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“)

Comments

  1. carriger
    February 28, 2014, 11:44 am

    this article is fine but honestly all i care about is that black sabbath are the greatest band of all time

  2. Dozz
    NL
    June 22, 2013, 9:48 am

    Yeah, i am curious about the sequel “Gasland II” !
    The BBC seemed not very critical in the Shale gas programme.

  3. mitch
    4 corners
    February 4, 2013, 3:08 pm

    I’d like to see the movie and make up my own mind. The movie is playing in two places in Arizona. Tucson and Awatukee. I live in Flagstaff. 200 miles and non favorable show times. Is there a plan behind the lack of availability?

  4. Don Atson
    Baytown TX
    January 8, 2013, 7:31 pm

    The article forgot to mention who paid to produce the movie. I challenge everyone to Google it, try “Image Media Abu Dhabi” of the “UAE” .
    Is it odd that a nation state such as the UAE whose income is derived by Gas & Oil would fund and promote an American anti Gas movie?

  5. Robert Joyce
    January 6, 2013, 12:02 pm

    Hmmmmm…….I just read my post and I apologise for the typo’s. I’m using an old querty here that is replacing my normal keyboard which may be terminal from a coffee spill. Looks like some of the keys aren’t registering on this one.
    Hopefully the gist of my post will be understood despite the typos.

  6. Robert Joyce
    Durango, CO
    January 6, 2013, 11:56 am

    I have been a practicing Landman for over 30 years with experience in mineral title (determining who owns the rights to the mineral estate), leasing and purchasing surface locations for wells, pipeline rights-of-way and well access roads. I have not seen Promised Land in it’s entirety, only some trailer material. A couple of things stood out. The first one was a scene where Matt Damon told a landowner they “could be” millionaires. This, at least in the trialer, seemed to be represented like it is common practice. That sort of horrifies me. I have never done such a thing and believe me, I have been asked to provide that reassurance. In areas with established production there is a high probability that the mineral owner(s) will realize a revenue stream based on royalties from the the sale of the gas or oil. There is also “always” the chance that this won’t happen and this should be emphasized in any discussion with a landowner who may be in financial trouble and is looking for a white knight.

    Another fallacy that I see here is the characterization of a landman as being a salesman. As agents, Landmen “pay” for leases, drillisites, rights-of-way and well access on behalf of the companies who contract them. They are buyers. They do not sell anything unless you call giving an affirmative answer to a question where an affirmative answer is warranted to be “selling”.

    Finally, the idea that a well operator will be “in and out” of a community and no one will ever know they were there is absurd. When I am negotiating well locations, the first thing I tell the landowner is that their will be major activity (including lots of earth moving equipment and the associated, dust and noise) for months once permitting is granted and the drilling program gets underway. Once the well(s) is/are completed and tied to flow lines (in the case of natural gas), the operational aspects require daily atendance and maintenance in most cases. This is often carried out by local contractors who come from the communities where the operations are ongoing and in the event the field is a productive one, the economic impact to the community is usually a positive one. Landowners need to be honestly informed by landmen who are experienced in the myriad aspects of field development and the impacts they may create, especially in the short term. An ethical Landman would never discourage or steer a mineral owner away from seeking legal advice from an experienced attorney. Every landowner I have ever worked with has been given my cell phone number and permission to contact me at any time 24/7.

    Finally, due to the nature of term leases, unless the landman is living and working in the community where the leasing and field development is to happen, it may seem like they are here today, gone tomorrow. The simple truth is, if the Landman was contracted to lease mineral acreage and has accomplished that, there is nothing more for them to do. Their part in the play is over and they leave.

  7. Lauren Anderson
    January 5, 2013, 4:25 pm

    Reynolds Cushman makes a great point. An article titled “How Accurate is…?” should include some facts about hydraulic fracturing from the industry itself rather than the opponents. In the age of the Internet, if you propagate myths or dangle debunked claims (“people have claimed their well water…is contaminated by…faulty well construction”) without providing the other side of the story, you have thousands of fact-checkers prepared to set you straight. Was it too much trouble to do a little of your own? A quick perusal of the Internet shows:

    1. Fracking has been used for decades over a million times with very few documented problems. It would be disingenuous to pretend that it’s hazard-free, but the wild claims of the critics are all false.

    2. There has been one documented case of fracking causing methane contamination of well water of a dozen homes due to the pipe casing being inadequate to contain the methane. The gas company paid millions to settle the problem. All the other claims of flammable well water were from people drilling their own water wells in natural gas formations. In other words, they contaminated their own wells by drilling in a bad location.

    3. The gas companies can’t drill if you don’t allow them to. Complaining about being railroaded into an agreement (that you signed) after you have benefited monetarily from it is surprisingly unconvincing. If you felt pressured into an agreement because “everyone else is doing it” you still have only yourself to blame.

    4. Natural gas drilling, just like drilling or mining for anything else, is heavily regulated.

    5. Drilling techniques improve every day and the environmental impact is minimal compared to all other kinds of drilling or mining operations.

    6. Far, far more people are happy about natural gas drilling on their land than are upset about it. A little perspective would have been very helpful.