Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

The Truthiness of “Promised Land,” Five Things to Know Before You Go

Kim Paynter / WHYY

A drill rig rises above a farm in Susquehanna County, Pa.

“Promised Land,” Hollywood’s new movie about fracking, hits theaters nationally today. The film, starring Matt Damon as a land man, has already begun playing in Philadelphia and New York City, and StateImpact had this review of it last week. The gas industry has been nervous about how they’re portrayed in the film, and the Marcellus Shale Coalition has purchased ads to run in theaters seeking questions from viewers.

Today, we’re sorting fact from fiction. Here’s five things we think you should know before setting out to watch the film.

Dead Cows:

Promised Land: Photos of dead cows are handed out in the form of anti-drilling leaflets by fractivist Dustin Noble, played by John Krasinski.

StateImpact Pennsylvania: We wrote about dead calves at a Pennsylvania dairy farm, where the farmer linked the death of her calves to a frack wastewater spill. Our first story came from a simple press release sent out by the Department of Agriculture in 2010 about a quarantine of cows exposed to frack water, which had leaked from a waste water empoundment. When we followed up months later, we learned from the farmer, Carol Johnson, that those same cows gave birth to about a dozen calves, but only three survived. Johnson, and researchers at Cornell University, linked the deaths and still births to the frack water exposure. But the state Department of Agriculture disagreed.

Burning Taps:

Promised Land: Although no one actually sets their tap on fire in the film, the townsfolk have heard about it. The fractivist demonstrates this to a classroom full of young school children by pouring household chemicals onto a toy farm and throwing a match on top of it. The explanation of fracking to the kids is loose, combining drilling with the fracking process.

StateImpact Pennsylvania: Flaming tap water is a result of methane migration. We’ve done lots of stories of how, why and where this happens. For a clear explanation, see our posts on the topic.

And for our investigative series on how abandoned wells contribute to methane migration, listen below:

A more controversial aspect of fracking is whether or not the chemicals have leaked into drinking water supplies. We have stories on that as well, click here.

For an explanation of fracking, click here.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Actor Mark Ruffalo at a rally in Dimock. Activists organized a delivery of clean water for the residents affected by gas drilling.

Divided Communities:

Promised Land: Aside from who gets the girl, the tension in “Promised Land” centers around a divided community. Some want the money, the good schools, and the jobs the gas boom will bring, others worry about losing their rural lifestyle, and clean drinking water.

StateImpact Pennsylvania: This is a story we’ve seen played out across the state. But nowhere is the tension thicker than in Dimock, Pa.

Dimock is in the news because of claims that gas drilling has contaminated residential drinking water wells.

StateImpact Pennsylvania recently profiled another community changed by drilling: Towanda, Bradford County. 

William Bond / Keystone/Getty Images

American State Department official, Alger Hiss, denying he was a member of a Communist cell before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington. August, 1948.

Alger Hiss or Fractivist?:

(spoiler alert)

Promised Land: Alger Hiss never appears in the film, but we think John Krasinski’s character was modeled after him. Hiss was a top State Department official who helped create the United Nations and was later accused of spying for the Soviet Union.

StateImpact Pennsylvania: We’ve met lots of fractivists. We’ve even heard rumors that some may be on the coal industry’s payroll. But we have never confirmed that any are actually working for the gas industry. We’ve also heard the cliched refrain that they are all trust fund babies. But from our experience, most are retired working people. A global security firm just published a white paper on the fractivist movement. Here’s our recent piece on them, and if they have a connection to Alger HIss, we’ll leave that for you to decide.

The Gasmen Cometh:

Promised Land: 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. Matt Damon plays the earnest “landman” who gets landowners to lease their mineral rights to the fictional “Global Crosspower Solutions.”

Although Matt Damon’s character has orders to 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.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Tom Stroup, Tom Savko and Bill Peiffer, all retired, are trying to stop fracking wastewater from getting injected into wells in Warren County.

StateImpact Pennsylvania: We’ve listened to lots of residents recount the day the land men knocked on their door, and the film does seem to get this right. In the early days, farmers with large acreage settled for initial bonuses of just $25 an acre, and 12 percent royalties. But at the height of the land rush, some did get as high at $6,000 an acre and 18 percent royalties. John Puzo, who grew up on a dairy farm in Susquehanna County, says farmers in northeastern Pennsylvania were used to gasmen coming and offering small amounts for mineral rights, but never ended up drilling.

“Every five years they’d get an offer for mineral rights,” said Puzo. “They would poke holes and dig and they’d be offered ‘x’ amount of money. And five years ago, here it comes again. They give you $50 bucks an acre, cool, that will pay some taxes, done. And then you hear ‘hey did you hear Connolly got 100 bucks an acre…really? And then you heard the Cassels got $700 bucks an acre. But here’s the thing, they went after the large land owners first, my family has 700 acres, nail them first and they don’t think twice because it’s the same offer they get every five years. My sister has two acres, she got $6000 an acre, that’s the dark side of that moon.”

Landowners are a lot savvier today then they were five years ago, and there’s a lot more information about negotiating a good lease. Some residents have banded together to get the best price and/or the best assurances that their land and health won’t be adversely impacted.

Let us know what you think of the film.

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