The new Matt Damon film “Promised Land” is giving voice to critics of natural gas production, but the film faces opposition too as “fracking” goes Hollywood.
The movie arrives in the middle of political and regulatory battles over fracking, the controversial oil-and-gas development method that's enabling a U.S. production boom.
"Promised Land," which opened nationwide Friday to mixed reviews, boasts an all-star pedigree: Damon and John Krasinski (who plays Jim in the hit TV show "The Office") wrote it and star, while indie film pioneer Gus Van Sant directs.
Damon plays an energy company representative dispatched to a struggling farm town to convince residents to allow development on their land, and get paid well for it.
But he runs into opposition from an activist played by Krasinski, who sounds the alarm about water pollution from the technique called hydraulic fracturing.
Green groups are using the movie as a platform to discuss environmental concerns about fracking.
Conservative critics, meanwhile, are pointing out that one of the companies behind the movie – Image Nation Abu Dhabi – is a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media, a state-owned company in the oil-and-gas rich United Arab Emirates.
But whether the film affects the volatile politics of drilling or can change public opinion remains to be seen.
Is it “The China Syndrome” for natural gas and oil development? No, says one expert.
“Every once in a while a film will break its way into political persuasion. I don’t think this one is going to do it,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communications at Boston University.
Berkovitz notes that the “stars are aligned” for the movie, given the big-name players involved (acclaimed actors Frances McDormand and Hal Holbrook also star).
But he says there are several reasons why “Promised Land” is unlikely to turn opinion about fracking toxic.
While development is spreading, it’s out of sight for most people, and Berkovitz says there’s a limited appetite for overtly politicized films.
“I don’t know if there’s enough interest in this as a political, environmental issue to move the needle and make everything fall into place, and A) get a lot of people to go watch the movie and B) start to shift public opinion,” he said.
The movie is more complex than a straight-ahead polemic against fracking, which involves high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals to liberate oil and gas trapped in shale rock formations.
“We went to the studio saying, ‘Who f**king wants to go see an anti-fracking movie?,’ and were all in agreement,” Damon said in an interview with Playboy. “To us, the movie was really about American identity. We loved the characters because they felt like real people making the kinds of compromises you have to just to live your life.”
A. O. Scott of The New York Times writes that it “admirably tries to represent both sides of the fracking debate, even though its allegiance is clearly to the antifracking position.”
But the green angle is sharp enough for environmental groups to use the film as a platform to bash fracking, which is spreading quickly in Pennsylvania – which is among the states atop the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation – and other areas.
“Spoiler alert: The truth about fracking is even worse than what you see in the movie,” said John Rumpler, senior attorney for Environment America, in a statement. “Dirty drilling operations have contaminated drinking water and made nearby residents sick.”
Other groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, are also highlighting the movie.
The Obama administration is moving ahead with some new oversight of fracking.
The Interior Department plans to complete rules this year that would create new disclosure requirements on federal lands (although the gas-drilling boom has been focused on state and private properties).
EPA, meanwhile, is studying the effects of fracking on drinking water, and slowly exploring whether to create new chemical information reporting requirements under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
But the petroleum industry, which says development is safe and that environmental claims are inaccurate, is fighting back against new controls – and the movie.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition has bought ads to run ahead of the movie in theaters across Pennsylvania that steer viewers to a website where they can find “straightforward facts” about natural gas development.
“Certainly, this is another attempt by opponents of responsible natural gas drilling to characterize our industry in a way that the facts don’t bear out,” Steve Forde, the group’s vice president for policy and communication, told a Pittsburgh CBS affiliate. They’re also using social media to go after the movie.
Similarly, the pro-fracking industry group Energy in Depth has launched a website titled “The Real Promised Land” to counter the movie.
Many Republicans and industry groups say stronger federal rules could stymie the drilling boom that has led to record U.S. gas production and oil output at its highest point in decades.
Some conservative groups are using the UAE tie to bash the movie, even though the UAE petroleum exports to the U.S. are very, very small.
The Heritage Foundation’s blog took aim at "Promised Land" in late September as buzz around the movie was growing, noting that the UAE, a member of OPEC, “has a stake in the future of the American fossil fuel industry.”
“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. That means more oil on the market, and hence lower prices for a globally traded commodity,” Heritage said.