this film are highly educated and fairly well off. One man we met was a lawyer for a big oil company, but when they wanted to open a fracking site near his home, he didn’t want it and brought a lawsuit against the company to keep it out of his area. That says a lot.

Fracking is a multi-layered issue: all the local problems of radioactive radiation affecting people’s health is a big deal, but then there’s also the problem of the release of methane, one of the most severe global warming gases.

WT: Since our current call for submissions to our journal focuses on the theme of trust and environmental practice, in what ways do you see the concept of trust playing out in this conversation around fracking?

RC: We trust that the people we send to Washington to protect our environment will be working on our behalf. Well, as it turns out, we need to do what’s called “trust and verify.” “Trust in God, but tie up your camel.” In other words, you can trust, and you can believe, but once we take our eyes off the ball, anything can be happening. One of the things shown in the film by Common Cause, Deep Pockets, Deep Drilling, was that millions and millions of dollars goes to legislators to ensure that “environmental protection” legislation will go their direction. For example, the “Halliburton Loophole” tucked into the 2005 federal energy bill, allowing states to create their own policies regarding fracking rather than regulating it at the federal level, and allowing exemptions for the natural gas fracking industry so it wouldn’t have to abide by the regulations of previous clean air and water legislation (so called due to the enormous benefit this gave to then Vice President Dick Cheney’s company Halliburton; see this NPR article). This takes power away from environmental legislation put up in the last 20-30 years to protect our air, water, and soil.

“Fractivist” moms of Erie Rising, Colorado

We trusted our legislators were going to do what they could do to protect our environment, but instead they turned their back on us and told oil companies, “Yes, get us that energy!”

The thing is, we have the technology to get as much energy as we need sustainably. Germany is way ahead of the United States in switching over to these technologies. In Groundswell Rising, Mark Jacobson explains his Solutions Project, which shows how we could easily make this switch and end our dependence on fossil fuels.

The problem is, we don’t have a lot of time. We need to make changes before we reach any more dangerous environmental tipping points. This is put up or shut up time, and we’re making progress. It was only last year that people were still denying climate change, and now there is less of that. People are starting to see the impacts.

I would love to see our country engage in something like we did in the 1960s when John F. Kennedy gave us the goal of putting a person on the moon within the decade. We could create that kind of initiative to switch over to non-polluting, sustainable energy.

Most of the people you see in this film are older and white, but more and more young people have gotten involved, and that’s what it’s going to take. And that’s why I’m hoping our film will be shown in schools, even down to the lower grades. That’s why I’m glad the film is being distributed by Bullfrog Films, a well-known educational distributor, because we need to have kids down to 10-11 years old who will understand climate change language and issues when they come to voting age.

No matter where we’re from, we are all dealing with the same planet. The challenges are real and affect everyone. We all have to deal with heat waves and droughts and insects and polluted air and water. We have a long way to go yet, and still need as many “brave little parrots” (from the story read by Steinberg in the film) as possible.

WT: If individuals want to get involved in working against fracking in their area, how would you suggest they begin?

The Groundswell Rising website has a number of links and ways people can get involved. People can Google anti-fracking groups in their own state. A few of my favorite national organizations include: Americans Against FrackingSierra Club initiatives against fracking, and you can schedule a viewing of this film in your school or community. We will soon show the film at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival in northern California, January 17-18, 2015.

Beyond the issue of fracking, we need to address climate change holistically. I hope people will use this film as a tool to help educate themselves and inspire each other to take action.


Thanks to Renard Cohen for sharing with the Whole Terrain community, and to Bullfrog Films for connecting us.

Groundswell Rising is available now for screening events at schools and community groups. You can book a screening through the website, or look for screenings in your area. Stay tuned; it will be available soon as a DVD and for streaming online purchase

News Reporter
Cherice Bock edited Whole Terrain's volumes 22 and 23, "Trust" and "Breaking Bread." She is currently a general editor and works mainly on soliciting, editing, and creating web content.

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