Fracking has gone Hollywood. In January the movie “Promised Land,” directed by Gus Van Sant and written by and starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski, was released. It explores the role of “landmen” — natural gas industry salespeople who pave the way for hydraulic fracturing.
Damon plays gas industry representative Steve Butler trying to secure drilling leases in a rural Pennsylvania town. Butler gets residents to sign by promising they’ll make millions from the natural gas beneath their land. Krasinski plays an environmental activist who gets in Butler’s way.
One of the film’s strongest points — most often ignored by critics — is its focus on the economic downturn driving small farmers to lease to drillers. The movie depicts natural gas companies taking advantage of rural communities devoid of industries that previously supplemented farm economies.
Butler himself comes from an agricultural Iowa community devastated when a Caterpiller factory closed, taking employment opportunities with it. Schooled in this experience, and sporting flannel shirts and his grandfather’s boots, Butler wins the trust of prospective leasers. However, Butler is also the salesperson who reached a top company position by securing the most leases at the lowest cost.
The movie’s fictitious energy company, Global Crosspower Solutions, mirrors the real-life practices of Chesapeake Energy, the industry giant that controls billions of dollars in leases across the U.S.
Backlash from natural gas industry
While far from a box-office hit, the movie generated an instant backlash from the natural gas industry. The pro-fracking Marcellus Shale Coalition purchased 16-second prebuttals to run in Pennsylvania movie theaters before screenings of “Promised Land.” These commercials direct audiences to a website for “straightforward facts” about hydraulic fracturing.
Leading industry lobby group Energy in Depth sent movie critics a “cheat sheet” of pro-fracking talking points to counter the film. They criticized fracking opponents for ignoring “positive effects of drilling” and accused the film of “trying to convince landowners that the industry is only looking out for ‘profits.’” Websites were set up to “fact-check” the film.
Major corporate media, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Forbes and Bloomberg, quickly disseminated the drilling industry’s critique of the film via movie reviews, editorials and business section articles. Fox News labeled the film a “hatchet job” that “shows a one-sided view of the fracking industry and ignores the safety practices used in the gas extraction method.” (Dec. 20)
In a piece aired on National Public Radio, the Associated Press claimed “Promised Land” is “simply not accurate.” Sounding just like a gas industry press release, the AP stated, “In real life, drilling companies injected millions of dollars into moribund local economies, transforming sleepy villages in Pennsylvania and other states into boomtowns almost overnight.” (Jan. 2)
Clearly little effort was made to talk with people impacted by drilling whose “sleepy villages” are now industrial zones where “safety practices” are a low priority for a profit-driven industry. These rural areas, turned boom towns, have experienced steep increases in crime rates, prostitution and rents. Heavy truck traffic has damaged roads, and poisoned water wells have left properties unsellable.
Rebecca Roter, an activist from Pennsylvania’s heavily fracked Susquehanna County, had an entirely different take from AP’s Ryan Pearson writing from Los Angeles. Roter praised the film for giving “voices to all of us living in gas fields with flares, drill rigs, open pits, in company towns; all of us whom industry and its proponents attempt to silence and paint as necessary sacrifices. … The natural gas industry is multinational corporations whose bottom line is profit. They need to win public approval.”
However, “Promised Land” displays none of the problems Roter describes. There are no scenes of flaring wells, tap water on fire or endless truck traffic. The only negative image drilling gets is when Krasinski’s environmental activist launches a poster campaign depicting cows allegedly dead from drinking frack water. So why was the industry so concerned?
When Damon’s Butler encounters some opposition to leasing at a town assembly, he suggests that the issue be resolved through a vote. If there’s an aspect of “Promised Land” that is “simply not accurate,” it’s this scene with people destined to be fracked voting to stop the industry from leasing in their town.
This is especially not the case in Pennsylvania where Act 13, legislation passed by the pro-drilling Corbett administration, denied local municipalities the right to set any zoning limits on fracking or pass moratoriums.
Thirty-nine states have some form of “forced pooling,” under which holdout landowners can’t deny drillers access to gas under their property if their neighbors have signed leases. Many Western states have “split estate” provisions that let companies drill for gas even when landowners refuse to sign leases.
The novel idea that people in an area destined to be heavily fracked could vote to outlaw leasing is truly a nightmare for the natural gas industry. n