John Fenton, a Wyoming rancher, appears in "Gasland"

John Fenton, a Wyoming rancher, appears in "Gasland," shown Tuesday night in Cody.

MARTIN KIDSTON/Gazette Staff

CODY, Wyo. — John Fenton's rural Wyoming ranch in Pavilion may be a long way from Hollywood and the Oscars scene.

But that's where the tall man in a clean, white cowboy hat found himself last year after appearing in "Gasland," an award-winning documentary that explores the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing — known as "fracking" in the energy business.

"It was kind of weird seeing Kate Blanchet sitting in front of us and the Coen brothers sitting behind us," Fenton said Tuesday in Cody, where "Gasland" was screened at the public library.

"I get people asking questions quite a bit now. I think the film helped open the eyes of some people who have seen it and didn't know about this stuff."

The documentary follows Josh Fox, a Pennsylvania man who was asked to lease his land for drilling, as he visits 24 states looking at consequences of the nation's appetite for natural gas. Some of the film takes place near the gas fields of Weld County, Colo., and in areas of western Wyoming, including Fenton's property.

The film won a Special Jury Prize for documentaries at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

For Fenton, participating in "Gasland" was a chance to express his concerns — and talk about his losses — to a larger audience.

"I think they did a pretty good job explaining the issue in everyman's terms," Fenton said at the Cody showing. "For people to understand these things, you have to put it in pretty black-and-white terms. The big companies don't want people to understand what's going on."

Fenton says he isn't anti-drilling — he once ran a family-owned oil and gas business, and his son works in Wyoming as a roughneck. But he is angry at the environmental damages he says have occurred on his family's ranch since drilling began.

In the movie, Fenton talks about the bulldozers that leveled the hideaway he and his wife were fond of visiting to make room for the drilling pad. He said the value of his property is now half of what it used to be.

"We can't drink our water anymore," he said, saying it's now polluted with diesel-range organics, glycols and sodium, along with other heavy metals. "We have haze from the air emissions."

The film shows people burning water tainted with natural gas as it runs from their faucets. It also includes interviews with an EPA whistle-blower, several congressmen, scientists and energy executives.

The documentary also looks at the changes made during the Bush presidency to loosen fracking laws, including the "Halliburton loophole," which in 2005 exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Like many who appeared in the film, Fenton expressed frustrations in getting his concerns heard. He accused Wyoming policymakers and local county commissioners of putting profits ahead of people.

"What the hell good's a profit if we don't have any water to drink?" Fenton said before returning his focus to the film. "Fox and I hit it off pretty well and he spent the night on our couch. I even went to the Oscars with him."

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