Read

Search form

Matt Damon’s "Promised Land" Draws Ire of Fracking Industry

Matt Damon’s "Promised Land" Draws Ire of Fracking Industry
Mon, 1/7/2013 - by Mark Drajem
This article originally appeared on Bloomberg

Before many Pennsylvania movie-goers settle in for Matt Damon’s film about the fight over natural gas drilling, they will see a message from the energy industry offering “straightforward facts” about hydraulic fracturing.

The unorthodox, on-screen pre-buttal of “Promised Land,” which opened nationwide last weekend, is part of an industry campaign aimed at heading off criticism about the process, also called fracking. Instead of direct attacks, which the industry used against the documentary “Gasland,” they are trying to paint Damon’s movie as derivative, condescending and cliched.

Taken together the industry campaigns -- at Pennsylvania movie theaters, on a website and using social media -- underscore efforts to combat negative perceptions about the practice, deal with persistent questions about the risks of pollution and head- off calls for more oversight and regulation.

“The oil and gas industry is at the bottom in terms of public respect, and this movie is not going to help it,” John Hanger, the former top environmental regulator in Pennsylvania, said in an interview. “It describes the oil and gas industry as fundamentally dishonest, and willing to do anything to win.”

The film directed by Gus Van Sant pits Damon as an out-of- town gas-company land man facing off against an environmentalist played by John Krasinski (Jim Halpert in the television series “The Office”) in the fictional town of McKinley. The industry uses cash bribes, hard sells and Machiavellian maneuvers to get its way.

‘Real Drama’

“Fracking is a great premise for real drama,” James Schamus, the head of Focus Features, a unit of Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal Media LLC that produced and distributed the film, said in an interview. “It represents Americans deeply conflicted about how to deal with these issues.”

The energy industry’s public relations pushback against the film echoes the fictional stealth “propaganda campaign” depicted in the film, he said.

The on-screen ad being showed in 75 percent of Pennsylvania theaters lasts 16 seconds and refers the audience to an industry-sponsored website, www.learnaboutshale.org, for “a community conversation on natural gas.” It’s sponsored by the Pittsburgh-based Marcellus Shale Coalition industry group.

Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the Washington-based drillers’ group Energy in Depth, said it’s being deliberately restrained, as it doesn’t want to pick a fight with Damon or offer a detailed critique of a work of fiction. That contrasts with its attempts to rebut Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary “Gasland,” which showed a homeowner living near a fracking site setting fire to water from his kitchen tap.

Gasland Rebuttal

“‘Gasland’ lends itself to rebuttal and correction in a way that ‘Promised Land’ does not,” Tucker said in an interview. At an industry conference in November, Tucker said the “Promised Land” script showed Damon defending fracking for two-thirds of the movie, “and he does a pretty good job of it.”

Tucker’s group created a site featuring local landowners, RealPromisedLand.org. “On this site, you won’t find any actors, scripts or manufactured storylines,” Energy in Depth said on the site, which doesn’t specifically mention the movie or Damon. “What you will find here is real people, with real stories, about how development has impacted them and their families.

"Pretty Remarkable"

‘‘These aren’t stories you’re likely to see out at the movies,” it said. “But we think they’re pretty remarkable, just the same.”

Proponents of the drilling practice in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania - where the movie was filmed - posted comments on Facebook expressing their disappointment with the movie’s tone.

Mike Knapp, vice president for land at MDS Energy Development LLC, which is based in the western Pennsylvania county, said the movie sets up a false dichotomy.

Knapp, who helped organize the Facebook group, said he has been a land man, just like Damon’s character, but he is from the area and not an out-of-state interloper. “One of the things that really aggravates me, is that they seem to have a very condescending view,” by portraying some local farmers as greedy or unsophisticated, he said. “It’s a movie, and everybody is going to get crazy about it.”

Fracking and horizontal drilling has opened up deep rock formations in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado to drilling and production, boosting local economies and spurring manufacturing growth because of lower gas prices.

Movie Praised

Critics of fracking, in which millions of gallons of water are mixed with sand and chemicals to blast apart underground rock formations and free trapped gas, praised the film as an important representation of the conflicts now tearing through many rural communities.

“It’s a very good way to introduce fracking to all of America, because it will not be too much, too soon,” Rebecca Roter, who lives in northeastern Pennsylvania and is fighting local drilling and pipeline construction, said in an interview. “It captures the costs of this industry.”

The film shows the gas industry manipulating those who hold power in the fictional town, which is frequently the case in real life, said Chris Csikszentmihalyi, who started the Landman Report Card website. The site lets residents rate and comment on the person who negotiated their lease for the rights to underground natural gas.

Evolving Script

“Industry has the ability to do whatever it wants in these rural communities,” he said.

Krasinski and Damon wrote “Promised Land” together. In fact sheets provided by the studio they have said they weren’t writing an anti-fracking film; in fact, it began as a story about wind power.

Damon plays Steve Butler, the company representative who sets up leases with landowners to drill on or near their property. In the film’s opening scenes, Butler is portrayed as a man who signs bargain-basement leases and dismisses reverence for rural America as “delusional” and “self-mythologizing.”

He and his partner are persuading residents of McKinley to sign leases with their company. Then Krasinski’s character, Dustin Noble, turns up with photos of dead cattle, which he said were poisoned from gas drilling at his family farm in Nebraska.

With a town-wide vote on gas drilling looming, the two men tussle for the support, and affections, of local residents.

Tax Credits

The movie was shot in and around the town of Worthington, Pennsylvania, which is about 40 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The state of Pennsylvania, which has been pushing gas drilling, gave the production company $4 million in tax credits, an investment deemed worthwhile because of the jobs and spending the movie brought to the area, said Steve Katz, a state spokesman. Hundreds of local residents auditioned to play one of 500 extras, according to the film’s producers.

Hanger, who calls himself a realist about costs and benefits of gas drilling, said the movie undercuts the advantages of the process at every turn. It shows Butler to be a shifty character from the start, and the gas company willing to bribe and cheat to prevail, he said.

“This movie could have challenged everybody, and forced everyone to face questions,” Hanger said. Fracking “offers dramatic, powerful material and requires better.”

Supporters of the practice will have their own film in the coming days, as Phelim McAleer is set to release on January 7 his “Fracknation,” which questions the critics of the practice. McAleer paid for space on a billboard in upstate New York, which says, “Matt Damon: the water has been on fire since 1669.”

“The movie is OK, but it’s the politics and dishonesty I can’t stand,” McAleer he said in an interview.

Add new comment

Sign Up

Article Tabs

Standing Rock Sioux protests, Dakota Access Pipeline, police brutality, police violence, fossil fuel protests, Big Oil, Diggers, attack dogs

Some of the faces and voices from Standing Rock, in their own words.

U.K. surveillance legislation, Investigatory Powers Bill, Snoopers Charter, U.K. terrorism surveillance, U.K. surveillance programs, internet surveillance, cell phone surveillance, metadata

The Investigatory Powers Bill – or “Snoopers Charter” – is now enshrined in U.K. law, forcing internet and mobile phone companies to keep a record of all citizens’ browsing and phone use, even if they aren't suspected of terrorism.

Big Oil, Big Finance, economic transformation, climate collapse, economic alternatives, fossil fuel free, fossil fuel divestment, copyright laws, infrastructure investment, worker-owned cooperatives, jail the bankers, too big to fail

Moving society away from carbon dependence is not just about becoming good consumers, but engaged citizens.

money in politics, Don McGahn, campaign finance laws, FEC, campaign finance regulation, Citizens United, money as speech

Don McGahn, soon to be Donald Trump’s White House counsel, bears as much responsibility as any single person for turning America’s campaign finance system into something akin to a gigantic, clogged septic tank.

This week, the ice is melting, sea levels are rising and science denying psychopaths are steering the canoe.

Somali-Americans, Somali businesses, Abdul Razak Artan, Ohio State attacks, Somali activism

The Somali-American community was bashed last week after Abdul Razak Artan, a member of Ohio's large and growing Somali community, took part in a car-ramming attack and massive stabbing at the school that left 13 injured.

Posted 4 days 18 hours ago
Dakota Access Pipeline, Standing Rock, Alex Garland, North Dakota, Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Standing Rock protests

Here are some of the faces from Standing Rock, in their own words.

Posted 4 days 18 hours ago
Dakota Access Pipeline, Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Standing Rock protests, DAPL

"We thank the tribal youth who initiated this movement. We thank the millions of people around the globe who expressed support for our cause. We thank the thousands of people who came to the camps to support us."

Posted 5 days 13 hours ago

This week, the ice is melting, sea levels are rising and science denying psychopaths are steering the canoe.

Posted 3 days 17 hours ago
Big Oil, Big Finance, economic transformation, climate collapse, economic alternatives, fossil fuel free, fossil fuel divestment, copyright laws, infrastructure investment, worker-owned cooperatives, jail the bankers, too big to fail

Moving society away from carbon dependence is not just about becoming good consumers, but engaged citizens.

Posted 2 days 12 hours ago
Big Oil, Big Finance, economic transformation, climate collapse, economic alternatives, fossil fuel free, fossil fuel divestment, copyright laws, infrastructure investment, worker-owned cooperatives, jail the bankers, too big to fail

Moving society away from carbon dependence is not just about becoming good consumers, but engaged citizens.

This week, the ice is melting, sea levels are rising and science denying psychopaths are steering the canoe.

Noam Chomsky, Donald Trump, demagogue, Republican Party control, climate catastrophe, American militarism, fascism

Some years ago, the public intellectual warned that the U.S. was ripe for the rise of an authoritarian figure. Now he describes the threat Trump poses to the planet.

Somali-Americans, Somali businesses, Abdul Razak Artan, Ohio State attacks, Somali activism

The Somali-American community was bashed last week after Abdul Razak Artan, a member of Ohio's large and growing Somali community, took part in a car-ramming attack and massive stabbing at the school that left 13 injured.

Dakota Access Pipeline, Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Standing Rock protests, DAPL

"We thank the tribal youth who initiated this movement. We thank the millions of people around the globe who expressed support for our cause. We thank the thousands of people who came to the camps to support us."