Fracking has now become so much a part of the fabric of American life that it has earned its first genuine Hollywood treatment. Promised Land, co-starring and co-written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, opens today in a limited number of theaters, with wider release next week.
While the energy industry has girded for battle against the film, fracking opponents are expressing disappointment that the movie will fail to turn hearts and minds against the drive for shale gas. If the film is short on details about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas—as its critics on both ends of the spectrum charge—that’s because it is not so much about an industry but about longing and community in post-industrial America.
Still, it’s fair to scrutinize the details the filmmakers use to illustrate their overarching themes. How accurate is the Promised Land’s portrayal of the shale gas business? The movie, in failing to please either the industry or its foes, actually captures some fundamental truths about the fracking boom—in particular, our collective ambivalence about this new energy bounty.
The Land Man Cometh. The protagonist of this tale, appropriately enough, is that reviled and mysterious figure that heralds the shale gas industry’s arrival in any U.S. town: the land man. As in real life, this industry advance team, played by Matt Damon and Frances McDormand, has the job of visiting the private properties atop the shale to extract from the owners the most expansive drilling rights obtainable at the lowest possible price. Also true to life, this duo fool only some of the people some of the time. When I visited southwestern Pennsylvania to write about the Great Shale Gas Rush, I heard many stories of the land men who came to town early to sign gas leases and were never heard from again. Just a few years later, though, many landowners are savvy about these dealmakers; a typical posting on the local pro-drilling activist site, GoMarcellusShale.com, said, “Leasing 101: The land man is not your friend.” Interestingly, the land man is a uniquely U.S. institution, as oil and gas mineral rights in other countries typically belong to the government, not to private property owners. We recently wrote about how this makes the public dialogue about fracking quite different in the United Kingdom.
“I’m not selling them natural gas. I’m selling the only way they have to get back.” Damon’s character is working out his own resentment at the lost American dream; his hometown, like the ones he is visiting on his lease-selling journeys, is a place where opportunity for a decent blue-collar living has dried up. If anything, the movie sugarcoats the reality of the economic decline that has unfolded in the small towns of my home state of Pennsylvania small towns these past four decades, as the old coal, steel, and manufacturing industries have died. After all, there are actually people walking the streets to wave at the fictional farmer played by Hal Holbrook as he drives past in his pickup truck. In reality, those downtowns are mostly shuttered; indeed, to film on location in Avonmore, Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburgh, the movie team had to build a mock bakery, hardware store, barbershop and VFW post in vacant storefronts and buildings to give it a feeling of a bustling vitality.
Guns, groceries, guitars, and gas. The movie does capture the entrepreneurial spirit that persists in these hard-hit communities, and that hopes to gain sustenance from the new shale gas business. The local businessman in the film, who has stayed afloat by cobbling together a disparate array of saleable wares, immediately brought to mind for me the story of Paul Battista, owner of Sunnyside Supply in Slovan, Pennsylvania. He was thriving when I spoke to him in 2010 because he had completely retooled a manufacturing-supply firm to cater to the new natural gas business. The towns of the shale boom are filled with stories of truck drivers, Iraq war veterans, and farmers who view the industry’s arrival hopefully.
How much money is underneath this ground? One myth that the film might help to perpetuate, however, is that there’s a fixed value on the shale gas stores lying beneath these communities. Damon’s character throws out figures—low ball, of course—as he negotiates his gas company’s entry into the fictional town of McKinley. But in reality, the value of the natural gas—and the profit that producers can pull from the ground—is ever-varying. The gas companies have driven down the potential returns for themselves and their investors by producing so much fuel that the market is awash in supply. The reasons for this are varied; often, the deals sealed by the real-world land men required that drilling take place within five years, or lease rights are lost. But in a larger sense, it is the same boom-and-bust story that has played out repeatedly over the centuries in every form of energy resource extraction. One of the reasons that the U.S. natural gas industry is now seeking to export fuel is in order to secure new markets to bolster its potential revenues.
Dead cows and flames. There’s not much detail on the fracking process or its potential hazards in this film. The anti-fracking argument is conveyed visually mostly through one image of collapsed cows in a farmyard, hoisted onto signposts throughout the community by the film’s environmentalist, played by The Office’s Krasinski. Krasinski, who developed the idea for the film drawing on his own father’s experience growing up in rural Pennsyvlania, gives the enviro a somewhat-eely feel. But the choice of dead cow as an avatar for the worst of fracking woes is grounded in reality. In Louisiana in 2009, 17 cows did die after exposure to fracking fluid. Although the cattle were not lying on the ground in Pennsylvania, a herd was quarantined in 2010 after coming in contact with hydraulic fracturing fluid that leaked from a holding pond. State officials were concerned about the public eating potentially contaminated beef from cattle that drank the salty contaminated water that flows out of shale gas wells. In the movie, Krasinski stages an over-the-top classroom demonstration of fracking setting a mock farm on fire. That doesn’t happen, but people have claimed that their well water is now flammable, contaminated by underground methane due to faulty well construction techniques.
Let’s have a vote. After I saw the screening of the film, I made a note that this was perhaps the most unrealistic element of the film—that a community actually could hold a vote to block natural gas development that was taking place on private land. But in fact, there’s been a flurry of efforts across the country to regulate shale gas activity at the town hall level of government. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has studied and promised to continue to study the water contamination issues, the Colorado city of Longmont voted in November to ban fracking, the New York towns of Middlefield and Dryden have declared themselves off-limits to shale gas development, and a battle is going on throughout Pennsylvania on the question of local gas industry regulation. These “home rule” efforts already have drawn legal challenges that surely will be fought out vigorously in the U.S. courts over the coming months and years. As with the efforts to exploit the promise of the natural gas boom, it remains to be seen whether this drive to harness its perils will have a Hollywood ending. (Related: “Natural Gas Stirs Hope and Fear in Pennsylvania“)