A new feature film about gas fracking in Pennsylvania takes on a controversial rural issue but hasn't fired up opposition to widespread drilling -- at least not yet.
The gas drilling industry can relax.
Matt Damon’s Promised Land is no Hollywood haymaker. It lacks the raw polemical energy of Gasland, the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary that scorched the industry for fouling local drinking water and corrupting politics at every level.
For the most part, Promised Land sticks to the preliminary leasing phase of gas development, avoiding the messier production business. There are no towering gas wells or caravans of fracking wastewater trucks or bars filled with drilling roughnecks. No fiery explosions or pathetically sickened farm kids. No dead cows …. Oh wait, there are a few of those.
The story revolves around Steve Butler (Damon), a likable Iowa farm boy who’s assigned to obtain leases to drill in the fictional farming community of McKinley, Pennsylvania. He and his savvy mentor, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), work for Global Crosswater Solutions, a manipulative $9 billion energy company, also fictional.
In this rolling countryside, everyone drives a pickup, karaoke suffices for entertainment and flannel is always in style. For local farmers and poor landowners, economic hope is running on empty. Leasing offers them big money, fast.
To succeed in his job, Butler must exploit the naivete of these decent folk and treat them like marks to be fleeced. Because he shares their roots — albeit from a different region — he relates well. But he’s conflicted about his role. Ambition wars with conscience.
Reactions to Butler vary. Most farmers are inclined to sign, though one dismisses him after delivering a speech about his sacred property and way of life. One two-acre property owner is so giddy after leasing that he springs for a Corvette he’ll never afford. One local vet listens to Butler’s stock spiel about how gas drilling promotes American energy independence and then counters: “See, you and I both know that the only reason you’re here is because we’re poor.”
Enter environmental crusader Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), who’s on a mission to get the town to vote against gas drilling. Although he never quite rings true, he seems better than Butler at absolutely everything. He soon takes the upper hand in the rivalry and seems destined to win.
The film features several strong bit players: the pretty school teacher/love interest, the corrupt local legislator, the smart and practical gun store owner, and the wise old schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook).
Holbrook, who 37 years ago played “Deep Throat” in the Watergate drama All The President’s Men, is an interesting casting choice for the old teacher, the film’s voice of quiet reason. Educated at MIT and Cornell, he knows far more than Butler about gas drilling, and he counsels his neighbors to go slow and educate themselves before jumping in bed with industry.
In real life today, a pair of Cornell professors stand at the front lines in the battle to allow science, not politics, to determine the future of high-volume, horizontal hydrofracking in New York State. In Pennsylvania, the industry won that fight — along with the governor’s office — several years ago.
Also in real life, the targeting of the poor is all too real. New York politicians seek to allow gas drilling in the farm and lake regions upstate even as they ban it from the New York City watershed.
Many towns in the Finger Lakes oppose gas drilling because it threatens to snuff out nascent wine, tourism and organic farming industries.
But economic options are running out in the New York counties along the Pennsylvania border. There, gas drilling’s promises are alluring to struggling dairy farmers and politicians alike. Within the last three years, the Chemung County town of Horseheads has lost a Sikorsky military aircraft plant but gained a giant Schlumberger fracking chemical and supply depot.
In Promised Land, Noble, the environmentalist character, bends the truth a bit by using photos of dead cows as a prop to drive home his point. In real life, 17 cows in Louisiana foamed at the mouth and fell dead within an hour after they allegedly lapped up fracking flowback water. Schlumberger and Chesapeake entered into agreements with regulators to pay fines, but they did not admit that material from their site killed the cows.
I watched a Saturday matinee of Promised Land on the second day it opened less than five miles from the Schlumberger supply depot in Horsehead. Only about 40 people joined me. Many more opted for The Hobbit or Django Unchained. That lukewarm response to Damon’s nuanced film reflects the nation’s reaction.
Even so, some in the industry are trying to paint “Promised Land” as anti-fracking propaganda that requires refutation. One industry huckster has reportedly purchased a billboard along an upstate New York highway that screams: “Matt Damon: The Water Has Been on Fire Since 1669.”
That’s no doubt true, even if it is highly manipulative to tie Damon to the classic Gasland stunt of igniting gas-saturated faucet water. You could no doubt document cases of lung cancer in 1669, too — long before cigarette smoking caused U.S. lung cancer death rates to spike ten-fold.
Investigative reporter Peter Mantius covered business, law and politics for The Atlanta Constitution for 17 years, then edited two business newspaper/websites in the Northeast. He is now a freelance journalist and lives in Watkins Glen, NY.