Daniel Simmons is the director of state affairs at the Institute for Energy Research.
I was one of the brave few who saw Matt Damon's new movie Promised Land last week. The movie turned out to be enlightening, not for its exploration of the biggest development in energy in the last decade, but rather for the writers' and producers' view of business.
Anyone who has followed America's resurgent oil and natural gas production knows that the use of hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling has led to has vast increases in domestic oil and natural gas production. The United States is now the world's largest natural gas producer and according to the International Energy Agency, the United States will become the largest oil producer within five years.
Hollywood is starved for original movie ideas and when the writers started working on Promised Land, they likely thought they had a great new villain in hydraulic fracturing. But it appears that reality intruded and the writers discovered that hydraulic fracturing isn't guilty of the crimes environmental activists have alleged.
The movie's producers admitted they consulted the movie Gasland in preparation for making Promised Land. If you watch Gasland as a documentary, hydraulic fracturing looks to be truly scary. For example, Gasland shows people setting their drinking water on fire as it comes out of the tap, fish kills, and the former mayor of Dish, Texas claiming that natural gas production led to benzene air pollution in his city. But Gasland is not a documentary, it's a movie.
Gasland's claims are scary, but they aren't true, as Promised Land's researchers surely found out when they looked deeper into hydraulic fracturing's actual environmental track record. The reality is that hydraulic fracturing has been used for over 60 years in more than 1.2 million wells and there isn't a single confirmed case of groundwater contamination, according to the EPA.
The scare stories in Gasland are nothing more than scare stories. Gasland shows drinking water being set on fire on Fort Lupton, Colo., but according to the Colorado regulators, this is natural and not a result of natural gas production. The fish kill, according to EPA was the result of an algal bloom, and the Texas Department of State Health Services found that the only people in Dish, Texas with elevated levels of benzene were smokers.
Without a real villain in hydraulic fracturing, the writers of Promised Land were left to rely on a standard Hollywood villain—the corporation. Promise Land's villainous corporation, however, says little to nothing about oil and gas companies, but it says a lot about Hollywood.
In the movie, the natural gas company sends Matt Damon and Francis McDormand's characters to secure drilling leases, but does not bother to prepare them to answer questions from the public about hydraulic fracturing. In an early scene, a local high school teacher stumps Damon's character in a public meeting about drilling. Instead of having any real answers for the school teacher, Damon's character says that "I'm not the guy who has all the answers." Not only does Damon's character not have all the answers, he has no answers at all.
Any of us can be stumped by tough and unexpected questions, but for a representative of a natural gas company sent to engage the public not to be able to answer easily foreseeable questions about hydraulic fracturing and pollution issues is very unrealistic and bad screenwriting.
This shows us how the screenwriters feel about large corporations (hint: They don't like them, they're evil and out to hurt people…it's Hollywood, right?), but fails to say anything about the real issues involved with hydraulic fracturing. The screenwriters then insult the viewer by taking contradictory positions that the company is both incompetent and diabolically clever, in a twist late in the movie.
It's too bad that Promised Land didn't deal with real issues concerning domestic energy production and hydraulic fracturing, choosing instead to retread the well-worn Hollywood tactic of attacking business and capitalism. Technology is revolutionizing our energy outlook, creating jobs, and increasing our national security in a virtual revolution, but instead of dealing with the issues honestly, Promised Land plays to silly stereotypes and prejudices coupled with a vacuum of logic. Maybe that's why Matt Damon's movie raised only one fifth of the box office revenue last weekend that Texas Chainsaw, 3D enjoyed.
In a no-growth, no-jobs economy, films offering chainsaw slashings are apparently much preferable to the audience than those that slash the truth about America's energy revolution—the only growth industry in our nation.