What President Obama Can Do to Combat Environmental Racism

We spoke to filmmaker Jon Bowermaster about his new documentary Dear President Obama: The Clean Revolution Is Now, which tells the stories of American families fighting the fracking industry.
April 22, 2016, 7:01pm

All photos courtesy of Jon Bowermaster

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In his 2012 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama called the United States "the Saudi Arabia of natural gas," pushing a proposal to provide tax breaks and subsidies to increase the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The plan, he said, could create an estimated 600,000 new jobs by the end of 2022, and give America "energy independence" from the rest of the world.


Though just two years had passed since the devastating 2010 explosion of a BP oil drilling site in the Gulf of Mexico—the same body of water where the president had just approved new drilling sites—Obama assured the country that "America [would] develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk."

Not long after Obama delivered that speech, Americans witnessed the bust of what the president had heralded as the booming fracking industry: Nearly two thirds of US oil rigs shut down in 2014; at the same time, US investment in renewable energy had also declined.

The consequences of fracking stretch beyond the economy to the health and safety of the more than 15 million Americans who live within one mile of an oil or gas drilling site. Often, these families are the victims of what's been called "environmental racism," in which toxic or hazardous material are placed in the proximity of low-income neighborhoods.

Documented cases of drinking water contamination, heart conditions, cancer, and neurological disorders have spiked. In northern Pennsylvania alone, between 2007 to 2011 scientists found over 198,000 hospital records of patients living within proximity of a drilling well. A 2013 University of Colorado study found that over half of the ozone layer pollution in Colorado was directly affected by oil and gas drilling. Benzene, a chemical often found at drilling sites in the Rocky Mountain state, can lead to cancer and infertility, according to the Center for Disease Control.


In October 2015, California experienced "the worst man-made greenhouse-gas disaster" in American history when 150 million pounds of methane gas was released into the atmosphere at the site of Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Field, forcing over 2,000 families out of their homes. Methane gas, known to be 25 times more powerful than carbon monoxide, takes about 12 years to break down—and can be fatal if inhaled.

In a new film titled Dear President Obama: The Clean Revolution Is Now, journalist-turned-filmmaker Jon Bowermaster tells the stories of marginalized American families that have been negatively impacted by the fracking industry. VICE spoke with Bowermaster over the phone about his experience making the film, what he thinks Obama should accomplish before he leaves office and whether the US could function solely on clean, renewable energy by 2050.

VICE: So Mark Ruffalo narrates the film. How did you get him to be a part of the documentary?
Jon Bowermaster: We met maybe five years ago. He's been working on the issue of fracking since 2009. Then in 2012, we went to a concert-protest up in Albany, New York, in response to Governor [Andrew] Cuomo allowing fracking. We put together this weird collection of musicians, scientists, actors, actresses, and journalists and we staged a show at a big performance hall. Mark was a part of that event and that solidified our friendship. Right away we started talking and I've been working on coordinating the filming for almost three years. Mark kind of came in in the latter months to help me work on the script then did the narration.

That's amazing. It took you over three years to make this film. What was the producing process like?
This is like the twentieth documentary I've made. I started out as a print journalist. I've written a dozen books and been published in a ton of magazines, but for the last 15 years I've been focused on films. In 2010 or so, in part because of the success of [Josh Fox's film] GasLand, when people thought of fracking they thought of going to rural parts of states. I wanted to show that this boom was so big that it was now affecting all socioeconomic classes, not just poor people, but high-end suburbs. So we went out to film across the country. In the end, we filmed in 20 states, we did about 135 interviews, and then boiled it down to this 96 minutes that we literally finished five weeks ago. We're now in the middle of a 40-city tour to get some buzz and get people talking about it, which is working.


Why did you decide to release the film now?

The film is targeted at President Obama because there are a few things he can do regarding fracking, drilling, and extreme energy extraction while he is still president. He is currently trying to build his environmental legacy and wants to go out on a green high. We're asking him, specifically, to ban drilling and fracking on public lands, which he could do with a signature.

We would like him and his director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, to meet with some of the victims of fracking. I think if they really sat down with these people and heard how their lives have been interrupted, changed, hurt, etc., that it would influence their decision-making. The EPA has done several studies into the link between fracking and water contamination, and they've come up with proof that the two are linked but they just haven't pushed much beyond that. We want the president to push the EPA to make those [studies] more public and more definite.

The film is also aimed at every county commissioner and [member of Congress] as well as whomever the next president is. We've sent copies to Bernie Sanders' environmental reps. We're still trying to figure out the best avenue to get it to Hillary Clinton. To be honest, we may send them to the Republicans, but I don't imagine we'll have much luck with them.

The film's narrator, Mark Ruffalo

It's fascinating to hear you refer to those affected by fracking as "victims," because lot of politicians refuse to use that terminology. Why do you think that is the case?
This is certainly climate injustice, but also environmental racism. A classic example of that is in California, where you saw images of the drilling that goes on right in the middle of downtown Los Angeles that mostly houses the Latino population. These people have been complaining for years about the horrific smells, how their kids have been sick, had respiratory problems, nosebleeds and nausea, but no one has listened.

Why are politicians seemingly so disconnected from the harm befalling their constituents?
There were experts telling them that we [had] this newfound source of energy that will create jobs, be good for the environment, and it's going to lower our [fuel] costs. What politician wouldn't be for that?


I would like to see some of the politicians who initially signed on to fracking say that they've given it a lot of serious consideration and [that] it just isn't right. Howard Zucker, the commissioner of health for New York state, said that he wouldn't allow his family to live next to a fracking well. Having someone who has read a lot about the flaws in the system saying that should be sufficient, and no one should have to live that way.

A still from the film.

The first time I've seen a discussion really take center stage on environmental racism was during the peak of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Yet water poisoning is often caused by lack of regulation of the fossil-fuel industry. Should people who were alarmed by the Flint water crisis be just as alarmed by the fossil fuel industry's effect on our water?
I've made a couple films in Louisiana about a giant chemical company that had so badly poisoned a natural aquifer that it was making the neighbors of the plant sick. The chemical company figured out this was happening, but rather than saying, "Listen, we messed up." They just went around and said that they wanted to expand their company by buying the neighboring houses and moving the inhabitants to a suburb 15 miles away. They never admitted that they had badly contaminated the water, and had given many of these people cancer.

What has to be done to pressure politicians into making sure they're protecting constituents from the effects of fracking and water poisoning?
There are two issues. One is to help the people who have already been harmed, which would mean talking to them. The next step is moving away from drilling and toward renewables. The oil and gas industry gets sizable subsidies from our tax dollars every year, even though [the companies] are incredibly profitable. Those kinds of subsidies should be taken away immediately and moved into any kind of renewable experiment. There are so many renewable resources that we are just now scratching the surface of that could use government investments.

It seems to me that the whole conversation surrounding fracking and climate change has been put on the back burner—or even omitted—from the debate during this election cycle. Do you agree?
We're very happy that fracking has been discussed a couple times during a few of the Democratic debates, but in regard to whether or not it's taking a back burner, yeah, there is a lot going on. As Americans, we tend to get lulled into a sense of sleepiness when gas prices are low. When oil prices are high and it's costing people at the gas pump, then they get completely panicked. That's when they start buying small cars.

Are you optimistic about the future of climate change?
The American public is very slow to change, and we often only change when we are forced to. It may take a turn in the economy or a horrific natural disaster to force people to understand and realize that they're going to have to change their lives. We talk a lot about how it will require people to change in substantial ways. This is in the hopes that we get to 100 percent renewable by 2050. People are going to have drive smaller cars, have more mass transportation, smaller houses, and smaller jobs, because one of the biggest contributors to emissions in the atmosphere is flying. Are people willing to do those things voluntarily? Some are, some aren't.

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