When Jon Bowermaster’s Oceans 8 Films released the documentary Dear Governor Cuomo in 2012, its aim was to raise public consciousness about the dangers of hydrofracking, drawing on the scary experiences of our neighbors living above the Marcellus Shale deposit on the Pennsylvania side of the state line. At the time, it looked like the governor was gung-ho for developing natural gas drilling in New York. But after Department of Health commissioner Joe Zucker testified that, based on his analysis of the data, he wouldn’t let his family live near a fracking site, “Cuomo did what he said he was going to do: He followed the science,” says the Stone Ridge-based filmmaker.
New York is now the only shale-bearing state with a ban on fracking: what Bowermaster calls “the first victory in the clean energy revolution.” But since Josh Fox’s Gasland initially drew public attention to the rise of the fracking industry in 2010, drilling has exploded across America. “Six years later, it’s done everywhere. The boom is so big, it doesn’t just impact remote parts of the country anymore,” Bowermaster reports.
Indeed, many fracking wells are hidden behind fences right in the middle of residential neighborhoods – usually where low-income people live. In the past three years the Oceans 8 crew has traveled to 20 states, collecting footage of drilling sites that sometimes lie next door to schools, churches, day care centers and hospitals, along with 120 interviews with neighbors whose lives have been adversely impacted. Since much of this damage occurred during the Obama administration, Bowermaster has titled his newest opus Dear President Obama: The Clean Energy Revolution is Now.
The new movie gets its official premiere on March 18 at the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital – “two blocks from the White House,” Bowermaster notes – and then goes on a 30-city tour. But the producer/director/writer has been workshopping beta versions around our neck of the woods for a good while now, gathering feedback at screenings: “I love the connection with the local audience.” So, in a tip of the hat to the hometown crowd, he will unofficially premiere Dear President Obama at the Rosendale Theatre at 7:15 p.m. on Tuesday, March 15 – “fresh off the press at midnight on the 14th,” he jokes. The following evening, Wednesday, March 16 at 7 p.m., it will screen at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville. And on Thursday, March 17 at 8:15 p.m., it will be shown at Upstate Films Rhinebeck.
Unlike the earlier cinematic appeal to Cuomo’s conscience, in which the fracking footage was organized around a benefit concert organized by Natalie Merchant, Dear President Obama is characterized by the filmmaker as “pure documentary.” It opens with a clip from the 2012 State of the Union address, in which Obama touts his “all-of-the-above strategy” for weaning the country off foreign oil. In other clips, the president claims that America is “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” with a 100-year supply just waiting to be drilled. “On his watch, fracking became a household word,” says the voiceover narration by Mark Ruffalo. “What is required is a plan, a vision and a real leader.”
The nationwide visual tour begins in the Pennsylvania shale fields, where, according to the film, some 10,000 natural gas wells were drilled within the space of a few years. There we meet some of the people who first began pushing back against the energy companies, to little avail. “Our well was actually erupting like a geyser because there was so much methane in it,” says one resident. Another shows a report from testing that disclosed benzene, strontium and uranium in his well water: toxic chemicals released from the shale beds by the force of the fracking fluid.
Other segments of the film document disasters like the recent leak at Porter Ranch just outside Los Angeles, which spewed five billion cubic feet of methane into the atmosphere before it was finally capped. We meet energy industry workers in places like West Virginia, North Dakota and Louisiana where the gas boom quickly went bust from overproduction; a tank trucker in Arkansas whose teeth are falling out from cancer after he was exposed to fracking chemicals; a real estate agent in Colorado who can no longer sell property because her county now has one well for every four residents; an Oklahoman who has gotten used to twice-daily earthquakes triggered by fracking near a fault line; a New Mexico rancher who can no longer graze cattle because federal mineral rights law authorizes the government to drill anywhere it wants.
It’s a very sobering journey, piling up powerful evidence, beautifully filmed, that natural gas is by no means a clean or safe energy source, and that fossil fuels are best left in the ground. But Dear President Obama is not unhopeful. New York State has led the way in saying “No” to fracking, and the movie shows us footage of determined groups and individuals who are taking a stand in favor of truly renewable alternatives like solar and wind power, as well as technological advancements that make those sources more economically viable.
Dear President Obama is a stirring piece of advocacy journalism – an unabashed plea to government officials to work for policy change that will turn the tide against fossil fuel dependency and environmental degradation. “If we don’t change, the game’s over,” says Jon Bowermaster. “But we’ll be aided by strong leaders.”
Dear President Obama pre-premiere sneak peek screenings: Tuesday, March 15, 7:15 p.m., Rosendale Theatre, Rosendale; Wednesday, March 16, 7 p.m., Jacob Burns Film Center, Pleasantville; Thursday, March 17, 8:15 p.m., Upstate Films, Rhinebeck; www.dearpresidentobama.com.