Three years ago, the oil and gas industry was caught off guard by the documentary Gasland, made by Josh Fox, an activist and theater director who had been offered nearly $100,000 for drilling rights near his family’s northwestern Pennsylvania home. By the time gas companies marshaled their resources to counter Fox’s claims about hydraulic fracturing, the public was already well on its way to worrying about the potential health and environmental risks associated with the drilling technique.
A lot has changed since 2010. Natural gas has boomed, in large part thanks to hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, a technique in which millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped through shale rocks to get at the gas beneath. Meanwhile, opposition to fracking has grown more heated, with “No fracking” signs appearing on lawns and a raucous debate in New York about whether to allow fracking upstate. Gas companies, more wary after Gasland, aren’t about to let another movie sway public opinion against them. The film they have their eye on now looks at the gas boom’s effect on a small rural town. Except this time, the town is entirely fictional, and Matt Damon is involved.
Promised Land, which opened in wide release on Jan. 4, centers on an energy-company representative (played by Damon) and his efforts to acquire drilling rights in a small town. The film’s creators have insisted in interviews that the movie doesn’t make any particular claims about whether fracking is, on balance, good or bad, but the energy industry isn’t taking any chances. “The industry has learned from Gasland that you can’t just let it go,” says Steve Everley, the spokesman for Energy in Depth, an advocacy group funded by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, an energy trade group that led the industry’s pushback against Gasland.
Energy in Depth already soft-launched a website, The Real Promised Land, in advance of the film’s opening. The website displays a series of short interviews with people from rural areas who describe the positive impact the gas boom has had on their communities, in addition to fact sheets on the economic and carbon-reducing benefits of natural gas. Depending on how much Promised Land catches on, Energy in Depth will roll out the site more formally, with press releases and reporter calls. And while Promised Land’s mixed early reviews may mean that EID won’t have to ramp up its efforts, they don’t want to get “stuck playing catch-up” like they were with Gasland, Everley says.
Another participant in the fracking movie war is Phelim McAleer, an Irish gadfly who is releasing a documentary this month, FrackNation, that takes aim squarely at Josh Fox and Gasland. McAleer, who previously directed a documentary attacking Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, has also been on the attack against Promised Land, writing several critical articles for the New York Post. “Promised Land is a fictional movie,” McAleer says. “Many of the people involved in it are antifracking activists or ideologues.”
Everley also emphasizes Promised Land’s fictional nature, describing The Real Promised Land as an “outlet to see what real people think about this” where people can “get a real idea of what it is like” where drilling is taking place. The movie Promised Land, Everley says, is just “Hollywood people trying to tell a story.” —Matthew Zeitlin