The subtlety of Promised Land, the new Matt Damon film about what happens when fracking comes to a small town, can be summed up with this scene: An environmentalist played by John Krasinski attempts to show a group of grade schoolers the dangers of fracking (hydraulic fracturing, or a process where highly pressurized water, sand, and chemicals are are injected into wells, where they break apart rock containing natural gas) by dumping chemicals onto a miniaturized barn that is quickly engulfed in flames. It’s an unfortunate simplification of a contentious question: What are the environmental and health hazards of letting oil and natural gas companies frack in small towns?
Without giving away any twists involving Hal Holbrooke or the comely local school teacher, the plot of Promised Land can be described up as follows: two flacks from a natural gas company (Matt Damon and Frances McDormand) come to a rural Pennsylvania town, where they’re supposed to convince residents that fracking on their land is a good idea—and one that will make them rich. Krasinski’s environmentalist character soon appears in town, complicating their plans.
This isn’t the first natural gas-themed film to come out in recent years. The 2010 documentary GasLand also examines the potential dangers of fracking. GasLand is by far the more compelling film—but, lacking any appearances by stars of Bourne movies or The Office, it didn’t have the audience reach of Promised Land. But please, watch it on Netflix right now.
Unsurprisingly, Chris Faulkner, the CEO of Texas-based Breitling Oil and Gas Company, dismisses Promised Land. "It was old myths and hysteria that we’ve dealt with over the past couple years," he says. "Really, the word 'fracking’ was used very few times. There was no in-depth study of the facts." Faulkner has a point. You could walk into the theater not knowing what fracking is and leave still not knowing much besides the fact that it might cause farms to catch on fire and kill livestock. And while pro-fracking groups complain that the film doesn’t fully explore the science of fracking, Grist recently posted a laundry list of fracking-related issues that the film neglects to mention.
Marketplace did a fact check of the film, with mixed results: cows have in fact died from mismanaged fracking operations, though the official line from the EPA is that fracking has never "caused chemicals to enter groundwater." But Faulkner admits that water contamination can happen in other ways. "Could you spill fluid at the surface? Sure," he says.
Mark Brownstein, chief counsel to the Environmental Defense Fund’s national energy program, explains: "Certainly there are a lot of anecdotes out there of faucets on fire and livestock that become sick that were exposed to wastewater pits and the like. So those are the kinds of stories that people have heard. The reality on the ground of course depends a lot on how the wells are actually developed and operated. The bottom line is, it doesn’t have to be that way."
Faulkner, for his part, believes the more pressing issue is the large amount of water that natural gas operations require—an issue in areas facing drought. "Our primary source of water is public sources, our second source is we buy water from farmers, and our third source is we truck water in from areas not affected by drought, where farmers have water available. That adds cost because of transportation, but it’s not a linchpin that says it’s no longer an affordable process," he says.
Adding to Promised Land's lack of credibility is its association with Image Nation Abu Dhabi, a company owned by Abu Dhabi Media, which is owned by the United Arab Emirates, an oil-exporting powerhouse. Image Nation financed the film, and some people think it’s part of a bid to stop the U.S. from becoming energy self-sufficient.
Regardless of why Image Nation decided to fund the film, Promised Land is deeply flawed. That’s unfortunate, because the U.S. could use a well-balanced focal point for debate in the midst of today’s fracking boom. Remember that increased natural gas production is a key part of Obama’s "All of The Above" energy plan, and the only way to produce more is to frack more. We don’t yet know the full story on fracking’s ramifications, and this film doesn’t help.