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Drilling For Facts Under The 'Promised Land' Fiction

Jan 4, 2013
Originally published on January 4, 2013 11:41 am

There is plenty in the movie Promised Land that will prompt energy industry insiders to roll their eyes. But the overall issues explored in the film, which is being widely released in theaters Friday, are very real.

A process called hydraulic fracturing has led to drilling booms that are transforming rural communities into industrial zones. Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," makes it possible to tap into natural gas reservoirs deep underground. But first, gas companies have to convince landowners to allow them to drill.

The Natural Gas Pitch

In the film, pitching the fracking process is the job of Matt Damon's character, Steve Butler.

"I'm not selling them natural gas, I'm selling them the only way they have to get back," he says in the film.

Like the real-life industry, Damon's character argues that natural gas drilling will save communities by giving farmers and landowners much-needed income. Damon's character and his co-worker, played by Frances McDormand, focus their sales pitches on the upside of natural gas production.

"Even before the drilling, the initial phase of development will boost your town's tax revenue," McDormand's character, Sue Thomason, argues. "That means that money will be injected into your town immediately."

What Would Fracking Do?

In the real world, there are significant environmental concerns surrounding gas drilling and fracking. In the movie, these criticisms emerge at a town hall meeting. A high school science teacher, played by Hal Holbrook, interrupts a local politician who's a less-than-honest cheerleader for the gas industry. The teacher encourages residents to Google the word "fracking" to research the process and its effects.

Later, a man who bills himself as an environmentalist, played by John Krasinski, comes to town. He stokes the opposition and delivers a simplistic and misleading demonstration of fracking and drilling to a class of grade-school kids.

To give the students a visual of what the drilling will do, the character Dustin Noble punches holes in a plastic bag filled with chemicals. The dirty liquid leaks out over a model farm, much to the students' disgust.

A 'Work Of Fiction'

The film remains in the realm of fiction as the town debates an upcoming vote on whether drilling and fracking should be allowed. In the real world, there's almost never a vote.

"In Pennsylvania, where this film was made, municipalities have very little authority over what happens," says Kate Sinding, senior attorney and deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They certainly don't get an up-and-down vote."

Whether drilling happens depends more on state laws and regulations. Still, Sinding says this film is valuable because it outlines the conundrum that communities face when drillers come to town: There's the money, but there's also the environmental risks.

The natural gas industry, on the other hand, sees little value in this film.

"It's a complete work of fiction," says Steve Forde, vice president of policy and communications for the Pittsburgh-based Marcellus Shale Coalition.

The Industry's Response

He says the real truth will come as people watch what his industry does over the long term.

"This film may run in theaters for a several weeks — maybe a couple of months, depending on its success at the box office," he says. "But the work of our industry is going to continue for generations to come."

Forde's group is appealing to moviegoers in its own way. The coalition is airing advertisements in Pennsylvania theaters asking people to visit an industry website, where natural gas drillers and their allies present their side of the story.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: The actor Matt Damon told our colleague Linda Wertheimer recently that he wanted to make a movie about American identity and where we are in the country right now. The subject he chose: hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It's a controversial drilling technology that has sparked debate and divided communities in parts of the country.

Damon's movie "Promised Land" opened in select theaters last week and will be showing in theaters across the country beginning today. Now, we don't normally turn to NPR's Jeff Brady for movie reviews. He covers energy issues. But Jeff has been listening to different kinds of critics. Environmentalists are giving "Promised Land" a thumbs up. Those in the natural gas industry are giving it two thumbs down.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Overall, issues explored in the film are very real. Hydraulic fracturing makes it possible to tap into natural gas reservoirs deep underground. That's lead to drilling booms that are transforming rural communities into industrial zones. But first, a gas company has to convince a landowner to allow them to drill. That's the job of actor Matt Damon's character.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "PROMISED LAND")

MATT DAMON: (as Steve Butler) I'm not selling them natural gas, I'm selling them the only way they have to get back.

BRADY: Like the real-life industry, Damon's character argues that natural gas drilling will save communities by giving farmers and landowners much-needed income. Damon's character and his co-worker, played by Frances McDormand, focus their sales pitches on the upside of natural gas production.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PROMISED LAND")

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (as Sue Thomason) Even before the drilling, the initial phase of development will boost your town's tax revenue. That means that money will be injected into your town immediately.

BRADY: In the real world, there are significant environmental concerns surrounding gas drilling and fracking. In the movie, these emerge at a town hall meeting. A high school science teacher, played by Hal Holbrook, interrupts a local politician who's a less-than-honest cheerleader for the gas industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PROMISED LAND")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Excuse me?

HAL HOLBROOK: (as Frank Yates) The project is called fracking.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) That's right. That's right, Frank. Now, if you'd let me finish, please, we have...

HOLBROOK: (as Frank Yates) I would encourage all of you, when you go home, to Google that word and see what you find.

BRADY: Later, a man who bills himself as an environmentalist, played by John Krasinski, comes to town. He stokes the opposition and delivers a simplistic and misleading demonstration of drilling and fracking to a class of grade-school kids. Here he is punching holes in a plastic bag, dumping a mixture of chemicals over a model farm.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PROMISED LAND")

JOHN KRASINSKI: (as Dustin Noble) So when they go to do that drilling, I'll show you what happens. Oh, gross. What is that?

BRADY: The film remains in the realm of fiction as the town debates an upcoming vote on whether drilling and fracking should be allowed. In the real world, there's almost never a vote. Kate Sinding is an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

KATE SINDING: In Pennsylvania, where this film was made, municipalities have very little authority over what happens. They certainly don't get an up-and-down vote.

BRADY: Whether drilling happens depends more on state laws and regulations. Still, Sinding says this film is valuable because it outlines the conundrum communities face when drillers come to town. There's the money, but also the environmental risks. The natural gas industry, on the other hand, sees little value in this film.

STEVE FORDE: Well, I think the overriding impression that most should carry away from this is that it is a complete work of fiction.

BRADY: Steve Forde is with the Marcellus Shale Coalition based in Pittsburgh. He says the real truth will come as people watch what his industry does over the long term.

FORDE: This film may run in theaters for a several weeks, maybe a couple of months, depending on its success at the box office. But the work of our industry is going to continue for generations to come.

BRADY: Forde's group is appealing to moviegoers in its own way. The coalition is airing advertisements in Pennsylvania theaters, asking people to visit an industry website, where natural gas drillers and their allies present their side of the story. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.