Promised Land? Fracking provides fertile territory for Hollywood

Fracking expert Michael Rubinkam offers his view from the ground

The new movie Promised Land digs into the fierce national debate over fracking, the technique that's generated a boom in US natural gas production while also stoking controversy over its possible impact on the environment and human health.

Written by and starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski, the film comes at an opportune time for a big-screen exploration of the issues surrounding the shale gas revolution, with cheap natural gas transforming the nation's energy landscape and "fracking" now a household word.

But viewers shouldn't necessarily expect a realistic treatment of drilling and fracking. It's not that kind of film.

Lending it an air of authenticity, the movie was shot in Pennsylvania, where thousands of wells have been drilled and fracked in recent years as industry heavyweights pull huge volumes of gas from the sprawling Marcellus Shale, a rock formation deep below the surface of the earth.

But Promised Land spends little time explaining how energy companies actually go about pulling natural gas out of the ground, and what little explanation the movie does provide is simply not very accurate.

The Focus Features release instead concentrates on another aspect of the drilling boom — the battle for hearts and minds as gas companies seek to lease land for drilling while environmentalists warn of the perils of punching a bunch of holes in the ground. Bewildered landowners, meanwhile, are left to sort out the competing claims and counter-claims.

It's potentially fertile territory. In real life, drilling companies injected millions of dollars into moribund local economies, transforming sleepy villages in Pennsylvania and other states into boom towns almost overnight. But the industry also sowed division, pitting neighbor against neighbor as some residents complained of ruined water wells and other environmental degradation. Many others — a majority, judging by recent public opinion surveys — heralded the prosperity that drilling creates and the abundant homegrown energy it produces.

Even here, though, the movie seeks to entertain more than enlighten, with an implausible plot twist undermining what could have been a realistic portrayal of life as it is really lived in the gas fields.

Promised Land follows Steve Butler (Damon), a gas company salesman who shows up in an economically struggling small town in Pennsylvania that happens to sit atop a vast reserve of gas. His task: To get residents to sign on the dotted line, promising them they'll become instant millionaires once the gas starts flowing from the shale underneath their land. Standing in his way is Dustin Noble (Krasinski), an environmental activist determined to convince townsfolk they don't want what the driller is selling.

Damon's character repeatedly points out that drilling has brought new life to struggling towns, calls US reliance on foreign sources of energy "insane," and defends fracking as a technology with a proven track record of safety. And he seems to believe it himself, at least initially.

But the film leaves little doubt as to where its sympathies lie.

"Nobody's going to be disingenuous here. If you were expecting a pro-fracking movie from Matt Damon, you were probably living in an alternate universe," Focus Features CEO James Schamus said with a laugh.

But he insisted that Promised Land ultimately is not a movie about a highly technical process in which drillers use water, sand and chemicals to break apart gas-bearing shale rock — and it should not be judged by that standard.

"The filmmakers didn't necessarily set out to make, nor did they make, some kind of civics lesson or propaganda movie about fracking," Schamus said.

Rather, he said, the movie is a Frank Capra-style yarn about "working-class identity, about aspiration, about money and what it does to you," with fracking as the vehicle that propels the story and a healthy dose of corporate villainy.

Krasinski says he and Damon tried to avoid too much of a political message. "We really wanted to tell a story about community, about these small towns that are going through very real situations right now, especially with the economic situation as it is," he told the AP.

Yet industry groups and environmental activists alike see "Promised Land" very much as a message film about the perils of the gas boom, and are reacting accordingly.

Drillers — who mounted a furious rebuttal of Gasland, the 2010 award-winning, anti-drilling HBO documentary — began pushing back against "Promised Land" months ago while simultaneously noting that it is indeed a work of fiction.

"We're taking it seriously, obviously, and we'll be ready to engage folks who may have questions about the development process as a result of the film. But I'm not sure anyone's losing a lot of sleep over it at this point," emailed Chris Tucker of Energy In Depth, an industry public relations group.

"They may have Matt Damon and Jim from 'The Office' on their side, but we've got the facts, the science, the consensus of regulators, and a 65-year track record of performance and safety on ours. So we think that's a pretty fair fight."

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, plans to run ads in 75 percent of Pennsylvania's movie theaters, encouraging "Promised Land" audiences to visit a website that it set up earlier this year to answer questions about shale gas.

"It's difficult to fact-check a work of fiction, so I don't know if we're going to be able to do that any more than we can fact-check 'Batman,' said spokesman Steve Forde. "But certainly shale gas development is generating discussion around dinner tables, it's an important discussion to have, and that's the angle we are looking at."

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are positively giddy over the film's depiction of an industry they view as dangerous to land, water, air and people. They are planning their own campaign around "Promised Land," including the distribution of anti-drilling leaflets, postcards and petitions to audiences leaving theaters.

Rebecca Roter, a Pennsylvania activist who has screened the film, said, "This is a precious opportunity to engage America on a national level about where their cheap natural gas energy is coming from and the associated human costs."

AP

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