Hollywood's Matt Damon Takes on Fracking in 'Promised Land'
Fracking has made it to the big screen. Just three years ago, few beyond the drilling industry, had heard of it. Now fracking has turned up in The Rolling Stone’s new album. And on Friday, a Hollywood production with big name actors, directors and writers hits the theaters in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Filmed on location in southwestern Pennsylvania’s shale country, “Promised Land” tells the tale of what happens to a small town when the gasmen arrive. This is the story before the truck traffic, before the seismic tests, before the drills dig holes thousands of feet below the surface, before the flares, before the complaints about bad water. “Promised Land” is a story about the landmen, or one particular landman played by Matt Damon, who believes he has the golden ticket to save rural Pennsylvania.
Hollywood exaggerates, hyperbolizes, and stretches the truth to tell a good story. So how does “Promised Land” stack up to reality?
When the landman working for Cabot Oil and Gas first approached Victoria Switzer, a retired school teacher in Dimock, Susquehanna County, back in 2006, she was building her dream home.
“It was a beautiful fall day and I was sitting on the steps of the trailer dreaming about what a wonderful life I had,” Switzer told StateImpact. “And this man appeared, friendly, with a twinkle in his eye and he said, ‘Beautiful day isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘Yes, it is.’ And I like to say that was the last honest thing I heard from a gas man.”
That was real life. Several years later, Switzer joined a lawsuit against Cabot Oil and Gas for contaminating her well water. She and others have since settled their case with Cabot.
In the Hollywood version, Matt Damon is just as charming, twinkling his eyes and playing the role of Steve Butler, a landman for the fictional $9 billion energy company “Global Crosspower Solutions.” But in a sinister plot twist, and cynical portrayal of energy company strategy, it turns out that Butler may be the straightest talker in town.
“Promised Land” begins with Butler in New York City, on his way up the corporate ladder. Then he’s on the Greyhound bus to small town Pennsylvania, where his job is to grab as many Marcellus Shale leases as he can with his parter Sue Thomason, played by Frances McDormand. “Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas” sets the stage for this future fracking mecca dubbed McKinley, Pa.
But no sooner does the wholesome Butler get the company promotion, when he has to contend with the town’s elder spokesman, a man who did his time in corporate America and has a PhD from MIT. Hal Holbrooke plays the gentleman farmer Frank Yates, who teaches high school science on the side. Yates knows all about the dangers of drilling and fracking and lighting faucets on fire. He says natural gas may be cleaner burning than coal, but the “process is dirty.”
Plenty of residents of rural Pennsylvania would agree with Holbrooke’s characterization. But don’t expect to learn much more about fracking, gas drilling, or dairy farming in this film. Most of the story takes place in a bar.
So on open mic night, in walks a fractivist with pictures of dead cows, and stories of brown fields from his father’s 5th generation dairy farm in Nebraska. Fracking for natural gas isn’t taking place in Nebraska, but again this is Hollywood, such details are allowed to get fudged.
The fictional tale, however, is not all figments of the writer’s imaginations. A Pennsylvania farmer and two researchers have, in fact, linked dead cows to a frack water spill. Still, as StateImpact Pennsylvania has reported several times, it’s difficult to make a direct link when it comes to gas drilling and its impact on human and animal health. And as it is with all things fracking and drilling for natural gas, there is controversy. Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture concluded that those cow deaths were not caused by contact with frack water. The film version also leaves the connection ambiguous.
The fractivist with pictures of dead cows drives a truck with his environmental organization’s odd emblem “Superior Athena.” (I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere but I haven’t figured it out.) Dustin Noble is played by John Krasinski of The Office fame, and he’s an even better salesman than Matt Damon’s character. So genuine and endearing in fact, he gets the girl, played by Rosemarie DeWitt.
When his character explains fracking to a class full of elementary school kids, drilling and fracking become one, and the whole farm goes up in flames, not just the tap water.
In reality fracking happens after drilling the hole, and casing the well with steel and cement. Later, the sand, high-pressured water and chemical mixtures are used to open up tight fractures and release the gas. Problems in Pennsylvania have occurred with methane migration. That’s when natural gas from either shallow gas formations, or the deeper Marcellus formation, leaks out into the nearby aquifer. It can occur naturally. It can also happen during the drilling process, before fracking occurs. If the concentration is high enough, residents can set their tap water on fire. If it’s really high, something could ignite the colorless, odorless gas. This happened in Dimock, where a shed exploded on New Year’s Day, back in 2009.
“Promised Land” is full of pre-drilling bucolic scenes of rural Armstrong and Westmoreland counties, in the southwestern part of Pennsylvania. Directed by Gus Van Sant, Krasinski and Damon wrote the screenplay, which centers around a town vote on fracking. Meanwhile the landman played by Damon, and the landwoman played by McDormand, try to sign as many leases as possible. Although they can go as high as $5,000 an acre with 18 percent royalties, the eager residents seem happy to settle for the first offer they get. Damon’s character believes in what he’s selling, prosperity for an impoverished town desperate to maintain its rural lifestyle. For McDormand’s character, it’s just a job.
In reality, some Pennsylvania landowners did fetch as high as $5,000 an acre, but at the beginning of the gas rush, many settled for just $25 an acre, and 12 percent royalties.
“Promised Land” hones in on a conflict that has played out in small towns across the state — is drilling the Marcellus Shale an economic savior or an environmental disaster? Will we all become shaleionaires or will our cows drop dead?
Although the film asks those questions, it seems to shy away from answering them directly. It is after all, a story about one man’s transformation, not a documentary on gas drilling. Damon’s performance is seamless. But he starts out so earnest, it’s hard not to know where he’s going.
One pleasant surprise is the accurate portrayal of the economic and social diversity of small town rural Pennsylvania, and the variety of opinions held by its residents when it comes to gas drilling. The original idea for the screenplay centered on wind energy. But the realities of wind farm production didn’t fit the storyline, so the authors toyed with coal, oil, and salmon fishing until landing upon Marcellus Shale drilling. And if they wanted a subject rich in conflict, characters and transformation, they chose the right story.
“Promised Land,” a Focus Features film, opens in Philadelphia this weekend.