Drilling for facts under the 'Promised Land' fiction

Matt Damon's character in the movie Promised Land comes to town to convince a landowner to allow a gas company to drill on his property.
Matt Damon's character in the movie Promised Land comes to town to convince a landowner to allow a gas company to drill on his property. Scott Green/Focus Features

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 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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