Not Much in the “Promised Land”

Energy policy wonks and movie aficionados can now judge for themselves the merits of Promised Land – the Gus Van Sant film with Matt Damon that opened on December 29th in New York and Los Angeles dealing with the natural gas boom and the process of hydraulic fracturing. Alas, they’re both likely to be disappointed.

As noted by some critics thus far, the movie is more character-driven than story- or substance-driven. In fact, the word “fracking” is used just four times – in the same scene – and there is no real meaty, technical discussion of the various issues surrounding fracking and horizontal drilling currently being debated in real life. This is certainly not surprising – it’s Hollywood after all and detailed discussions of well bore integrity and surfactants don’t make for gripping cinema for the average person.

The main points made can be summarized easily. On the “pro” side, there are references to gas being cleaner than coal and oil (which it is), and energy security comes up also, with one scene depicting the gas company salesman suggesting that with abundant domestic natural gas resources we won’t have to go overseas to fight and die for oil any more (although this would only be true if large volumes of the gas are used in passenger vehicle transportation to displace oil; we import very little natural gas now, and it comes almost entirely from Canada and Mexico).

But the principal argument made in support of natural gas, and in fact the central theme of the movie and of the character inter-play, is that exploiting this resource is a way to re-invigorate economically depressed communities generally, and provide much-needed cash for struggling lower income individuals specifically. There is no question that money from gas provides benefits, but it also has complicated local politics and economics, as well as social dynamics. In this regard the movie broadly captures these themes, but some of the locals in the film who accept the money are depicted as caricatures of simple, easily manipulated folks, largely taken advantage of by the gas company, or in the case of the town’s senior local politician, a contemptible crook bribed by the soul-less firm. But, as other commentators have noted, many real-life communities have become very sophisticated in their dealings with the industry.

The major “con” arguments – as articulated by Frank, the elder statesman and well-informed skeptic in the community played by Hal Holbrook – are that the extraction of natural gas is “a bit more complicated than it seems,” and that while the gas is clean, “the way we go about getting it is some dirty business.” There are references to contaminated water, flowback, air pollution, and pictures of dead cows, not to mention a cartoonish, fiery demonstration for a classroom full of grade-school kids.

Let’s start by accepting that Hollywood loves a David v. Goliath story and it has to use caricature and simplified characters and arguments to make a point and keep the audience’s attention. Those with money, power, and knowledge being confronted by the underdog is a captivating theme, one that resonates especially in a struggling economy of the post-Madoff era financial collapse. But the evil, all-knowing, all-powerful, conniving and stop-at-nothing corporation is too easily depicted. There are of course bad companies in real life who do not act in the community’s best interest, and these stories can make for great cinema – see Silkwood, A Civil Action, and Erin Brockovich.

What this movie ultimately does is provide fuel to a trend to view the hydraulic fracturing process through a simplistic, all or nothing lens. Specifically, there are louder voices calling for an outright national ban on fracking, insisting that the process cannot be regulated, environmental risks cannot be mitigated, and oil and gas companies cannot be trusted.

But, as Frank would say, it’s a bit more complicated than that. There are certainly companies trying to do their best, adopt leading practices, innovate solutions, and work with regulators, environmental organizations, and local communities. And natural gas companies and the oil and gas industry broadly are not the only ones who believe that responsibly developing our natural gas resources provides real benefits to the country. President Obama supports this view, as does the Environmental Defense Fund, stating that while natural gas production involves risks, “we are convinced that if tough rules, oversight and penalties for noncompliance are put in place, these risks become manageable.” Others in this camp include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Center for American Progress, the Energy Future Coalition, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. As George P. Mitchell, the oil and gas man largely credited with developing the innovations allowing the commercial extraction of shale gas has stated – in an August 2012 op-ed with Mayor Bloomberg – that “fracking for natural gas can be as good for our environment as it is for our economy and our wallets, but only if done responsibly.”

So, don’t go to the movie to get informed about natural gas and hydraulic fracturing, as I’m sure most people would not anyway. Go to be entertained for a couple of hours, and then go home and do your homework.