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. oleander
    Texas
    January 3, 2013, 7:04 pm

    Well mr landman, I lived in johnson county all my life. Never felt an earth quake before. Until the fracking started. I moved. The upset lives of those who should have control over their hometowns through local elected government but dont litter the usa. I agree that cheap gas is a good thing but like any boom and bust, this too will pass. then what are we left with? I bet you dont have an ‘honest’ answer for that, do you?

  2. Peggy Freeman
    January 2, 2013, 9:36 am

    I love how everyone discredits non-fossil fuel alternatives when they are no more expensive than fossil fuels. The government subsidizes fossil fuels to make them cheap through the use of our taxes. You pay the full cost in the end, and the corporations are the only ones seeing the profit. We could have been at the front of the energy revolution, but sold the technology to the chinese, who have the largest exporter in the world now.

  3. M. King
    United States
    December 31, 2012, 2:24 pm

    “We could have years ago switched to non-fossil alternatives and created jobs in that industry.”

    Complete hogwash, completely unsupported. We can’t switch to non-fossil fuel alternatives because they’re not economically viable. Don’t believe me? Very well, take it from The New York Times in a recent article on Europe’s failed energy experiment, though this very basic fact is well-documented time and time again from other sources:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/27/business/energy-environment/27iht-green27.html?_r=0

    If the link isn’t operational, just google ‘High Energy Costs Plaguing Europe’.

    Thanks to the Energy Industry, state regulators, and all the people who make it possible for the USA to have abundant, cheap energy to fuel our lavish and comfortable lifestyles!

  4. Corner Art
    Muskegon, MI
    December 31, 2012, 2:00 pm

    One sticking point, as far as I’m concerned, is that companies that do the “fracking” aren’t required to reveal exactly what chemicals they inject into the land, unless there is an” incident” (read environmental damage in the form of toxic chemical spread). Well, is it not too late at that point? I think that a corporations right to “trade secrets” is quite correctly trumped by the right of the public to know and assess the risks. Any company that intends to engage in “fracking” should be required to to reveal what materials it is using and to pay for any clean-up required, and to post a bond that insures that if they company suddenly declares bankruptcy it cannot simply dance away with whatever profits it made. In fact, I think the laws regarding the governance of “fracking” operations should have draconian penalties that extend to those who have subcontracted to transport materials or ship out or otherwise remove oil or gases or other minerals from the site, should the main operator attempt to decl;are bankruptcy in order to escape responsibility.

  5. maurice forsness
    okla usa
    December 31, 2012, 11:50 am

    the people that get heat light and power from gas,diesel ,natural gas want the product for the most reasonable price. enviramentelest don’t care what price the public has to pay!!!!???

  6. Vera Scroggins
    United States
    December 30, 2012, 8:41 pm

    Mr. Cushman, we had landmen that told partial information in our Susquehanna County, Pa. ; information like there would be only one well in your town and we would be in and out quickly and you wouldn’t know we were there and there will be no problems. That was not what happened and maybe, the landman didn’t know himself and just told what he knew, which was very partial information. This area now has about 150 wells in Dimock Township and all kinds of infrastructure of many pipelines and compressor stations and water contamination and air contamination and noise 24/7 near the compressor stations. The town has severely changed and our county, beside the social issues of conflict between the townspeople. It’s been a major negative. And we could have years ago switched to non-fossil alternatives and have created jobs in that industry.

  7. Laurie Mann
    Pittsburgh, PA
    December 30, 2012, 5:04 pm

    There is one huge difference between Promised Land and War of the Worlds – aliens aren’t attacking the planet, but, in some areas, fracking has. My feeling is it will turn out that fracking is not universally bad. It will cause problems in some areas but not in others. But, right now, geologists can’t identify the areas that may be “safe for fracking.” Until that happens, we’ll continue to get polluted wells, sick animals and even earthquakes in some areas where fracking is taking place.

  8. Kim Feil
    Arlington gasland Texas
    December 30, 2012, 4:37 pm

    Our landmen said it was “safe, would only be there 30 days and we’d get royalties for 30 years, & small like a fire hydrant”. So when we signed, I never heard of the term “fracking”, all we heard was how far away it would be from us because of the direction drilling. Then we heard that “they have enough signatures, that drillings gonna happen anyway so minus well take the money”. The landmen were not honest in Arlington TX. False advertisment is the first thing that I believe we really were sold. I live, breathe, and blog in BarnettShaleHell Arlington gasland Texas.

  9. Barbara Ewart
    Vancouver, BC
    December 29, 2012, 8:07 pm

    Well Mr. Cushman, you make a point of rationalizing the ‘whys’ of your position – with one glaring lie.
    Quote: “I’m bound by ethical considerations every day. I am not required to tell a mineral owner I want to secure a lease from everything I know. But neither is a physician treating a patient for cancer, or a policeman issuing a moving violation on the highway.”
    TRUTH: A doctor IS bound to tell his patient everything about his/her illness, though that patient may choose to not have the infomation disclosed to others. And a policeman MUST tell someone all information pertaining to the issuance of a citation! Not only that, it must be clearly spelled out on the violation receipt itself.
    You do nothing to allay fears about the truthfulness of acquisition companies, or the consequences of the fracking process itself. Rather you made your remarks completely about rationalization of your personal position. Seems pretty self-serving. Oh, and using the military as part of your argument doesn’t win any points either. It just makes me think of the person who can’t defend his position, who swears instead of offering a convincing argument. Sorry.

  10. Reynolds Cushman
    United States
    December 28, 2012, 11:49 pm

    Marianne:
    The first thing a reporter would want to do understand the reality of combat is to find and interview a soldier or Marine that has experienced the pandemonium and abject terror of a firefight. Seeing an 14-second video clip on the 6 o’clock news is not the same as it normally cannot evince the pathos of the 19-year-old grunt in Afghanistan. Not that a carefully edited clip fails to convey a message, far from it. But it is not a living, breathing soul with both an intellect and emotions.

    The first thing the Marine would tell you is that time stretches when mortars are hitting and bullets are whizzing by — 90 mere seconds ticked away strangely morphs and is elongated into seemingly 10 minutes. Every second seems interminably long, fraught with uncertainty and fear. The soldier would also say that in a firefight every sound, movement, shadow, light, rustling of leaves or voice is suspect and must be instantaneously assessed. The senses are in overdrive — heightened to the point of overload — and adrenaline courses through the veins like pure cocaine.

    If you were talking to a Marine and you called him a soldier, he’d quickly tell you that he is a Marine, not a soldier. But it is just a word, right? What is the big deal, one might ask?

    When talking about soldiers or Marines, before telling their story, find out what they really are. Likewise, if you really desired to know what a woman does that is leasing minerals (like Matt Damon’s character), you’d ask her for an interview, right? But you didn’t do that.

    I’m one of those guys that work for an oil and gas exploration company that goes out and secures leases — but we are called landmen (singular — landman. No, there are no landwomen. Female lease buyers, and there are thousands, are called landmen, too). One word — landman. It is a little thing, but it reveals the truth of the matter — you never talked to a soldier about your description of the battle that occurred. You read a news story or saw a news clip and thought you knew enough about battle to write about the subject. But you stopped short of getting the complete story. But that didn’t slow you down.

    As a landman, I’m bound by ethical considerations every day. I am not required to tell a mineral owner I want to secure a lease from everything I know. But neither is a physician treating a patient for cancer, or a policeman issuing a moving violation on the highway. I am required to be truthful and if I am asked a direct question that is not privileged information, and I know the answer, I cannot lie and say “I don’t know.” Or worse, I can’t concoct a lie to enhance my position. Landmen are governed by the American Association of Professional Landmen (AAPL), the national organization which both accredits and, if required, disciplines landmen found guilty of unethical behavior. Yes, a few get called up on complaints every year, but the other 99 percent do their job with professionalism and integrity.

    And yes, when our job is done leasing, we pack up and move to the next project our company has for us in the next county or across the country. Leaving a prospect when the work is done should not be used to stigmatize landmen. The power companies that sent linemen into Hurricane Sandy’s wake to get the lights back on were eager to get them back to their main job at home. But there is no stigma against a lineman finishing his work and going home. Why is there against landmen?

    Personally, I’ve worked in multiple shale plays from North Dakota to Texas, including the Bakken, Barnett, Fayetteville and the Eagle Ford. All share more in common than they have dissimilar. Each shale play has operators that do an exemplary job, ever diligent in protecting subsurface water zones while also trying to extract every drop of oil or molecule of natural gas possible. And yes, there are operators that have less experience in shale plays and they could make unintended mistakes that could harm surface or subsurface structures. Just as a truck driver could fall asleep at the wheel and wreak havoc on the road, killing innocents.

    But we don’t have movies made about prohibiting trucking, because some truckers crash — that would be ridiculous, right?

    So is the case with fracking. To ban the industry practice of using highly pressurized water to break apart shale thousands of feet deep would be sheer folly. Without the fracking techniques developed over the last 10 years, the gas and oil trapped in shale rock becomes uneconomic to produce, and thereby off limits. No margin, no mission.

    From 2006, when the country was importing about 14 percent of all natural gas consumed in the continental U.S., til now, the shale plays have eliminated the need to import natural gas. Instead, the U.S. has become a net exporter. That is good for creating domestic jobs while also erasing our need to import Canadian gas, which thereby reduces our trade imbalance. A true win-win.

    When dissected and treated fairly, the rational mind is led to conclude that shale plays, and the accompanying fracking, has revolutionized the domestic oil and gas business. Without these shale plays the U.S. would now probably be importing close to 20 percent of its natural gas, and have well over 100,000 fewer people employed with good paying jobs. And it would probably cost 2 to 4 times what it does today.

    The problem with movies like Promised Land is that they are pure fiction, akin to H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds, the iconic The Wizard of Oz or the 1936 cult film Reefer Madness – it might be good entertainment, but they are not based on reality and are wholly contrived.

    Someday, I suspect that Promised Land will be viewed in the same light as War of the Worlds: well-acted, immediately alarming, and even scary at times. But by the time the credits run, the viewer will know Promised Land is a bunch of fanciful malarkey. As Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But Promised Land doesn’t even use statistics persuasively; it instead just dives head-long into innuendo, syllogism, obfuscation and fabrications. That may be perfectly acceptable for a Hollywood production, but quite deficient for presenting an argument by which the public might base an informed opinion.

    National Geographic, the activist organization that it is, should still be concerned about truth. But trashing the oil and gas industry may suit Michael Moore and Occupy Wall Street, but Nat Geo should be better than that. There is enough wrong in the world that it is not necessary to create hobgoblins, bent on mischief and mayhem.