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BOSTON (Reuters) - An Oscar-nominated HBO documentary that showed American homeowners near hydraulic fracturing sites setting fire to their tap water may have been the main trigger for a surge in public opposition to the oil and gas production technique, according to a study to be published next month.
"Gasland," produced by filmmaker Josh Fox in 2010, sparked a rise in online searches, social media chatter, news coverage, and environmental activism surrounding fracking that may have led to a series of local attempts to ban the industry in the years that followed, according to the paper which will be published in the American Sociology Review's October edition.
Fracking involves injecting sand, water and chemicals underground to crack open rock formations holding natural gas and oil - a technique that has led to a boom in U.S. production and a slump in world energy prices.
Dozens of clashing studies have examined whether fracking contaminates water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year concluded a five-year study that said fracking does not pose widespread risk to groundwater but pointed out some cases of pollution.
Worries about water contamination and earthquakes led New York to pass a state-wide ban on fracking this year and several municipalities in other states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Texas to seek to impose local curbs.
"Local screenings of 'Gasland' contributed to anti-fracking mobilizations, which, in turn, affected the passage of local fracking moratoria," according to the study, which was authored by University of Iowa associate professor Ion Bogdan Vasi.
Researchers said they analyzed internet searches, Twitter posts, mass media coverage and activist mobilizations that focused on fracking at various points following the release of "Gasland" on TV channel HBO in June 2010.
They found spikes in activity immediately following the release, the film's nomination for an Oscar Award in February 2011 and its various local screenings. The study said the documentary helped shift fracking "from a place of almost complete novelty" to "an established and contentious position."
The oil and gas industry has criticized the film as misleading, stating there have been cases of residents in the Marcellus shale region having flammable tap water long before the fracking boom began there due to naturally occurring methane in underground aquifers.
Reporting by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Cynthia Osterman