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Dueling filmmakers dispute over fracking in Albany

As they await Gov. Andrew Cuomo's decision on whether fracking will go forward in New York, dueling pro- and anti-fracking filmmakers held screenings and promotions for their films in Albany. At one point in their visit, the two sides confronted each other in the halls of the Capitol.

Phelim McAleer is the creator of FrackNation, a film that claims to rebut charges made by environmentalists and the popular anti-fracking movie “Gasland." He came to Albany to hold a screening of his film.

McAleer is a journalist who has worked for British publications like The Financial Times. “I wanted to look at the science behind it, and also the truth behind it,” McAleer said. “That’s what’s been missing so far."

McAleer says he has no stake in whether fracking goes ahead in New York, but wants the claims made by opponents to be more thoroughly researched by the media.

“Journalists need to treat big environment the same way they treat big business,” he said. “The environmental movement is a vast, multi-national globalist movement.” He says the environmental groups should be asked “the same difficult questions.”

Filmmaker Josh Fox, who made the movie “Gasland," was also at the Capitol. Fox attended a press conference with state Sen. Tony Avella, who is introducing a bill requiring stricter worker safety requirements for gas drillers.

Fox released a trailer for his new film highlighting the worker safety concerns.

“My experience with dealing with this issue for the past four years is that the people who are most at risk, who are the most ground up by this industry, are the workers,” Fox said.   

Also at the press conference, were Nancy and Charlotte Bevins. They are the mother and sister of C.J. Bevins, who was killed in a drilling accident in Smyrna, New York in 2011. Bevins was working on a vertical gas drilling plant, which is currently allowed in New York, for a company contracted to the now bankrupt Norse Energy.  C.J.’s mother and sister say he died because of inadequate worker safety standards that included 15 hour days and longer and dangerous conditions, like trying to set up a new well on a muddy, unstable site. Nancy Bevins says her life has been changed forever.

“When it’s time for bed, all I can picture is my son, sitting there, with no family around, in pain,” said Nancy Bevins.

Bevins died during the hour long ride to the nearest hospital, in Syracuse.

Avella says if horizontal hydraulic fracturing is eventually permitted by the Cuomo administration, then there should be strict worker safety rules implemented as well.

At one point, the two opposing filmmakers met.  As “FrackNation” filmmaker McAleer was in the midst of an interview, he caught sight of Josh Fox, as the “Gasland”  filmmaker strode through the Senate lobby, accompanied by Nancy and Charlotte Bevins.

McAleer and others rose to confront him.

Fox refused to engage. He sought refuge in the office of the Senate Sargent of Arms, who called state troopers. They stood guard as Fox and the two women as they got on a near by elevator.

Later, Fox explained why he refused to discuss the subject with the pro-fracking filmmakers.

“There’s been an extensive smear and misinformation campaign on behalf of the oil and gas industry that’s been going on since the film came out,” Fox said. “It has ranged from the hysterical to the ridiculous.”

McAleer and the others say they were merely trying to engage in a discussion with Fox about the gas drilling process and dispute points made in his film "Gasland."

Tensions are high, as both sides wait to find out whether Cuomo will go ahead with fracking.  If the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is to allow the rule making process on fracking to conclude by the end of the month, it must first make public its generic environmental impact statement on fracking. It would have to do so in a special publication for state regulations that is due out on Wednesday. However, earlier in the month, Cuomo’s environmental commissioner, testifying at a legislative budget hearing, cast doubt on whether the administration’s self-imposed deadline of late February will actually be met, meaning that a decision on fracking could once again be delayed.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.