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.


  • Scott Cannon

    I just
    came from the 1st showing. I think the film is very accurate in portraying the
    issues that I’ve experienced in 3 years of research. I think the gas industry
    should be sweating bullets because when intelligent people see this, they will
    start Googling “fracking” and find that the BS they’ve been seeing in the gas
    industry commercials is just hot air. I spoke with some of the 25 or more
    people at the theater and they agreed it was a better movie than some of the
    reviews describe.

    • ABC

      You obviously are Uninformed. Matt Damon is increasing his wealth from the UAE. GET A CLUE!

  • Danna

    A good movie that does portray the ruthlessness of the oil and gas industry. It also explores the whole idea of how community–it’s vulnerability and the possibility of it’s strength.

    • MtDreams

      They count on it – if you note – they usually find a very economically depressed area and then descend on it like a bunch of vultures.

  • Danna

    It is Hollywood.There are paid shills in the oil and gas industry. The industry players can and will do whatever it takes to get their ends met. Or at least, a large number will.

  • Paul Roden

    I think the film is great. Hopefully it will spur more citizen involvement to stop fracking or at least regulate and monitor it. What the film doesn’t say is what the alternatives to fracking are and the impact of fracking on global warming. I wish someone like Michael Moore would make a documentary or a feature film on transitioning to renewable energy like Germany is doing without fossil or nuclear fuel. People should read the Nov. 2009 article in Scientific American by Jacobson and Delucchi on transitioning to renewable energy by 2030 without fossil or nuclear energy with existing technology. The only obstacle is the lack of political will because the politicians are owned in Washington, DC and in the state capitals by the gas, oil, nuclear and utility industries. They also dominate the mainstream media in their pro fracking and pro natural gas propaganda ads.

    • Jim

      Paul, the problem is that there is propaganda on both sides. Germany is a prime example. Solar panels are generally not efficient as of yet, but Germany pushed them. They gave out a lot of incentives to get people to invest in them, but it is putting huge economic strain on the government, so they are saying they are going to need to raise the rates energy rates on the people (despite promising not to). Solar energy does show a lot of promise, but it still has a ways to go. Right now the it uses a lot of fossil fuels to make them and they do not have a lifespan to pay for themselves without subsidies. Subsidies hide true costs, they do not erase costs. In some highly sunny areas they can pay for themselves; this is not the case in most of Germany. They have now gotten to the point where they can no longer subsidize on the back end (subsidizing the production of the cells) which means their solar cell companies are now going bankrupt. Now they are having to buy them from China which is using poor labor laws and loose pollution laws to produce them cheaper and making that area of the world one of the most polluted with few worker rights. I do see Solar panels being much more efficient in the near future, too bad Germany didn’t wait.

      • Sam

        Classic misdirection. We’re not talking about solar panels, solar energy, or Germany. The subject is the dangers of fracking, a subject not even mentioned in your post. We all know there are problems with all kinds of alternate energy. We also know that continued reliance on fossil fuels is like Neville Chamberlain betting on “peace in our time”. We need to collectively pull our heads out of our collective lower intestine and find solutions rather than defending the old order.

        • Chris Farley

          Not really a misdirection. The reality is that energy demand is quite inelastic. If we don’t use NG, we have to use something else. Coal? Solar? Wind? All have issues. Making smart decisions about the tradeoffs is the point.

  • Ann Pinca

    I thought the film did a fine job of revealing the techniques and mindset of the oil and gas industry and their landmen. Now I understand why the industry is nervous about the movie! What rang less true was the lovely idea of the town voting for or against gas development, and of course, the ending, which sadly just isn’t how it went for most communities. This movie should help those unfamiliar with the industry and its practices to come to some realizations about natural gas development that they didn’t think about before.

    As for the dead cattle idea, that came straight from the news. See this link from 2009 for images of dead cattle in Caddo Parish, LA:

    In 2010, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality found that the cattle died after drinking liquid spilled from the well pad and fined Chesapeake Energy and the contracted hydraulic fracturing company, Schlumberger, as the responsible parties. Both companies denied responsibility for the incident.

    • DeanMarshall

      Well Said!

  • James Farrelly

    When you first hear the execs discussing over expensive wine (which I think requires clean water in order to make) discussing the strategizing behind “buying towns,” the whole ‘banality of evil’ message is launched. And then we see it in action…in carefully practiced scripts with dirty bribes. “Do what’s right for your family…your children will have a better future than having to work on a farm for cents a day.” There is no doubt that the gas/oil companies are direct threats to the family farm. Hell, our mass consumerism and way of life is a direct threat to the family farm.

    Let’s just hope every community has a few hundred folks like Frank Yates.

    And let’s get real about this….if the natural gas industry can come up with an entirely guaranteed and safe way to extract gas from the shale, then have at it. But for God’s sake, let’s not rush it with these practices that seem to be releasing the most hellish consequences for our communities and neighborhoods. The CEO’s of the energy companies can always buy those places at higher ground. Most of the rest of us all have to live downstream….and they don’t want any part of the water they expect us to drink and our animals to drink.

    And make no mistake, they are not only buying towns, they are buying government. Witness the rise of Tom Corbett who has been flown to cushy gatherings for working on “business plans’ to attract natural gas here with huge tax breaks. He’s a Republican, of course. But Governor Cuomo of New York has also indicated a desire to open up NY to drilling for natural gas. I might listen to their ravings a bit more if they were willing to live in the communities and drink and bathe in the water they think is so safe from drilling.

  • R. Sherry

    I was floored by Josh Fox’s HBO documentary, “Gasland,” on fracking across the country. Anything that gets a dialogue going on this will hopefully move us to a safer, cleaner, intact environment in the future.

  • Michael Grimshaw

    We can end fracking, deep water drilling, mountaintop removal, oil wars and climate change:
    This is the only technology that can provide base-load energy cheaper than coal. And it is the best possible solution in terms of safety and the environment. There is enough fuel for this machine to afford all 9 billion of us an American lifestyle for over a million years. More on the moon, and Mars, and every other planet in the solar system.

    • MtDreams

      worth knowing more about

  • Jake

    I think it’s ridiculous for any of you who drive a fuel powered car or burns Nat gas in their homes to express any opinion about this issue. The issue shouldn’t be the current means of energy. We do what we do to keep the gas and oil flowing for you people.

    • MtDreams

      It is obvious that the only thing you care about is your paycheck. Time to wake up and recognize that the damage YOUR industry is doing the country and the world is irreparable.

      As scary as it sounds – we need to change how we get energy and shift our economy. The children, the animals, the planet can’t take being poisoned like it is from this industry. The ONLY reason we don’t have viable alternatives is the greed and control this industry has on the nation and those in political office.

    • DeanMarshall

      Is that why there are 19 Permit applications to get the gas in LNG form, “Flowing to Asian markets ASAP?

    • eve george

      Wow, this is wild! Your idea that our capacity and right to express an opinion, or to share experiences, or to post on RESEARCH is tied to the fact that we are tied to your industry in order to stay warm through a PA winter —is one of the scariest things I’ve seen so far. What you do to keep gas flowing may cause so much damage here that we may never be able to clean it up. Do you live in PA or TX or WV? my bet, Jake… is that you live some place else. Water travels Jake — and if radon infused water seeps into the depth of the water table, then what will you say about what is and is not ridiculous?

  • Sam

    Why include Alger Hiss? He was not only convicted of spying, but later intelligence from the Soviets after the fall of Communism verified he was a soviet agent. Why cast that shadow over an otherwise above-board issue? Bad call, StateImpact Pennsylvania.

  • Linda Karyn Popham

    Ray Hill, Houston:

    “I am heir to land and mineral rights bought by my ancestors in Leon County (about half way to Dallas). The oil companies have been leasing and drilling on that land for most of my life. [Ray is over 65.] Three years ago all of the wells on individual farms went bad. The water was actually combustible because of fracking. The drillers have paid for water service to replace the wells so now those country roads have PVC pipes running along side of them to get good water to the homes widely scattered in the area. Part of the agreement is no one is supposed to talk about it or the companies will cut off the free water but there is no one living on my families land and no wells drilled there. We are part of a pool with wells drilled on other property. The checks have been getting smaller because the natural gas is escaping into the atmosphere instead of coming through the wells and pipes. Do not be fooled by the industry’s propaganda…”

  • Lisa M

    I happen to live in a drilling area of PA. I can only speak for my town, but most of the complaints about drilling are a bunch of BS from people who do not even live in the area. There are no huge groups of people protesting fracking. In the last 5 years I have seen only once, a group of 5 people with anti-fracking signs(2 of the 5 were children under age 10). Movies like this just spread untruths and make people hysterical on a subject that needs real discussion.

    • DeanMarshall

      How much did you get for your lease? I belong to several Environmental groups and we protest often! Our latest Coalition of over a dozen smaller groups has a combined membership of about 2,500 and growing daily, just in Central/NE Pa

      • Meghan S

        Lol what an idiot. I think the question should be – how much did YOUR neighbor get, dean? Get a real job. I worked all over Pennsylvania – Pittsburgh, Williamsport, Allentown, Towanda, Montrose, etc…not once did I see a protestor. And thank goodness for that, I would have thrown something at them and caused more environmental damage in my garbage that drilling rigs and gas pipelines are doing.

        • DeanMarshall

          Your ignorance is staggering! Please share that shit you are smoking!

  • CJ In Upstate NY

    Viewers should be informed that this film was partially
    funded by the United Arab Emirates, the world’s third-largest oil
    exporter. The conflict of interest is egregious as it is obvious
    that an OPEC member would not want the United States to research and
    develop an independent source of energy.

  • cathy clark

    I love these types of movies that portray the truth but in a way that reaches millions. Now what do we do next to get this stopped? Surely our government will step in and correct this? yeah right!

  • Carol mitt

    I saw the film and was disappointed. I think the film should have told the story after the fracking and the harm it has already done.

  • Tina Huston

    Anybody who doesn’t have to live next to one of these rigs has no business saying that others should have to be subject to it. The animals go away as well as the birds. There isn’t even quiet. The industrial noise of the rigs and the trucks are 24/7. Humans are not made to live like this.

    Please sign our petition to put a moratorium on fracking in Colorado. They’re clobbering us out here. Weld County is trashed. They’re out to destroy the entire front range.

    • Neil_hyg

      I signed. Rational petition, with demands that should be standard policy.

      • Meghan S

        Another idiot. I’m going to make up an erroneous petition, will you sign that, too? Educate yourself.

    • Meghan S

      Haha do YOU live next to a rig??? ALL drilling rigs are set up with a sound proof wall. There is nothing more than a gentle hum once you get about 100 yards away from the drilling floor. Educate yourself before you go creating more ignoramuses like yourself. Sounds to me like you’re just another butt-hurt land owner who didnt get chosen.

      • Tina Huston

        Ha ha? No, hardly any rigs are setup with a sound-proof wall. Gentle hum? The seismic testing alone shook my house and my well and geothermal loop. Educate yourself and get some respect for what other people are going through, Meghan. What is wrong with you? You’re sick. You sound like a twelve-year-old.

  • JoAnne Bruno

    I don’t know of any town in PA that can vote whether to allow frackers come in. I thought the movie was good. It’s important for dialog to happen so people know the truth. I live in Brockway, PA and we have been trying to prevent drilling on our watershed containing three reservoirs, all supplied through underground springs and aquifers, which supply thousands of people water through a public water supply. We also have industries here including two Owen-Illinois glass plants. The DEP permitted drilling 1000 ft. from one of our reservoirs. When they drilled, it cut off the flow of water to one of the reservoirs. No one is protected by the laws that have been put in place. They were all put into place to benefit the drilling companies. AND, no one will answer where we are going to get water when affect our water. Not only that, but, a seismic testing company, is planning to set off explosives placed 30 ft. deep, 110 ft. apart on our watershed. The company estimates 250-300 charges per day. This is freedom?

  • Meghan S

    This article was really hilarious to me for several reasons – 1) there has been methane in pennsylvanias water for centuries, it didnt come about during the gas boom. 2) dead cows and hairless puppies? Maybe the next person to show up will be the boogie man or the loup garu? Be real people, chemicals hurt everyone, I don’t see anyone boycotting their hair products or diet sodas. The gas industry is WAY on top of safety precautions, you are grasping at anything and everything you can to make them look bad. 3) landowners complaining because their neighbor got more money? MAYBE Bradford and Susquehanna county could have benefited from the money a few decades ago so that their school district could have “learned them” a little better. It all boils down to greed. Take a trip to church on Sunday if you’re that upset with what your neighbor got.

    That being said, I worked in both Bradford and Susquehanna county during the “boom” and I can tell you firsthand that the people making all of this fuss are the people who’s land was looked over. Towanda/Tunkhannock/Dimock/Meshoppen/Montrose are some of the biggest armpits I’ve ever seen in this country and the influx of money from the rig hands to the pipeliners has saved those towns from collapsing on themselves. So keep complaining, pa! The only people supporting any of this bogus crap are people who are just watching tv and ridiculous movies like “promised land.” Keep in mind, the person creating all of this is someone just as ignorant as you. The only promise Pennsylvania has seen in over a century is the gas boom.

  • Brady Dale

    Cows did die from frack water. In Louisiana. That is incontrovertible. I talked to the state employee that found them. Why didn’t you mention that? It was from an on site spill. Why didn’t you write about that?

    What does PA have to do with it?

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