Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to see Promised Land is to understand just exactly why it gets oil and gas industry insiders’ blood boiling. First a couple of spoilers: The oil and gas executives are the bad guys so cunning they play both sides of a fight over oil and gas leasing in a small town. Also, the movie’s scientific presentation of fracing consists of setting a toy farm on fire in front of gasping schoolchildren. In making the movie, Matt Damon, its star and co-writer, has joined a long Hollywood tradition of making oil and gas executives the all-purpos boogey man, said Joe Leydon, a University of Houston professor film historian and longtime film critic for Variety. “You have a dozen other movies in which people who represent oil and gas are rapacious and environment-threatening monsters,” he said. “Oil and gas company executives tend to be depicted only slightly more sympathetically than terrorists.” Yet, such movies can have an impact.
The China Syndrome, for one, was released near the time of Three Mile Island’s partial nuclear meltdown. The film “had an impact on the way we as citizenry here in the United States view nuclear power as a possible threat,” Leydon said. As hydraulic fracturing has moved from subterranean obscurity to pop culture scorn, a key question is whether movies such as Promised Land and a list of celebrities denouncing a key energy production method could influence lawmakers and regulators and shoo away investors. Industry CEOs and advocates say that’s unlikely. Yet the intersection between a Hollywood rabble rouser such as Promised Land and policymakers isn’t as farfetched as it might appear. At least fracing foes hope so. Protests, Politics and Policy At one of the country’s largest newspapers, a columnist for the New York Daily News urged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January to watch Promised Land before making a decision on the state’s fracing regulations.
In Youngstown, Ohio, an anti-fracing group used the movie to drum up support for a protest. The notion of Cuomo setting energy policy by viewing the film struck Chris Faulkner, founder, president and CEO of Breitling Oil and Gas as “the dumbest thing in the history of time.” Faulkner said the problem is that fracing is an easy target. “I think the industry up until recently has done a poor job with its own PR and marketing. It’s let other folks do the talking,” he said. However, Faulkner believes investors are much more likely to make financial decisions based on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations than public perception based on a movie. “I think some of the Bakken area right now has slowed down because it’s wait and-see with the EPA coming down with new regulations,” he said.
Leydon argues the movie could still have an impact. It doesn’t have to match the crowds that China Syndrome drew to have an influence. Leydon said people coming out of Promised Land could decide, “ ‘OK, I should write my congressman and say we should have restrictions on this. We should have laws outlawing that.’ ” That may be one reason underling the attention the industry has given it, despite Promised Land playing to mostly empty theaters. While some of its most ruthless hecklers have been film critics – one called it a “dishonest film about duplicity” — it still comes up. Speakers at a January proppants forum in Houston derided it. Oil and Gas CEOs think it is based on science about as sound as astrology. A Canadian shale group said people shouldn’t stay away from the film, since, “perhaps the facts shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.”
Other industry advocates are taking it even more seriously; they’ve sunk money into advertising that appears before Promised Land in Pennsylvania theaters. Hearts And Minds As new fracing regulations loom on the horizon, public opinion is clearly an important factor. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) delayed rulemaking in December to analyze more than 170,000 comments before finalizing fracing regulations. And some news reports linked the release of proposed California fracing rules to the film’s release several days later. The oil and gas industry has raised concerns that the BLM’s fracing rules could cost operators as much as $1.5 billion. Steve Everley, a spokesman for Energy in Depth (EID), an industry advocacy organization, said he doubts a movie will change the hearts and minds of regulators. “If you look across the country, states have been updating their regulations to make sure shale development builds upon its already impressive safety record, and the industry has been an active partner in that process,” he said. Disclosure required by states and on websites such as FracFocus.org have been spearheaded by the industry, Everley said.
Rules governing industry standards, such as well-construction, have also been updated. “Given all of that, and the fact that the regulatory process is dynamic, I don’t see how a movie like Promised Land would fundamentally change a system that already works and continues to improve, especially when the experiences of real people differ so dramatically from what’s portrayed in that film,” Everley said. Leydon notes policymakers have been swayed before.
The 1932 film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang exposed the horrors of chain gangs in the deep South. “There were state legislatures that were pushed into introducing laws that would greatly restrict how harshly convicts on chain gangs could be punished,” he said. Following The Money Whatever the impact of Promised Land, pop culture is in a turf battle and some of it is being waged by overseas interests. Next up, on Jan. 22, is FrackNation, a documentary by three journalists that goes after the attackers of oil and gas, especially Josh Fox’s Gasland. Gasland, a film the industry loves to hate, unquestionably started something. Two years later, the industry still cites the film and competing documentaries, films and celebrities such Lady Gaga, Yoko Ono and Deepak Chopra square off with operators. Fracing even crept into the lyrics of a new Rolling Stones track, Doom and Gloom. And Promised Land’s producers consulted Gasland in preparation for making their film, according to U.S. News & World Report. FrackNation is different from, say, the pro-industry response to Gasland, called TruthLand, in that it takes Fox to task for omitting details from his film. Perhaps the key scene seared into the imagination of Gasland’s viewers shows a man lighting his tap water on fire, supposedly because of oil and gas drilling.
However, a 1976 state report showed the area’s water already had “troublesome amounts of … methane.” The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission also said the mini-fireball “was not related to oil and gas activity.” Fox’s film doesn’t mention any other of the state’s findings, instead dismissing them “out of hand,” the commission said. When Fox was asked about the scene by FrackNation’s makers, Fox responded on camera that those reports were irrelevant. “There are reports from 1936 that people say they could light their water on fire in New York State,” he said. “But that has no bearing on this situation at all.” FrackNation is also different because it was financed by online donors with the caveat that money would not be accepted from any companies or senior oil and gas executives. “We want to remain independent of the gas industry and funded by ordinary people,” the filmmakers said.That’s in contrast to Damon’s Promised Land, which the Heritage Foundation found was partly financed by the “royal family of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE).” Promised Land was produced in association with Image Media Abu Dhabi, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media (AD Media).“The UAE, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), has a stake in the future of the American fossil fuel industry,” Heritage reported. Heritage argued that what’s bad for fracing is good for oil rich countries. “Hydraulic fracturing has increased the United States’ domestic supply of crude oil and natural gas in areas such as the Bakken shale formation and has the potential to increase domestic production much more in the foreseeable future,” the foundation said. “That means more oil on the market, and hence lower prices for a globally traded commodity.” The industry is still rankled, especially since Damon’s stardom garners far more attention than websites presenting such information. Faulkner said he was irked by the film’s use of myths and debunked arguments that are dated by seven or eight years. “There’s very little fact to back up their positions,” Faulkner said, adding that Damon’s agreed that fracing will create a burned out, toxic wasteland robbing people of their families’ legacies is fiction. “Essentially (their land) becomes Chernobyl,” Faulkner said. “It’s a reckless thought that we all know is not true. We all know science is on our side. Fracing does not contaminate drinking water every single time, or ever when done properly,” he said.
False Choices Everley said viewers of Promised Land are presented with a story premised on a false choice between taking money and protecting the environment. Everley said the opposite is true: Shale development helps communities, creates jobs and doesn’t hurt air or water quality. “Had the producers of that movie done some research beyond watching Gasland and reading The New York Times, they would have discovered that the world they portray does not match reality at all,” he said. “I think hydraulic fracturing has become a hot topic because the groups opposing responsible oil and natural gas development have gotten desperate.” He said critics constantly lose the battle for public opinion because most voters recognize the importance of oil and natural gas to the economy. Detractors hope to scare the public “into believing that producing oil and natural gas is dangerous. “Of course, even that’s an uphill battle when regulators have so uniformly concluded that hydraulic fracturing can be safe and indeed is being performed safely all across the country,” he said. Everley thinks that’s why Hollywood is leading the charge against hydraulic fracturing. If opponents can’t win the argument, “maybe they can at least score some headlines to try to stay relevant.”
For instance Mark Ruffalo (the Hulk from The Avengers) is publically aligned against fracing. But like fellow anti-fractivist Alec Baldwin — do they know what they’re talking about? On Jan. 10, Everley wrote that Ono declared that 60% of wells producing natural gas from shale will experience compromised integrity and fail, “perhaps surprising those who weren’t previously familiar with Ms. Ono’s background and experience as petroleum engineer.” Celebrities do command attention, Everley told Hart Energy, “even if much of that attention is in the form of mockery.” Still EID recently gloated in January that its Facebook page for its counterwebsite, realpromisedland.org, has more “likes” (about 1,250) than the actual movie’s page as of Jan. 14. Leydon said that the industry’s battle is all uphill. Perhaps the most compelling oil and gas character was television’s J.R. Ewing. Even then, he wasn’t someone people wanted to be friends with or hang out with, Leydon said. People just wanted to be him. “To put it bluntly where can we find the good news, or stories or dramas about the upside of fracing? Where can we find the movies and TV shows that suggest it’s a good idea to invest in stocks and trust Wall Street? I don’t think you find many of those right now.”
– Darren Barbee, Hart Energy