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Gas "fracking" goes Hollywood

A new US movie brings the natural gas controversy to the big screen, to industry's dismay

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Industry groups railed against Matt Damon's new film on hydraulic fracturing even before the film's December debut. (Image credit: Focus Features)

Actor Matt Damon’s onscreen characters have found themselves in all manner of dangerous situations: glitzy Las Vegas heists, CIA conspiracies, and now . . . hydraulic fracturing?

“Promised Land,” a film starring and co-written by Damon and actor John Krasinski and directed by Gus Van Sant, is the first major Hollywood movie to feature at its core the shale gas extraction process known popularly as “fracking.” It premiered in the US on 28 December to mixed reviews.

Despite its advance hype, the film appears to be neither the public relations disaster the energy industry feared, nor the galvanising call to arms that anti-fracking campaigners hoped.

Instead, the movie and its surrounding publicity offer a fairly accurate mirror of the US fracking debate itself: placid rural settings, celebrities and passionate views on all sides, sometimes at the expense of fact.

It’s hard to imagine a less cinematic subject than fracking. The process extracts natural gas by shooting a mix of water, sand and chemicals through underground pipes at pressure high enough to fracture the surrounding rock, allowing the gas to escape. The only above-ground visuals are the unsightly wells placed atop the drilling sites and the equally ugly arguments between the pro- and anti-camps.

Those who support fracking contend that it offers a solution to the US energy crisis that enriches the largely rural communities who live atop the reserves. Opponents counter with potential environmental risks including drinking water contamination and earthquakes.

Yet for such an unglamorous process, the anti-fracking campaign has already attracted attention from the arts.

In August, Yoko Ono and others announced the formation of the 180-strong Artists Against Fracking, a coalition that includes Lady Gaga and former Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. The 2010 documentary film “Gasland,” in which a resident near a US fracking site memorably lit his tap water on fire, earned an Oscar nomination.

“Promised Land” is the first fictional exploration of the human drama behind the US natural gas boom.

In the film Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, a salesman for a fictional US energy corporation. He’s been dispatched to a rural town in Pennsylvania state to convince local residents to sign over rights to drill on their land in exchange for major payouts. The community seems sold on the promise of easy cash, until opposition in the form of a wise old local and an environmental campaigner show up to counter Butler’s claims.

The fracking debate, the filmmakers say, is simply a narrative device around which to frame a human story.

“It's when money collides with real people, how we make our decisions, what's happening in our communities,” Damon told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The script, Krasinski added, was originally about wind power credits – a topic the screenwriters eventually deemed too obscure.

In the months before the film’s release, energy industry groups went on the offensive to pre-empt what they assumed would be the movie’s anti-fracking message. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group, bought advertisements in 75 percent of movie theatres in Pennsylvania – where the film was shot – encouraging audience members to visit websites with contrary views, according to the Independent. 

"We have to address the concerns that are laid out in these types of films," Independent Petroleum Association of America spokesman Jeff Eshelman told the Wall Street Journal.

It’s too early to tell if “Promised Land” will spark the type of national conversation about fracking that Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” did for climate change. Ticket sales have been disappointing, with US moviegoers opting instead for tales of hobbits and chainsaw murderers. The energy boom in their backyards may be just a little too close to home. 

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