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The Californian

Ann McElhinney speaks at the West Kern Petroleum Summit on Friday at Taft College.

Do yourself a favor and buy a copy of the documentary "Fracknation." Even if you think you've made up your mind on the now-controversial method of oil extraction known as "fracking," get the film.

In fact, you should watch it especially if you think you've made up your mind on fracking.

Because this documentary does something I love, something that I think is sorely lacking in most environmental reporting today -- it asks questions.

Seeking answers is a lot different than herding viewers down a chute to a preconceived conclusion, which is what I see in so many environmental news stories today.

Something is deemed dangerous to public health and instead of questioning the veracity of that statement, journalists dutifully go fetch reactions to this new supposed threat.

The alleged threat becomes solidified under the weight of those reactions.

And ultimately, fear, not truth, drives policy.

Fracking has taken that formula to new heights bordering on hysteria.

Filmmakers Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer, both former print journalists, set out to see if the hysteria was justified.

"I wanted to show the scientific evidence behind these allegations," McAleer told me.

Had fracking destroyed people's water? Was it responsible for water you can actually set on fire?

Had it increased cancer rates among nearby populations? Was it truly a seismic risk?

All of this and more has been laid at the feet of fracking by Josh Fox's "GasLand" documentaries and the avalanche of news stories that followed.

McAleer takes viewers along the journey as he crisscrosses the country and the globe in search of answers.

Living in Kern County, where hydraulic fracturing is common and has been for more than a generation, I really didn't give the issue much notice at first.

As oil exploration spread into the Shafter area with companies trying to get at the formation known as the Monterey Shale, I started hearing more fracking fears.

After "GasLand," which focuses on shale fracking in particular, fracking fears really ramped up in California.

Again, I say this is nothing new.

I covered the "big find" more than 20 years ago when oil companies first started fracking the Monterey Shale near Shafter. No horror stories ensued. The water was fine and people weren't keeling over because of chemicals used in fracking solutions.

In fact, the biggest problem with fracking the Monterey Shale was that it didn't work. Every well had the same result, a big play of light, sweet crude in the first few weeks that choked off to a dribble.

No one could find the right method to crack the shale and keep the oil flowing. (I recently heard on the QT that one company may have found the key, but I'll have to get back to you on that.)

The point is, not only have companies been hydraulically fracking wells for decades in western Kern, they've been doing it in the Monterey formation right around Shafter and no harm has come.

Even without some dude in a lab coat, I'd say the historic evidence shows fracking is less harmful to your kid's health than, say, a giant sugary soda.

But "Fracknation" went in search of that lab coat dude and the resulting film is both fun and educational.

A highlight is when McAleer goes to Dimock, Pa., the epicenter of concerns over fracking and water quality, to ask one couple about a recent EPA finding that Dimock's water is perfectly safe.

I can't do the scene justice by describing it. You have to watch it for yourselves.

Another highlight is when McAleer finally gets "GasLand" director Josh Fox to say why he didn't mention that methane is naturally occurring in water where some areas also have large gas and coal deposits, such as Dimock.

Fox replies that he didn't find it relevant.

"That's a killer point," McAleer said. "Because he knew the water could be lit on fire long before fracking, but he chose not to include it. He knew he was excluding relevant evidence in order to make a partisan point."

Lighting a running kitchen tap on fire is a key dramatic scene in "GasLand." The ball of flame even scorches hair off the man's arm.

"Fracknation," however, gives evidence that people were lighting water on fire from Pennsylvania to Louisiana from the time of George Washington. (Oil and gas drilling appears to have, in some instances, allowed methane to migrate into to water wells but only because of poorly constructed well casings, not fracking, which happens too far below ground to affect most water wells.)

And those skyrocketing cancer rates in a Texas fracking town? The film quotes source after source, from both government and watchdog organizations, saying that just isn't so.

"The truth is, it's a lie," McElhinney told me.

McElhinney is passionate. Not just about holding environmentalists' feet to the fire, but about how journalists have abdicated their responsibility to do the same.

"The environmental movement is big business, some groups are vast corporations," she said. "Big oil should be scrutinized, for sure. But so should the environmentalists."

Environmental groups have the power to keep communities from developing their resources and improving their lot in life, which she accuses them of doing in impoverished countries around the globe.

That's how she says she got started on this quest. She was a freelancer covering a controversial gold mine in Romania.

Outside activists, she said, stopped a Canadian gold mine from opening in Rosia Montana, saying the mine would dump harmful chemicals and was already taking people's land and homes.

"None of it was true," McElhinney said. "They stole that community's dreams based on lies."

She thought other journalists would jump on board this great story she'd uncovered. Nothing.

"That's because most journalists are the environmental movement's constituency."

Like I said, lots to ponder in "Fracknation."

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail