Promoters help something to happen, develop, or increase. Filmmakers who take on this role often support the interests of their film’s sponsors and unfortunately, this role has been tied to covering up how the commercial sector’s unchecked use of natural resources has endangered lives and polluted the planet. Robert Flaherty and Léon Poirier used beautiful, adventurous, and heroic imagery that ended up disguising corporate agendas if not outright valorizing them. By contrast, those who challenge this role’s legacy, like Josh Fox, report on the dangers of corporate-funded destruction of the Earth and develop grassroots campaigns that combat exploitation of natural resources.
Conflicts of Interest
Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic (1922) by Robert Flaherty
Corporate sponsors have existed since the beginning of documentary film. The French luxury goods company, Revillon Freres promoted the use of fur coats by supporting Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic (1922), which became the world’s first feature-length documentary. Citroën, a French automobile manufacturer, followed suit afterwards by sponsoring travelogues like The Black Cruise (1926) and The Yellow Cruise (1933) by Léon Poirier to promote their products. Both films presented how Citroën cars served as caravans traveling through French colonies in Africa and Central Asia respectively. But despite how these companies’ investments furthered the development of the art form, Barnouw points out that their support endangers the integrity of documentary filmmaking since these kinds of films are often “concerned with [the] promotion—of sales, policies, institutions, [and] views […] [that] may saturate the medium and […] exclude other forces” (212).
Flaherty formed an unusual and secretive partnership with the Standard Oil Company and Trust in order to make the film A Louisiana Story (1948). He was given creative control, ownership, and distribution rights for the film in exchange for agreeing to not identify Standard Oil of New Jersey as its sponsor. The Standard Oil Company and Trust was an oil and gas company that became the world’s largest business empire. John D. Rockefeller, Sr. became the United States’ first billionaire as the Standard Oil Company and Trust’s founder, chairman, and major shareholder. He undercut oil prices and shipping rates, received railroad rebates unavailable to his competitors, ravenously bought up other oil companies, circumvented anti-trust laws, evaded questions during lawsuits, bought other components of the domestic and international oil industry, and employed thugs and police forces to threaten competitors and suppress striking workers (Rockefeller on Trial).
Standard Oil’s ruthless tactics enabled them to control up to “95% of all oil [processed], [marketed], [and] [transported] in the United States” from 1870 to 1911 until they were sued by the United States government in 1906 for being an industrial monopoly under the Sherman Antitrust Act. Standard Oil was then ordered to divest itself of its major holdings—33 companies in all.” Some of these companies retained Standard Oil as their name but others merged with other oil companies to become ExxonMobil Oil, Amoco, Chevron, and Pennzoil (Standard Oil Company and Trust | American Corporation). The production of A Louisiana Story occurred at a time when one of the divested companies, Standard Oil of New Jersey, was bundled with Standard Oil Company of Louisiana (University of Texas at Austin).
A Louisiana Story (1948) by Robert Flaherty
A Louisiana Story (1948) was Flaherty's last feature. When it was being made there was still mistrust and resentment among the public of the Standard Oil Company and Trust’s ruthless tactics and financial excesses, even though its monopoly was broken up almost 40 years ago. It proved to be justifiable suspicions since Flaherty played into their agenda by creating a film that claimed the bayous remained unaffected by oil drilling. Even though Flaherty observed the oil operations with his wife, he was most moved by the mysterious images of the bayou and the charming personalities of the local Cajun population and decided to emphasize these elements in the film.
The film follows Alexander, a young Cajun boy living in the bayou with his parents. He is worried about how the environment will be affected after his father signs a lease allowing an oil company to allow a well to built nearby. But the oil workers give him a tour of the oil rig to reassure him the bayou will be safe. Barnouw asserts that A Louisiana Story turned out this way because Flaherty was conflicted over how to present his usual vision of “[portraying] a way of life doomed by intrusion of the industrial world” since the industrial enemy sponsored the film.
He seemed to use his identification as someone who also opposes old ways of life to justify presenting the oil industry and the pristine natural world as co-existing in harmony by the end of the film. Flaherty does this by showing the drillers as friendly, powerful men who are in control of the oil drilling process and able to leave the bayou’s wilderness the way they found it. It is a visually stunning film that lies about the impact of oil extraction. Flaherty’s message that nature is ok is repeated by oil company commercials after every disastrous oil spill brought to the public’s attention.
The truth is that Louisiana has become the United States’ version of a pertrostate, a small oil-rich country in which institutions are weak and wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few. The discovery of oil fostered corruption among Louisiana politicians and judges who sought to profit from oil instead of serving as stewards to their state’s natural resources. Working with oil companies caused immense damage to the state’s fragile wetland ecosystem and resulted in land erosion that makes Louisiana more vulnerable to flooding during hurricanes. Dependence on the oil industry as the main source for jobs and state revenue has also hampered efforts to diversify the state’s economy (Mufson).
Gas and Oil Company Sponsorship
Out of all of the industries that have utilized documentary films to promote their corporate interests, gas and oil companies produced some the most nefarious examples of misleading documentary filmmaking. In addition to The Standard Oil Company and Trust, The Shell Oil Company also effectively promoted their business interests through documentaries. As one of the largest oil companies in the world, Shell Oil was able to employ film units and film libraries on nearly every continent. Their films depicted local cultures, environments, and wildlife as safe and thriving in their presence despite the realities of how destructive the company’s pesticide and oil drilling activities were and continue to be. For example, Shell produced dramatic films about the dangers of insect infestations as a way to raise public interest and support for their insecticides division.
These films supported Shell’s intentions to “present the company with a lively sense of international responsibility, and a leader in the field of science and technology,” (216) even though pesticides have been “linked with cancers, birth defects, learning disabilities, and harm to wildlife” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Shell also leveraged their global presence to produce films that encouraged their audiences’ curiosity about traveling to remote locations and the industries that used their product to get people there: aviation and automobiles, which are major contributors to air pollution.
Currently, aviation pollution accounts for 5% of global climate pollution and is the fastest growing form of transportation pollution due to the expansion of airplane travel. Jet fuel is the cause of most aviation pollution, which is a toxic mix of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphates, and particulate matter that contributes to the development of cancers, heart diseases, asthma, and other lung diseases when it is released directly above and blown over communities. Jet fuel also causes acid rain and contributes to global warming when it is “released high into the atmosphere.” Contrails, the condensation trail left behind jet aircrafts, also contributes to global warming by “[trapping] heat to the Earth’s surface.” Furthermore, airports are considered public health hazards because of the immense amount of toxic chemicals emitted by planes as they depart and arrive. Experts predict that aviation pollution will double by 2020 and quadruple by 2050 (Issue Briefing: Impacts of Airplane Pollution on Climate Change and Health).
Cars contribute to more than half of the air pollution in the United States according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Car pollution, like aviation pollution, damages human health, the environment, and the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer. Car emissions include harmful chemicals like greenhouse gases (which contribute to global warming), volatile organic compounds (a group of carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature with its own individual level of toxicity and potential for causing different health effects), nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides (which contribute to acid rain that make bodies of water toxic to aquatic life and damage forests, plants and buildings), solid particulates like soot and metal (that contaminate the biological systems of animals and plants when deposited in the soil and water used for crops and livestock), and lead (which decreased after the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act). Furthermore, car coolants (antifreeze) deplete the ozone layer and car fluids (which are toxic to humans and animals) pollute waterways when they are improperly disposed of or leak (King).
Shell Oil Company’s false environmental vision of themselves as scientific innovators and stewards of the environment spread further around the world when their films were translated into colonial languages like Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Gasland: Challenging the Filmmaker as Promoter Legacy
Gasland (2010) by Josh Fox
Josh Fox is not a filmmaker-promoter. His film Gasland (2010), instead challenges the gas and oil industry’s false media image of themselves by exploring the environmental impact of natural gas drilling on communities throughout the United States. Fox is instead a filmmaker-prosecutor whose film serves as an indictment of the industry’s careless profit-seeking. He specifically examines in Gasland the destructiveness of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), a form of drilling deep into shale rock that is used to recover natural gas and oil. Gas is extracted from rock through the fracking process by drilling into the earth and then injecting a high-pressure water-sand-chemical mixture to release the gas through wells. It results in creating new pathways or extending existing channels for gas extraction.
Fracking is viewed as a revolutionary drilling technique by gas and oil companies because it enables them to access hard to reach gas and oil sources that could enable domestic oil production for another hundred years. Furthermore, it results in the lowering of gas prices since fracking increases oil production. However, fracking uses vast amounts of water that can lead to the depletion of local water sources and its use of carcinogenic chemicals can contaminate nearby groundwater. It also can cause small earth tremors. Opponents of fracking think that its usage prevents companies and governments from investing in more renewable sources of energy (Q&A: What is fracking?).
The opening of Gasland begins with voiceover from the director: “I’m not a pessimist. I’ve always had a great deal of faith in people, that we wouldn’t succumb to frenzy or rage, or greed. That we figure out a solution without destroying the things we love” over an image of a fracking site that is revealed to be a photographic backdrop as the voiceover continues. When the camera pulls back slightly, the director appears in the frame wearing a gas mask and holding a banjo, two symbols that appear throughout the film. The film’s title appears with a thud across the screen. A montage of images that will appear later in the film comes next: footage from a Congressional hearing with the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources that discusses fracking, snow falling on a car windshield while driving through a forest, and quick shots of different urban and rural landscapes.
During the first minute of the film there are a chorus of voices from the Congressional hearing championing the practice of fracking over images of American mountains, lakes, prairies, and rural roads. A track by the Dutch avant-garde classical composer Jacob Ter Veldhuis plays underneath those voices to heighten the sense of foreboding about the topic being discussed.
· “There are numerous deep shale gas basins in the United States which contains trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.”
· “In fact North America’s natural gas supplies are so plentiful that it has been described recently as by some experts as a virtual ocean of natural gas.”
· We believe the potential from the four major shale basins is enormous and it is a game changer not only for America’s natural gas industry but also potentially for our nation, our economy, and our environment.”
· “I am here today representing the 30 member states of the interstate oil and gas compact commission who produce 99% of our domestic oil and gas. Studies and surveys of GWC, EPA, and IOGCC over the last 11 years have found no real credible threat to underground drinking water from hydraulic fracturing.
· “Recently however there have been concerns raised about how the methods to tap these valuable resources, technologies such as the practice of hydraulic fracturing have been characterized as environmentally risky and inadequately regulated. Press reports and websites [have been] alleging that 6 states have documented over 1,000 incidents of groundwater contamination resulting from the practice of hydraulic fracturing. Such reports are not accurate.”
Fox is driven to tell this story because of a personal connection to the topic. Early on in the film, we visit his childhood home in Pennsylvania and learn about his upbringing and the values he was raised with. Fox’s hippie parents built their home so that they had a backyard that connected to the Delaware River, which is “the longest free-flowing river in the eastern United States…[and is part of a] watershed…[that] supplies drinking water for nearly 20 million people” (Geiling). Fox then describes milestones in the environmental movement that occurred around his birth in the early 1970s: environmental activists like folk singer Pete Seeger protesting the pollution of watersheds in New York’s Hudson Valley out of concern that drinking water would be poisoned, the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Safe Water Drinking Act, and the Clean Air Act.
It seemed back then that the environmental movement was making serious progress in protecting the earth and ensuring a healthy planet for the next generations. There were also hopes during that era that technology would cut down on people’s workloads so they could enjoy their personal lives and spend more time outside in nature. However, this optimism begins to waver when Fox shares a letter he received in 2009 from an oil and gas company informing him that his family home is located on top of the Marcellus Shale, a sedimentary rock formation that covers much of the Appalachian Basin Province which is located in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. He informs viewers that the Marcellus Shale is viewed as “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas” by oil and gas companies for containing largely untapped natural gas reserves. Fox could lease his family’s land to one of these companies for $100,000.
Next he introduces a montage of advertisements and television interviews advocating the use of natural gas and asks “What would happen if the US and the rest of the world adopted natural gas?” But then he goes on to say “the 2005 Energy Bill pushed through Congress exempts oil and gas industries from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Superfund Law, and about a dozen other environmental and democratic regulations. And when the 2005 Energy Bill cleared away all the restrictions, companies like Encana, Williams, Cabot Oil and Gas, and Chesapeake began to use the new Halliburton technology to begin the largest and most extensive gas drilling campaign in history, now occupying 34 states.”
Losing that sense of home that is so meaningful to his sense of self is unthinkable to Fox and learning that environmental progress is being rolled back infuriates him. This inspires his investigative journey. The title Gasland refers to how so much of the United States is being drilled for natural gas extraction to be only turned into toxic chemical dump sites. The film’s opening sequence relates to the title’s meaning by presenting how the idyllic lifestyle his parents and other Americans pursued is being threatened by the financial interests of oil and gas companies.
Fox travels from Milanville, Pennsylvania to Dimock, Pennsylvania; Weld County, Colorado; the Jonah Gas Fields in Sublette County, Wyoming; Garfield County, Colorado; Divide Creek Colorado; Fort Worth, Texas; Dish, Texas; Louisiana; Dunkard Creek in Washington County, Pennsylvania; Meshoppen Creek, Pennsylvania; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; New York City; and Washington D.C. before returning to his family home. Each location connects him to local residents, politicians, and experts that reveal more information about the natural gas extraction process and how it impacts communities.
Even though Gasland is a 107 minute film, each minute is packed full of information. Often that information is layered on top of each other, which is demonstrated in some of the titles of different sections of the film: “Water Water Everywhere and Not A Drop to Drink” is a quote adapted from the poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge scholar Frederick Burwick explains that "the Mariner is deprived of fresh water and is surrounded by undrinkable salt water" (Doyle). In this section Fox travels to Dimock, PA to learn how fracking can impact a community. Many of the people are uncomfortable going in front of his camera and demonstrating what they’ve told him over the phone. He receives the first mysterious jar of ominous looking fracking-related liquid that someone asks him to test for chemicals. It keeps appearing at the end of this section while Fox ponders, and then accepts becoming a natural gas drilling detective.
Information in Gasland is also presented and then cut away quickly in order to maintain the film’s momentum: Anatomy of a Gas Well: Parts 1-5: Drill Rigs, The Pits, Evaporation Sprayers, Venting, and Condensate Tanks. It can be a struggle to keep up with Fox’s train of thought and his fast explanations are often not sufficient, but it does reflect the director’s intense and cerebral thought process that accompanies the urgency he feels around this issue. Moving so quickly over the scientific and legal explanations of fracking and its impact forces audiences to trust Fox as an authority on the issue, which not everyone will accept or even be able to keep up with his pace. It’s more convincing and memorable instead to hear from the people living with the effects of fracking.
There were numerable memorable scenes in the film. One of the most shocking incidents occurs when Fox meets a man in Weld County, Colorado who allows him to videotape him setting the water from his faucets on fire, which indicates how fracking pollutes the groundwater supplies and puts his home in danger of exploding. Fox then shows a local television report on how this is a phenomenon others are experiencing. He meets next a resident whose drinking water is supplied by an oil and gas company even though they do not admit fault for contaminating groundwater supplies.
Another troubling scene is the visit to a family farm and ranch covered in a chemical haze that has 24 fracking wells on their property. Their cattle, which eventually gets sold as beef for human consumption, drinks the tainted groundwater and breathes in the toxic fumes from the fracking condensation tanks.
It’s particularly heart rending to watch the interview of Calvin Tillman, the former Mayor of Dish, Texas, which is a very small town (2 square miles, 150 people) that has 10 major gas pipelines going through it that transports 10 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Tillman commissioned his own air quality study after seeing a chemical haze lingering over one of the town’s subdivisions and hearing residents complain of health problems. Results showed “amazing and very high levels of known and suspected human carcinogens and neurotoxins.” Tillman is also concerned that the town may blow up one day if someone barbeques in a spot where flames are not supposed to be lit.
Fox’s case against fracking is bolstered with interviews of experts like Dr. Theo Colborn who revealed which chemicals are used in fracking fluid since the US government doesn’t collect this information because these fluids are considered proprietary information. She identified 596 chemicals and 900 chemical products. Colborn also explains that exposure to these chemicals can have neurological effects that could result in irreversible brain damage. It may start out as headaches, then progress to ringing in the ears, disorientation, dizziness, peripheral neuropathy, swelling in one’s extremities, excruciating pain, and loss of sense of smell and/or taste.
Dr. Al Armendariz, an Air Quality Specialist and Researcher at Southern Methodist University, found that fracking emissions were greater than the amount of total vehicular emissions in Fort Worth, Texas due to the large amount of fracking sites in the area that have been developed in a 10 year span. These sites proliferated because the Clean Air Act only focuses on combating the largest single sources of air pollution. The oil and gas industry is exempt from regulation under this act since it has thousands of small drilling sites across the nation.
Environmental scientist Wilma Subra discusses how Louisiana is contaminated by oil and gas waste products. She explains that the Gulf Coastline has been receiving this waste, emptying it out to sea for 60 years, and that Hurricanes Rita and Katrina brought the waste’s toxic sediment sludge back onto the land. Subra also pointed out that hundreds of thousands of natural gas storage tanks and refineries in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi are unprotected during storm surges. This means that there is a permanent contamination situation in the Gulf Coast. It leads Fox to worry that all of the rivers he’d known as a child may be contaminated in the same way.
The return leg of Fox’s journey forces him to directly confront his anxieties about whether fracking will occur in his community. He meets with politicians in Pennsylvania, New York City, and Washington D.C. His meeting with John Hanger, the Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection leaves him unsatisfied when Hanger says that there is no perfect source of energy and that water contamination is inevitable.
Fox is also frustrated that no one from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation attends city hall meetings and no journalists attend press conferences about protecting New York City’s watershed system. The Congressional hearing on fracking that was included in the film’s opening sequence is shown again but there is some hope generated by the inclusion of questions from politicians who challenge the oil and gas industry’s claims that fracking is harmless.
Two of these politicians, Colorado Congresswoman Diana Louise DeGette and New York Congressman Maurice D. Hinchey, sponsored the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (DeGette, Hinchey, and Polis Lead 46 House Members in Support of Fracking Chemical Disclosure Requirements on Public Land), which is still under consideration (Text - S.785 - 114th Congress (2015-2016): FRAC Act). All of these meetings suggest that the northeastern part of the United States is still at risk of being turned into another fracking site.
Fox concludes the film by coming full circle with shots of his childhood home’s backyard: the trees, leaves, and the Delaware River in the rain. He tells viewers that it is largely up to them whether Pennsylvania and New York will protect their watersheds and whether the friends he made through making Gasland are going to get relief. What Fox certain of though is that he has a love for all of the United States and that his backyard isn’t just his backyard because it belongs to everyone else too. He also informs viewers about natural gas extraction being touted in Europe and Africa as well. Fox ends the film by saying, “it is possible the Gasland might stretch a little bit further from my backyard into yours.”
Fox’s attempts to reach a wide audience and inspire them to take action were successful. According to Britdoc.org’s Gasland: The Impact Field Guide and Toolkit, the film was screened at 14 film festivals around the world, released theatrically to 15 countries, broadcast in 22 countries, and the filmmaker’s website garnered over 1 million page views. HBO has also commissioned a follow-up film from the director focusing on the industry’s reaction to Gasland, whose engagement campaign goal is have the film serve as a catalyst for a global anti-fracking movement. Fox positioned himself as an anti-fracking spokesman by “attending hundreds of screenings in fracking-affected communities, [working] with grassroots activists in those locations to grow a movement that sought to change the conversation around this controversial new technology,” and making “over 50 major media appearances.”
Gasland’s campaign sought to 1) connect viewers with grassroots anti-fracking activists and 2) encourage them to lobby politicians and institutions to end fracking activities. The film also partnered with over “50 local, state, and national environmental groups...[which included] The Sierra Group and the Natural Resource Defense Council.” They also reached out to celebrities, like actors Mark Ruffalo and Michelle Williams, to help promote the film and fundraise for the anti-fracking movement. Screenings of Gasland were also used to lobby US Congress people, state legislators, regional and federal Environmental Protection Agency agencies, and politicians advocating for anti-fracking measures.
As a result of all this activity, “hundreds of local [anti-fracking] organizations” were created and are organizing themselves into a network and Fox became a “consultant to the Environmental Protection Agency and US Department of Justice, advising a national study on the effects of hydraulic fracturing, potential criminal enforcement [...], and the ongoing investigation into fracking by Representatives [Henry A.] Waxman and [Edward J. ] Markey.” There were hydrofracking bans enacted “in Pittsburgh, PA; Tompkins County, NY; Cooperstown, NY; Licking Township, PA; Baldwin, PA;. France, Quebec; and extended hydrofracking moratoriums were placed in NY State and South Africa.”
Gasland was so successful in fact that the oil and gas industry attempted to discredit the film and its director. Industry leaders “[wrote] letters to the Academy of Arts and Sciences formally protesting Gasland’s Oscar nomination and purchasing ads on Google so that anyone who searches for the film first sees a document called “Debunking Gasland,” from Energy in Depth, a propaganda arm of the industry” (Gasland: The Impact Field Guide and Toolkit). Beyond a doubt, Gasland has put fracking into the public’s consciousness.
Early filmmakers who promoted corporate agendas often covered up the serious damage their sponsors inflicted on the environment, which has enabled the continuing destruction of natural resources around the world. Promoting the exploration of unknown territories through exciting and adventurous films over 80 years ago in order to sell the fuel for traveling by cars and planes, along with A Louisiana Story’s a falsely optimistic view of the impact of the gas and oil industry’s activity, has brought us to the need for a documentary like Gasland to be made now. Josh Fox shows us that our unchecked desire for fossil fuels is already costing some their health and homes and that this situation will worsen and spread unless significant changes are made.
Those who challenge the filmmaker-as-promoter legacy by presenting documentary exposés of corporate malfeasance have become one of the reasons why corporations and individuals benefiting from partnerships with corporations to hire filmmakers willing to take on that role today. The filmmaking team of Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, who have directed films defending the mining industry (Mine Your Own Business) and debunking the claims made in Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth (Not Evil Just Wrong), also made FrackNation, a documentary that supports the practice of natural gas extraction. It was successfully funded on Kickstarter for about $200,000 and sought to refute claims made in Gasland (About FrackNation). It is unclear though whether contemporary filmmakers-as-promoters are producing pioneering documentary filmmaking content and storytelling like their predecessors. With much easier access to filmmaking technology and distribution platforms, along with more skeptical and media literate audiences, these filmmakers are competing with other stories about the same topics, which makes it difficult for their sponsors’ perspectives to become the dominant narrative.
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