When Hollywood takes on a political issue, you can't expect a nuanced treatment. Still, as a journalist who has followed gas-drilling controversies in Pennsylvania and the Rocky Mountain West, I was hoping for better from Promised Land, the recently released movie about the evils that await rural communities when the gas companies show up.
Set in a fictional Pennsylvania town, filmed outside Pittsburgh, and starring Matt Damon, the movie portrays gas drilling as a Faustian bargain that families and communities should reject. And it shows gas companies using unethical tactics to get their way.
For dramatic purposes, Promised Land overplays the companies' purported sleaziness while touching lightly on more legitimate concerns about gas drilling. The truth is that the natural-gas industry doesn't need to resort to the kind of underhanded behavior presented in the film. It can achieve the same ends by opening up the corporate checkbook for goodwill-building expenditures, promising big money for roads, schools, and community causes.
And if a gas company were inclined to use get-tough tactics, as I saw Evergreen Resources do in Colorado in the mid-2000s, it would be more likely to hit local opponents who dare to speak up with expensive lawsuits, a tactic known as "SLAPP" (strategic lawsuits against public participation). Or it could take advantage of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and simply buy the necessary political support - for example, by creating an "independent" campaign front group to pour money into electing sympathetic township or county officials.
Even as some of Promised Land's property owners decide to sign gas leases, the movie portrays significant initial resistance to company overtures. In real life, struggling residents would be more likely to be tempted by the prospect of what Damon's character, a gas-company employee, calls "F--you money." As he puts it, when you get the kind of big money the gas company is offering, you can say "F- you" to the people with the money you would otherwise need to pay for college, buy a car, and so on. In the movie, however, only one lowly character is portrayed as eager to get his grubby hands on the payout.
Promised Land does address one major risk of gas drilling: water pollution. But that's just one of many valid concerns about drilling, and it is a manageable one if properly regulated. (Admittedly, that's a big "if": Pennsylvania has been lax and late to take steps to protect its water.)
Diesel and dust
An equally important concern not addressed in the movie is the transformation of communities by industrial development. As I saw in northeastern Pennsylvania and the Rockies, the industry brings an endless stream of truck traffic, with air pollution from all the dust and diesel engines. Noisy compressor stations operate around the clock, and pipelines cut across the landscape. Transient workers flood the area, increasing drinking and violence. Drilling rigs proliferate, sometimes in high-visibility locations like schoolyards. Although gas booms drive up wages and tax collections, they also drive up housing and other costs.
Too much of Promised Land's story is told through Damon's character, whose efforts to sell drilling to the locals trouble his conscience. Consequently, we learn too little about residents' reasons for coming down on one side or the other.
As for me, I'm torn. I know carbon emissions from fossil fuels are driving climate change. I know natural gas is cleaner than coal, but it's not as benign as using wind or solar power, or pursuing more energy-efficient technologies.
I know rural communities have a legitimate desire for the economic progress drilling can bring. I know gas development totally changes an area, not all for the better. And I know gas drillers have a profit motive and more clout in our political system than they deserve.
The natural-gas companies, for their part, have geared up to discredit Promised Land as green propaganda. I wonder how much they need to worry, though. When I saw it one afternoon last week, it was showing on just one screen in the city, and the theater was nearly empty.