A conversation with Renard Cohen.
by Pam Lazos
Let’s start off this interview with an answer to the burning question you are likely asking yourself: what is a fractivist?
Urban Dictionary describes a fractivist as follows:
n. Person opposed to liberating hydrocarbons from their dark prison under the earth.
Humor aside, why not fracking? Is it activism gone awry or do we really have to take stock of what is coming and going in and out of the ground? After all, we need the energy, right? Wasn’t hydraulic fracturing sold to the American populace as a safer alternative to drilling for oil — like fossil fuel lite? Let’s drill down for a moment and consider what hydraulic fracturing is doing to the planet.
Let’s start with an energy company drilling a hole. No big deal, right? We have tons of holes to get oil or water out of the ground, to build basements for houses, etc. But first the energy company builds a well pad sufficient to hold thousands of pounds of drilling machinery that will dig the hole. The well pad is typically placed near a stream because, if nothing else, fracking wells are thirsty business. The energy company drills down anywhere from 5,000 to 9,000 feet, the approximate depth of the Marcellus Shale, then inserts a pipe, encases the pipe in concrete — but only about 50′ to 100′ down — then pumps a combination of water, sand, and chemicals, dozens of likely hazardous, often unidentifiable substances — not because the company doesn’t know what they are but because they claim confidential business information on the mixture — at high pressure into the hole which extends about one to two miles underground into the Marcellus Shale. Then the energy company sets off a charge to fracture the bedrock, releasing the natural gas stored in the earth’s nooks and crannies, and the water pressure forces it back up the pipeline where it is captured, transported, and sold. Here’s a time-lapse video from Penn State if you want to see the process for yourself.
Before fracking, energy companies needed to rely on finding the larger stores of natural gas to do their extraction, but after fracking the earth knows no bounds because below the Marcellus Shale lies the Utica Shale which is anywhere from 5,000 to 11,000 feet and that means fracking will be with us for decades to come.
Why is this an issue? Because of the chemicals used in combination with water and sand to fracture the ground and force the gas to the surface. Because of the possibility of contaminating area groundwater. Because of the well pads themselves which are eyesores and ear-sores, often built in people’s backyards with pumps that run constantly and stadium lights that stay on 24/7.
I think I’ve set the stage sufficiently for the main event, an interview with Renard Cohen.
Renard is an Emmy Award winning television producer/director, composer, musician and filmmaker who has been involved in protecting our environment for many years as a past president of the nonprofit Pocono Environmental Coalition and Wild Life Society, cofounder and past president of the nonprofit Resolution Media Fund, who’s mission is to create media, education programs, music and films that support protecting our environment and our rights. He’s produced TV for PBS, National Geographic, Food Network, Fine Living Network, IBM, Teach For America, Court TV and more. His feature length documentary, Groundswell Rising, Protecting Our Children’s Air and Water was featured in 12 Film Festivals, won a Humanitarian Award, aired worldwide on Free Speech TV, RT and can be purchased on Amazon Prime TV.
But wait, there’s more. Renard has also produced the PBS Special, The Science of Healing, and won an Emmy for the PBS series, Seasoned with Spirit, a Native Cook’s Journey.
Renard is the co-founder of artists4earth.com, an innovative website featuring an online art gallery of environmentally inspired art which can be downloaded for a donation to the Artists for Earth Project. The donations are then shared with partnering groups such as Food and Water Watch and Delaware River Keeper Network, turning art into support for the Earth. Renard, and partner Brian Van Korn wrote and recorded One Earth Song, and produced the video for the song.
And now, on to the questions:
You have a website, Artists4Earth, a community of artists who have donated their work to the cause of supporting different non-profits that work on behalf of the planet. First of all, great idea. Where did it come from, how’s it going, how long have you been at it, and do you feel your movement is successful? And if the answer to the last question is yes, how do you measure success?
When I directed and produced the documentary Groundswell Rising, Protecting our Children’s Air and Water, I met and filmed people who have been personally harmed by fracking and natural gas harvesting, people who have dedicated their lives to countering the abuses of the oil and gas industry, and those who would protect people from this harm. I wanted the film to give these people a greater voice than they would have talking to a group of people at a library or school. I am happy to say that we have accomplished this, and their words have been effective in warning other communities and educating legislators to take action to protect people facing the same harms.
I was hoping to find a way to help support some of the groups we worked with in making Groundswell Rising. Delaware River Keepers Network, a nonprofit that was able to keep the gas companies out of the Delaware River Basin (which supplies drinking water to millions of people) was one and Food and Water Watch another. I then learned of Green Amendments For the Generations, working to get green amendments in all the state constitutions and then the federal constitution. I wanted to find a way to help these groups who are on the front lines in the confronting the climate crisis in ways most of us are not.
For the last few years I had been providing music for an art competition involving environmentally inspired art. The Earth Speaks Art Competition features great art dedicated to heightening our awareness of the challenges we face from climate change and polluting technologies. When the art show was done, the art that was not sold would be brought back to the artist’s studios or closets and not seen again. I thought what a waste. I thought what if this art could be part of a web based art show, benefiting environmental groups. We could then honor the art and help the environment — so artists4earth.com was born.
Did you know the artists you’ve recruited for the website before you started Artists4Earth? It looks like sales are limited to artists who work in visual arts. I get that because it’s something that is easily transferable, but have you thought about adding musicians, writers, filmmakers, and the like?
I had been working with a gifted artist/music producer, Brian Van Korn on a video we created for our composition and recording, One Earth Song when we began creating the initial website for Artists4earth.com. I reached out to some of the artists in our home Pocono region including Maciek Albrecht a Peabody and multi Emmy award-winning animator. Maciek was willing to allow digital copies of some of his drawings to be used for donations to download, and the funds to be given to our partnering nonprofits. With artists Maciek Albrecht, Lauri Henninger, John Yetter and Jack and Jill Swersie we had a start.
My production company Resolution Pictures, which also produced Groundswell Rising, edited the documentary, Art of the Fantastic. This film explores the fine artists who’s work brings to extraordinary life the world of science fiction, fantasy books, films, and designs for high level commercial art. When I shared the idea of artists4earth.com with Art of the Fantastic director Bill Niemeyer, he became on of our curators and invited top artists, Don Maitz, Volkan Baga and Donato Giancola to join us. Today with many accomplished artists, artists4earth.com is fulfilling its mission, turning art into support for the earth.
You made a film called Groundswell Rising that seeks to debunk many of the theories surrounding hydraulic fracturing, such as: it’s safe, easier on the planet than other forms of fossil fuel recovery, and that it’s integral to the U.S. becoming energy independent. Tell us about the movie, how it got started, and what prompted you to take on the task of letting the world know about the environmental ills caused by fracking?
Many years ago I was the president of The Pocono Environmental Coalition and Wildlife Society. When the current president invited me to attend a teach in at our local library on something called Fracking, I was intrigued. At this small gathering I learned that there was an industrial process that was being done literally on the doorsteps of residential homes, schools, nursing homes and sensitive areas that were in no way industrial. They showed a film by Dr. Theo Colborn on the dangers to people, nature, wildlife, air and water that are inherent in this toxic gas drilling technique. I was amazed that I had never heard of this and it was going on just miles from where I lived. There were two presenters, a woman from Pro Publica and a woman from The Community Legal Defense Fund. They spoke of how communities were organizing on local levels to keep this industrial intrusion out of their towns. I was inspired and decided that their story and others giving so much needed to be heard. I was determined to make a film about their work and mission. This film became Groundswell Rising.
One of the people in the movie has a T-shirt that says “fractivist”. Great shirt, BTW. You should sell them on your website. Were you an environmental activist from childhood or did it evolve over time? Was there a the precipitating factor or did you just come into this world wanting to do good for the environment?
I turned 13 in 1963 and along with the Beatles, opposition to the Vietnam War, the need to feed places like Biafra and Bangladesh, the civil rights movement, and tragic assassinations, my consciousness was raised. I began playing piano at age 4 and guitar at 13. Inspired by Dylan, Phil Ochs, and the Beatles I began writing songs at 13. My parents were founding members of one of the foremost theater groups on Long Island NY, Lantern Theater. So I began acting at around 11 years old. I was treated like an adult by the other cast members and enjoyed the collaborative effort of doing theater. My view of the world was shaped by Ipsen, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. I played Peter in The Diary of Ann Frank, and my Mother, Felice Cohen played my mother. It was a great education.
I was a freshman at Emerson College in Boston in 1969 when Kent State happened and the boycott began. I helped alert the students about the strike by making and distributing a flyer, ( I had a job at the school print shop) and organizing students to go into the offices and call all of the commuter students. I was a rebel. My activism ignited.
I have a theory, I believe the activism of the 60s was precipitated by the TV shows of the 50s. As kids we were told on the shows like Captain Kangaroo, Kukla Fran and Ollie, Mickey Mouse Club and Howdy Doody, ( I was on the Howdy Doody show in the Peanut Gallery and interviewed at 7) that the police were our friends, and America stood for truth, honesty and doing the right thing. When we saw Selma, the killing of King, the Kennedys and Malcom X, and the revelations of the Pentagon Papers, we felt betrayed and wanted to drop out and protest. A lot of us are still there.
When we began to understand that global warming was happening, with films like Inconvenient Truth and it became clear that our leaders and heads of industry were denying it, we made the decision to do what we could to tip the balance to sanity and protection for our children and grandchildren’s futures. I say we but I understand that I made these decisions for myself. I began by writing songs that spoke of the things I was concerned with and then given the opportunity, I decided to use my knowledge as a filmmaker to create Groundswell Rising (Resolution Pictures, founded by my brother Matt Cohen and myself makes shows for The Food Net, PBS, IBM, National Geographic, etc., and has won an Emmy for a 5-part PBS miniseries, Seasoned With Spirit, A Native Cooks Journey). After the film came out, I introduced it at many screenings, and opened the show by singing the theme song live. I am still up for doing this when asked. The film was on Free Speech TV, Russia Today, 12 film fests, won a Humanitarian Award and now is on Amazon Prime. It has been used to help get bans of fracking through in Florida, Maryland, New York, Scotland and other places.
How much research did you do before you started making Groundswell Rising? Did you know the people you showcased in the movie — for example, Maya Van Rossum — before you started the movie or did your work in the environmental movement result in Groundswell Rising as a collaboration? BTW, Van Rossum is an adjunct professor at Temple Law, my alma mater, although we missed each other by a few years.
Before I went to a library teach-in about Fracking, I didn’t have any idea what it was. This opened my eyes and after I decided to do the film, I started going to local events to shoot and learn more. I went to an Earth Day event at Muhlenberg College and learned about rural country roads being turned into clogged industrial highways by fracking. I heard they were spreading dangerous frack water on roads as deicer, and heard a rep from a business group proclaim that fracking was our best financial opportunity. Some of this made it into the film. We then shot a program at North Hampton Community College with Dr. Tony Ingraffea, a former oil company engineer who was spreading the word on the dangers of fracking. It was there that I leaned that by the industry’s own admission 3-5% of all wells leak methane from their first days, then leak more as time goes on. And there are thousands of wells, leaking and burning methane off into the environment.
The more I learned the more determined I was that this story, which most of us were unaware of, had to get out. I then stared meeting people who were dedicating their lives to protecting us from fracking and industrial pollution, including Sandra Steingraber, a victim of industrial pollution which resulted in her contracting bladder cancer at the age of 20. Now a scientist, she was leading the charge against the effects of frackng, especially in babies and children. Sandra became an important part of Groundswell Rising and I was very glad to help get her message out to more people.
I then met some of the leading activists who were working to help communities keep fracking out of their towns. The habit of the Oil and Gas Companies was to sneak into a town before anyone knew what was happening. The individuals I met and included in the film were alerting people and organizing them to keep this away from their kids and literally, their doorsteps. I was able to show some success so the film became not only about the dangers but also about what we can do to protect ourselves. As this movement grew it became, and still is, a groundswell rising.
I listened to a Smartless podcast the other day with Admiral Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the U.S. and he said that if the people in power now would be around to see the effects of climate change, there would probably be more political will. What is your view of the world and its leaders at this particular time in history and are you hopeful or do you feel we may actually be running out of road?
I think because we trusted those in power to watch out for us, we let them make decisions that did not have our best interests as their top priority. We should have not been surprised, we knew that in the Bush 2 Administration, Cheney and the Bush Family came from the oil and gas industry. We learned about the Halliburton Loophole, (Cheney’s former company) letting the oil industry be exempt from the clean air act, the clean water act, and others put in place to protect us. We learned later that Exxon had researched climate change and determined that we would be responsible for it and that it would be harmful, but then denied it in pronouncements. We also found out that the oil industry hired the same PR firm the tobacco industry used to deny a cancer and smoking connection, to convince the public that there was no climate emergency and humans had nothing to do with climate changes though their own research was to the contrary.
I am cautiously optimistic that we can pull together and mitigate our climate crisis in time to cut short the worst outcomes. There is always the possibility that new technologies and unified action can turn the tide. It does worry me to see that the reaction of many areas is to prepare for the worst outcomes like building dikes and moving to higher ground instead of working to fix the problem. I don’t know how it will turn out, but we must do what we can, for our children and grandchildren. I say this as a father of five and, as of now, a grandfather of two with a new grandchild on the way.
In the constant quest that each one of us has to become the best version of ourselves, how has your history — childhood, adolescence, and adulthood — hampered or spurred you on to becoming the version, and what is it that brought you to the environmental movement with such gusto?
My first exposure to the problem of environmental degradation was seeing the pictures of the dark clouds of smog that hung over cities like LA and NY. It was hard to dismiss. Then I heard about acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, and the burning of the rain forests. In the case of smog, I believe that progress has been made and cities are somewhat less polluted, but until approximately 30 years ago, most of us were unaware of the real threat of the climate crisis. We saw the Native American with a tear in his eye talking about littering and garbage, but who knew that we were facing an existential threat.
There is an old Buddhist saying: when you know, you can’t not know, so the more I learned about what science was saying about our part in creating a climate calamity, the more I wanted to use whatever talents and abilities I had to help educate the public on what we can do to meet the challenge. And as I realized that most people didn’t really have a clue about what we face and our responsibility in it, it became clear that films like Groundswell Rising could expose the problems and talk about how we can at least protect our communities.
Talk about the unregulated oil and gas industry. How did it avoid the usual regulations?
From the time oil was discovered in Pennsylvania and became our dominant form of fuel, a decision was made about what kind of world we would have. Not everyone was consulted and as usual in our society, those who stood to make lots of money had the power to institute fossil fuel for almost all of our energy needs. Certainly the adopting of the combustion engine and powering private small individual-use cars became the key to our growth and process. To question the wisdom of this track was seen as un-American and anti progress. Moguls of the oil and gas industry had direct influence on and eventually became our government leaders. And now we know that the oil and gas companies had their own in-house studies that confirmed that we were causing real environmental harm, and they decided to squash their own findings and deny it. So we are way behind the curve in being able to respond in time and address the problems. But what can we do but try!
Groundswell Rising talks about some statistics, like the failure rate of new wells being one out of 20, or approximately 5%; how 30% of wells will leak after a decade (and we have no idea how many after a century); and how the energy companies were only required to do a 250’ setback from residential properties, resulting in people having fracking wells adjacent to their backyards, a severe detriment — like in the case of the homeowners in Dimock, PA — to the home’s sanctity and the owner’s peace of mind. The movie also talked about the fact that the fracking companies know they are not capturing all emission even though they have represented to the homeowners that their processes are safe. What is the fix, do you think, when the company misrepresents the health risks associated with these gas wells?
There was a time not long ago when knowledgeable people were concerned about Peak Oil. We thought oil was running out. There was a real push to start creating new sources of energy. Hydrogen-powered cars with only water as the exhaust were being researched by companies like British Petroleum. There was new interest in renewables.
Then a scientist in Pennsylvania discovered the Marcellus Shale deposits and a technique that used great amounts of fresh water, a cocktail of potentially harmful chemicals, along with earthshaking explosions to bring the shale oil and gas to the surface. That is fracking. Once the gas is at the surface, there are many problems with storage, leaking methane, transportation, water contamination, and more. Before the real environmental downside of this technology was publicly known, laws giving the industry a pass on important water, air and soil protections were instituted. Before long, with fracked gas and new oil deposits found in the US, we were awash in oil and gas. We went from being an oil importer to being an oil and gas exporter, making it even harder for us to want to move past fossil fuels, into clean renewable technologies. But if we want to or not, science tells us that we must make these changes for our children and grandchildren to survive.
Where are the adults? Where are the leaders that can give us real choices and the consequences, good and bad, of those choices? We are at a crossroads.
I have heard many different numbers on how much more of a green house gas driver methane is. I guess it depends on what method you use to measure. But what they all say is that methane is many times worse for the environment than carbon or CO2. Fracked or “Natural” gas is methane. And it gets released into our environment by the industry in many ways, from harvest to transport to use. The truth is, we don’t need to rely on methane or any fossil fuel to power the earth. Studies show that we can power the earth with renewables. It requires the will and support of the people and the real desire to meet the challenges before it is too late (and we are getting close).
In the movie you talk about a Green Amendment which is an idea started by Maya van Rossum who has also written a book about it. What is the Green Amendment and how did you begin working with Professor van Rossum.
The oil and gas industries had their sights set on fracking in the Delaware River Basin. This basin provides the drinking water for millions of people including New York, Delaware, Pennsylvannia, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia. The responsibility to keep this water safe falls on the Delaware River Basin Commission. When it became known that the Commission we set to allow the Oil Companies to come in and Frack the Basin, Delaware River Keepers Network, lead by Maya Van Rossum, sprang into action and brought protestors, environmentalists and educators to the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) meeting and demanded that no permission should be given until much more extensive research was done on the dangers instead of just relying on the assurances the industry was supplying. It worked and the Commission eventually banned fracking from the Basin. Maya and her actions with the Delaware River Keeper became an important part of Groundswell Rising. Artists4earth and its partnering organizations continues to work with Maya and her new group, Green Amendments For The Generations, working to establish Green Amendments to the constitutions of all states and the federal constitution. With these laws in place, environmental protections will be much stronger and harder to sweep aside with the Presidential Pen.
Let’s talk about renewables which the movie touts as being sufficient to power our entire country. If this is the case, what is stopping us from not walking, but running in that direction, meaning, why aren’t we doing more and how do you suggest we start?
In 2013, Scientific American asked two scientists to do a study on the feasibility of powering the world solely with renewable energy. Using just technologies available then they determined that this could be done — without huge upheaval and disruption of life — and laid out a plan to do so. I traveled to California to interview one of the scientists, Mark Jacobson, for Groundswell Rising. In the film, Mark says, based on his research, there is no technical reason that we can’t power the world with renewables, it is just the will to do it and the social pressure needed to make these changes happen. Mark now has The Solutions Project, which is helping cities, states and countries make the transition to clean renewable energy. He is working with Mark Ruffalo (also in Groundswell Rising) and Leonardo DiCaprio on the project.
In Catching the Sun, a documentary by filmmaker Shalini Kantayya, she has a segment on Van Jones, formerly Obama’s green jobs czar, and founder of the renewable energy training organization Green for All, an organization that trained people, generally in underserved communities, to install solar panels, giving them access to a living wage and a sense of community. In addition, I just read an article in Brookings Institute that we don’t just need the money from Build Back Better to go green, we also need people who will be able to implement the changes which means we need more money going to states and localities for training/retraining of these new technologies. How do we make this happen? Do we need a couple thousand Vance Jones to take up this crucial work and if so, how do we find them?
It is very gratifying to see more and more young people getting involved with responding to the climate crisis. I am heartened by the divestment movement on many college campuses, which demands that the school’s investments move away from fossil fuels and harmful practices and technologies. It was only after countries divested from South Africa that apartheid began to loose support and ended.
When I am faced with the question of whether we as a society can really change I think of how we moved past smoking. I remember when every office, bus, club, airplane, taxi, movie, train, sports arena, theater and government building was filled with smoke. When the question, “Do you mind if I smoke?” was met with a yes, you were looked at like a selfish tree-hugging lout. Finally, after years of the cigarette companies advertising, proclaiming that there was no connection between smoking and cancer, we woke up and said this needs to stop. And it did. Good for us!
The same cohesion and common sense needs to unify us now to slow down and hopefully reverse the effects our society is having on our climate, our health, our co-habitant plants and animals, and our interaction with each other. If anything I do can move us closer to healthier outcomes, I will have lived a good life.
I have one more question: do you think music can save the world and if so, why?
Throughout my life I have dedicated what talents I have to positive change and social causes. I believe that music is a special gift and has the ability to heal and inspire. Being a conduit for that energy is very fulfilling and my desire is to help mankind evolve to more sensitivity, fairness and wisdom.
If my music can help with that, I will be grateful.
Renard, thanks so much for taking the time to tell us about your work. It’s been terrific and enlightening. Wishing you all the best in realizing your vision for the kind of environment that supports us all. I’ll be looking out for your next project.
Interested in contacting Renard? You can find him at Artists4earth.com, a group of world class artists, including Emmy winners, Hugo Award winners, Earth Speaks winners and many other great artists from all parts of the world. Their artists submit work that will be used as thank you gifts for donations to artists4earth’s nonprofit environmental partners. Artists4earth partners include: Food and Water Watch, Delaware River Keepers, Move Past Plastic, and Green Amendments for the Generations . The 501(c)(3) Resolution Media Fund collects and distributes the funds, turning art into support for the earth.
Pam Lazos is an environmental lawyer, editor, and author of the eco thriller, “Oil and Water” about oil spills and green technology; on the Board of Advisors for the wH2O Journal, the Journal of Gender and Water (University of Pennsylvania); and the VP of Communications for GWA. She believes access to safe, clean water is a basic human right. She practices laughter daily.