BY JONATHAN VALANIA Ann McElhinney and her husband Phelim McAleer describe themselves as journalists/documentary filmmakers whose only agenda is to tell the stories that aren’t being told: That environmentalists like Al Gore, James Cameron and Gasland director Josh Fox are (in order of appearance) liars, cheaters and hypocrites; that global warming/climate change is scam; that scientists who insist otherwise are only in it for the money; that fracking is harmless; and fossil fuel consumption is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
I would call her a paid shill for Big Energy. Her latest film, Not Just Evil But Wrong, argues that decades of peer-reviewed climate science is just plain wrong. By her own admission, Mine Your Own Business, the 2006 leave-the-poor-little-mining-companies-alone-themed documentary she made with her husband, was funded by a Canadian mining company called Gabriel Resources. That is not journalism, that is corporate propaganda. She is currently on a tour of Pennsylvania college campuses (that brings her to Temple today at 1 PM) that is being funded by Americans For Prosperity, which is funded by the Koch Brothers who have massive holdings in fossil fuels like oil and gas and have spent upwards of $50 milion spreading the gospel of climate change denial and underwriting dubious scientific studies that confuse the matter and sow doubt in the minds of the American people. And it’s working. Every year polls show that less and less Americans think climate change is real or cause for concern.
Last week we got McElhinney on the phone and we went round and round on climate science atheism, the existential dangers of fracking, the scalability of renewable energy, and the accuracy of Gasland. I will give her this much: she has a knack for loudly talking over people who disagree and not letting them get a word in edge-wise, responding to any attempts at interjection with an unbroken torrent of verbiage, and making it clear that any raising of voice would be matched decibel for decibel. Plus, she has a disarming Irish brogue that almost makes all the blarney that comes with it believable. Almost.
PHAWKER: How would you describe what you and your husband do? Is it climate science denial or pro-fracking advocacy?
ANN MCELHINNEY: I think we’re filmmakers and journalists who like to tell stories that no on else is telling and like to tell the truth, which is kinda fun. We’ve been at this for a while. We on a small independent film production company and hopefully we’ll continue to do so. Particularly stories like Gasland which is just interesting to look at how a story is told, or not told or distorted in the case of Gasland. We’ve been at this for a while and we’ve looked at other stories similar to this, kind of environmental scares in lots of places in Africa and Southeast Asia. It’s just kind of fun. Before that we made three documentaries about international adoption. So we’re in the truth telling business — telling the truth and telling stories that no one else is telling.
PHAWKER: It’s curious to me though that aside from the international adoption stuff, that all the documentary work you guys do would seem to serve the interest of large fossil fuel energy companies. You’re questioning global climate change science, questioning critics of fracking, questioning people that are advocating against excesses of mining in foreign countries, etc. Is that just a coincidence?
ANN MCELHINNEY: Well I think it’s very interesting. I think maybe there’s a completely different way of framing your question or framing what you’re asking me, which is, isn’t it interesting though to tell stories that no one else tells and isn’t it interesting to identify people who tell stories and get huge traction in media for telling things that aren’t true. And I think that’s great and I love doing it. It’s a huge honor and a huge privilege. As for advocating for fossil fuels, yeah. And you advocate for fossil fuels, we all do because we’d be such hypocrites if we didn’t. This is what we’re using to power our lives and it’s great. I’m so tired of people talking about renewable energy when it’s just not even feasible. Not even with any of the most outlandish, most powerful projections of what renewable energy we could have in America, whatever complicated multiplication of what is existing there at the moment, which is maybe 8% of the energy. We, for a very long time, are going to need fossil fuels in order to be safe. To keep our children safe, to run hospitals and schools, to entertain ourselves with iPods and iPhones and all the rest. Anything else is naïve. It really is. It surprises me actually, that the world is full of these people who talk this great game about renewables. Everyone’s in favor of renewables. I’m so in favor of things that don’t cost anything, everyone is in favor of that. No one is against that, everyone is in favor of that. But in the meantime, while we’re waiting for that to be reasonable, to be a good price so the poor people can get it, let’s be honest and let’s be adult about the fact that we do need energy. How are we gonna get it? What’s the best way to get it? What’s the moment of least impact? Let’s have a grown-up conversation, it’s not them against all. We all need energy. I think one of the problems is people don’t know where their energy comes from. I think all sorts of Americans, a lot of the people in the Occupy Wall Street and all those kinds of people, the environmentalists, that just don’t know where the energy comes from, they don’t know how much they’re using themselves. Which they say they hate.
PHAWKER: I think people are actually waking up to the fact of where their fuels are coming from, and the geopolitical costs and environmental costs associated with the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. I think that’s why there’s this growing chorus of concern about it in this country in the last 10 years. I think up until then we had no -
ANN MCELHINNEY: No, not 10 years, why would you pick an arbitrary number like 10 years? The environmentalists have been anti-development forever. We go back further than 10 years. But all this being a movement of people who have a problem with development and are just anti-progress and anti-stuff that they really enjoy themselves. They live the life themselves and then complain about it. I compare it to somebody who’s had a religious experience – I’m not one of them – these people that find Jesus. They say, “I’m gonna change, I’m gonna give all my money to the poor,” and stuff like that. I think they’re marvelous, I’m just definitely not that person. But environmentalists aren’t like that. They say something but they don’t do it. And I never can understand that, it really worries me about their sincerity.
PHAWKER: That’s something I wanted to ask you about, you guys seems to do a lot of attacking the messenger and not the message.
ANN MCELHINNEY: Sorry, can you say that again? I was talking over you.
PHAWKER: Yes, you were talking over me. You guys seem to do that a lot, you seem to attack the messenger and not the message. You go after Al Gore for the hypocrisy of his carbon footprint, you go after James Cameron for the hypocrisy of his carbon footprint, you go after the guy from Gasland for not mentioning some report from 1976 – but the basis of what these people are advocating is backed up by hard science and reality.
ANN MCELHINNEY: I’m sorry, tell me about the hard science and reality.
PHAWKER: OK, Inconvenient Truth – the British High Court, as you guys like to point out, listed nine assertions in the film that the court took exception to…
ANN MCELHINNEY: Just to be very clear about that, they selected nine to talk about. They picked nine out of the huge number of errors. Nine was the one they decided to use when they were giving their judgement, but nine was not the number of errors. Nine was a subsection of the number of errors, just to be on the factual side there with that.
PHAWKER: But the judge did say that in the main, the film as in line with the mainstream of scientific opinion about this matter -
ANN MCELHINNEY: The judge said it was politics and not science, that’s what the judge said. The judge said the film was politics and not science and needed to be always introduced as such. I think that’s really important to say. The mainstream science, when you talk about the mainstream science, the number of scientists who have an issue with global warming alarmism grows exponentially while they’re finding these huge numbers of highly respected scientists who have a huge issue with this.
PHAWKER: That is simply not true. There is a minority opinion that is skeptical of these [climate change is a fact] findings, but the majority of scientific opinion is in line with these findings.
ANN MCELHINNEY: Says who? First of all, let me ask a question. Is there a list somewhere that exists of all the scientists that are out there in the world? In other words, it needs a definitive number, because if it’s a majority, there must be a definitive number otherwise you couldn’t talk about majority. Majority of what? Majority of who? Second thing I’d like to say on that is, science never, never ever in the history of science has science succeeded by consensus or democracy. Truth isn’t about democracy, it’s about the truth. One person can have the truth and their right and everyone else is wrong.
PHAWKER: You’re right: Galileo.
ANN MCELHINNEY: That’s the consensus. And we’ve all moved on from that, and we know that everybody thought the Earth was flat and only one person thought it was round. Consensus is an anathema to the scientific process. Using that to justify scientific claims is bogus.
PHAWKER: I’m not saying that’s justifying scientific claims, I’m just clarifying where the bulk of consensus is on this matter. You were trying to infer that there was a growing number of scientists changing they’re minds, that the scales have fallen from their eyes and they now doubt the science.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: IN FACT, ON THE DAY OF THIS INTERVIEW A STORY BROKE BIG THAT PHYSICIST ROBERT MULLER, ONE OF THE MOST PROMINENT GLOBAL WARMING DENIERS, CONCEDED THAT
MAN-MADE CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL AFTER CONDUCTING HIS OWN STUDY FUNDED, IRONICALLY ENOUGH, BY THE KOCH BROTHERS.]
ANN MCELHINNEY: No, excuse me, stop on that, can we stop on that one? Because that is absolutely true. If you have time, I’d love to tell you about it because Ivar Giaever, the 1973 Physics Nobel Prize Laureate, resigned not a month ago from the America Physical Society in protest over the group’s insistent that evidence of man-made global warming is incontrovertible. I could read the whole statement from him. By the way, he’s one number of good – there are people – you can say I’m wrong, but you need to prove it, because I can prove the opposite. There are people every day saying, “This is nuts. This is crazy.” I can send you a very long list of scientists with quotes that go with them saying that very thing.
PHAWKER: Are they climate scientists? Do they actually do climate modeling?
ANN MCELHINNEY: People like Richard Lindzen, who was a member of the IPCC, who is the chair of atmospheric sciences at MIT, which I think you would agree is a pretty impressive credential. People dispute these findings. The IPCC itself, by the way, is an inter-governmental panel on climate change, it’s not an inter-governmental science body. It’s government, not scientists – which I think in itself is kind of interesting. You’re actually factually incorrect about that. Every day or every month or every few weeks, we find new numbers of scientists who come out against the IPCC and against this finding that we’re all about to die.
PHAWKER: I don’t think the finding is that we’re all about to die.
ANN MCELHINNEY: Sorry, that’s what Al Gore said. Come on, you gave me An Inconvenient Truth so I’m giving it back to you.
PHAWKER: Al Gore didn’t say we’re all about to die. I saw An Inconvenient Truth and I don’t recall seeing or hearing that at any point in the movie.
ANN MCELHINNEY: Seeing what?
PHAWKER: This declaration that we’re all about to die.
ANN MCELHINNEY: I’m sorry, I’m exaggerating a little bit. You don’t remember in the film seeing hundreds of thousands, millions of people were dying, you don’t remember that? Because I can find you the quote and I can send it to you.
PHAWKER: This is getting very combative here, so let’s just pause for one second and I wanna give you a chance to – you’re on this campus tour [that brings you to Temple today], tell me what this is about.
ANN MCELHINNEY: I think what’s happened with this Marcellus [Shale] thing is just amazing. I think America is such a lucky country. It really is gifted. Gasland has been incredibly successful and wonderfully successful, Oscar nomination, Emmy awards and all of that. The money shot in Gasland is a lie. I think people should know that. I think it’s good to talk these things through and for people to just be honest. I always worry about people who put forward an argument, and in order to make their argument strong, they say things that aren’t true. It makes me really question everything else they say. In the case of Gasland, there were so many untruths it’s kind of incredible. I don’t know what his motivation is. I really don’t. I mean, you were asking me about mine, I’m really curious about his motivation. The Markham and McClure [the two families whose tap water is set on fire in Gasland] well water, tested by Colorado Oil and Gas, found biogenic gas which is naturally occurring, yet he continued to leave that in the film. Halliburton Loophole – the 2005 Energy Act was modified by Obama. Let’s get a grip here, you know? This lighting of the water – for God’s sake, anyone who knows anything about the history of America or has older parents or grandparents knows people all over America have been lighting their water for years. They were tourist attractions. I’ve found so far five towns in America called “Burning Springs.” I just don’t understand the motivation of a person like Josh Fox.
PHAWKER: I don’t think anyone’s disputing there’s been instances where aquifers that were positioned near large reserves of natural gas would have become flammable all by themselves, but that’s denying the fact that just this past spring, there was a peer-reviewed study published by the National Academy of Sciences, conducted by four scientists of Duke University, that found that levels of flammable methane gas in drinking water wells increases to dangerous levels when those water supplies are close to natural gas wells.
ANN MCELHINNEY: Ok, I haven’t seen that.
PHAWKER: Really? You go around the country preaching the gospel of fracking and you never heard of this highly publicized study published by the National Academy of Sciences?
ANN MCELHINNEY: I’d like to see that. I can’t comment on it, and I wouldn’t expect you to expect me to comment on it. What I do know, and what I think is very well important, is the head of EPA, Lisa Jackson, who is clearly no friend of oil and gas, has said on record that she knows of no instance herself, as a head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States, of a contamination by the fracking process of the water. We could throw back and forth some quotes, but I think the head of the EPA is pretty impressive.
PHAWKER: Frankly, I think that all the regulatory agencies in this country have been stripped out in the last 30 years to the point where they’re totally toothless. They’re often run by people that came over from the industry side, and there’s a revolving door between those two, between regulatory and industry in this country. Frankly, I don’t think they have a lot of credibility.
ANN MCELHINNEY: That’s obviously a very clear position of yours. I don’t actually see that, I think if anything, the regulatory environment in this country is extraordinarily strict. I actually saw, I don’t know where it is but I’d love to get a picture of it, a list of regulations these companies have to go through and the amount of paperwork they have to submit to all these regulatory whatever they call them. It’s extraordinary. It’s incredible they can make money having filled out the paperwork. It’s amazing to me. I think that’s an opinion of yours, but I’d love to see you prove it.
PHAWKER: What is an opinion of mine?
ANN MCELHINNEY: That we don’t have any regulation in the country. Sorry, that they’re “toothless” was your expression.
PHAWKER: Yeah, I’m not gonna be able to prove it to you over the phone. I could show you a flow chart, I mean that’s preposterous.
ANN MCELHINNEY: What’s preposterous?
PHAWKER: It’s preposterous that regulations on industry are at a record high right now, it’s simply not true.
ANN MCELHINNEY: Well, I would love – and I’m glad you’re taping this, it’s great – what I would love for you to do is just prove that to me. To just prove that to me so I can prove the other. I can write a list, of the regulations that govern each well, I can write a list of them. You can then show me how I’m wrong about that.
PHAWKER: According to a report released last spring by Commerce & Energy Committee Democrats, “Between 2005 and 2009, the oil and gas service companies used hydraulic fracturing products containing 29 chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for their risks to human health, or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Fracking is exempted from both the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.” Why has it taken drillers so long to reveal what chemicals are used in the fracking process? Why, for years, did drillers refuse to provide full disclosure claiming it’s proprietary?
ANN MCELHINNEY: Oh, I’m so glad you said that!
PHAWKER: I’m sure you have a snappy comeback for it.
ANN MCELHINNEY: I’m really glad you said that, because this is another thing that Josh Fox thought of, it’s very very misleading, I’m presuming the only reason you’re saying it is because you saw it in the film or whatever – so if you go on right now, online to FracFocus, which is an interstate body. All that information – it is completely inaccurate to say that the chemicals used in fracking are secret. All the information is available. It’s available online in fact. It’s an independent body. A number of states got together and basically, every well in the country – go ahead, click on it and find out what they’re using.
PHAWKER: Ok, that’s news to me. I will look that up and I will school myself. Getting back to the initial question I had, would you be willing to disclose all of the people who have provided funding to your efforts over the years and their affiliations.
ANN MCELHINNEY: Yes. They’re in the credits of our films. Of course they are. When you make a film, you have to credit these people because they’ve given you money and they’re all hoping to make money back. But it’s a very very competitive business, I can tell you, it’s not easy. We’ve been really lucky, actually. We’ve done what every independent filmmaker does, is go to all your friends and family and terrorize them until you get some money together. That’s how we operate. It isn’t easy. If anyone wants to look at the credits, it’s all there.
PHAWKER: That’s the entirety of the funding of the film, just friends and family?
ANN MCELHINNEY: Yeah, have you seen it?
PHAWKER: I haven’t seen it, no.
ANN MCELHINNEY: Oh, you have to watch it! It’s great! I highly recommend it.
PHAWKER: Why isn’t it on YouTube? Why isn’t it available for the general public? How come it’s only for sale?
ANN MCELHINNEY: Because we’re trying to make money. Michael Moore got $30 million for making a film. So I just try to be like Michael Moore.
PHAWKER: This is what I would like to ask all of the people who are so deeply skeptical about climate change science: What is the motivation for scientists to lie about this, for environmentalist to lie about this, to pull off this enormous fraud? I’m curious what the motivation would be there. I can see, on the other side, why say Exxon and Mobile and Shell and BP, why they would want this science to go away or be disproved, but what is in it for scientists to lie about this?
ANN MCELHINNEY: There’s an awful lot of money in saying that global warming is real and we’re all in trouble. There’s a lot of money in this. I’m surprised you don’t know about that. People honestly are getting millions and millions of dollars. In fact, it’s an issue on college campuses. If people want to do research – and I’ve heard this from a lot of very, very good universities – if you wanna do research and you connect the research you do in any way to global warming, you’ll get the money. There’s huge money in this. So people who want to study, who want to do research, will find a very welcome environment if they’re on the side of the panickers, or the people who think this is catastrophic or our situation is out of control. It’s very very lucrative. It’s a very lucrative thing. If you look at An Inconvenient Truth, you know how much money they made off that documentary? An incredible much money. People have an appetite for panic. People have always had an appetite for that. Paul Ehrlich did very well with his writings saying basically by the year 1980, billions of people would be dead from starvation because we’ve run out of stuff. And the guy won a Genius Award for that. So, yeah, there’s a lot of money in it.
PHAWKER: By that logic then, cancer researchers are only in it for the money and people looking for a cure for AIDS are only in it for the money.
ANN MCELHINNEY: I’m not sure what the connection is there. People want to research. They go where the dollars are. And actually, you bring up a really good point. Some diseases just aren’t popular. Some things aren’t popular and they don’t get research money. So research money is powerful, it’s very powerful. People who want to be in research, who are scientists, who just love science, will go where the money is. That’s a very well known thing. For example, AIDS had a lot of money so a lot of people went into AIDS research. Cancer does have a lot of money, so a lot of people have gone into the cancer area. But there are other diseases, like ALS, you know, Lou Gehrig’s disease – that continue to have a major drama train to collect money because there’s so few people who have the disease. So you actually bring up a really good point which I agree with.
PHAWKER: Do you really think scientists are that cynical? They are only in it for the money? Really?
ANN MCELHINNEY: No, no you aren’t listening to me – I don’t think they’re cynical at all. They love science and they want to do science and research, but you can’t do research without money, you must have money. So they go where the money is. They’re still doing what they want to do, they’re doing science – they’re doing great science. But the dictation of what the science will be is dictated by where the money is.
PHAWKER: I will give you this, you are very charming. It’s fun to talk to you even if I think what you are doing is unconscionable.
ANN MCELHINNEY: I appreciate talking to you this morning. I get very animated, people have to tell me to shut up and stuff like that, so if I talk too much I’m sorry.