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Fact-Checking Matt Damon’s ‘Promised Land’

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kentucky any more. ... Kentucky, Kansas, whatever.

I wasted $7.75 on Hollywood’s latest anti-fracking agitprop “Promised Land” (1) so you won’t have to.

You can read movie reviews elsewhere. From what I’ve seen, they’ve been rather lukewarm. And in its first weekend of nationwide distribution, audience response was tepid at best. In the words of lead actor/screenwriter Matt Damon, “Who ****ing wants to go see an anti-fracking movie?

Not only is the subject matter right in my wheelhouse, Damon et al bring the lies and distortion right into my backyard. Quite literally.

Oh, and did I mention that the film was partly funded by a state-owned media company in the United Arab Emirates?

Let the fact checking begin.

Plot spoilers follow. I promise.

The movie tells the story of Steve Butler (Matt Damon), the new VP of Land Management for $9 billion Global Crossover Energy. His task is to acquire leases to develop the Marcellus Shale in and around a small, rustic Pennsylvania town called McKinley (2). When his coworker says the countryside looks like Kentucky, Butler replies, “Two hours outside any city looks like Kentucky.”

Small town boy Butler is convinced that small towns can no longer make it on farming economies, and that natural gas development provides the way out of their current economic jam. Gas means “F*** You money”, Butler tells his prospective lessors, allowing the landowner to say “f*** you” to the banker, the mortgage company, and the bill collector.

Given his PhD, kindly old science teacher Yoda Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) would be in the best position to offer the townspeople a scientific justification for his anti-development stance. The best he can do is “Just Google the word fracking.” The very first hit, he says, gives you an idea of people’s concerns (3). Yates says that there are cases of water contamination “all over the country” (just don’t ask the EPA). Every other argument is baseless fear of the unknown: gas development will “scorch the earth” (but how?); the worst “probably won’t happen … but what if it did?”; “The potential for error is just too high.” And so on.

I can’t debunk the movie’s science, because there’s no scientific argument. Just fear, mostly irrational fear.

We see Damon/Butler negotiating with a landowner, signing him to a lease for $2,000 per acre and an “8% share of the profits”, knowing that his company is willing to pay $5,000 and 18%.

This highly misleading exchange is wrong on multiple levels. A royalty paid to a landowner under an oil and gas lease is a non-cost bearing share of a well’s gross revenue, not “profit”. Hollywood types know the difference between “a percentage of the net” and “a percentage of the gross”; the latter is a lot more valuable, and is risk-free to the owner. Also, 12.5% royalty is the minimum permissible rate under Pennsylvania law [58 PA. STAT. § 33, pdf link]. In can be double that, or more. By the way, I found that link on Google.

Also using Google, I found a 20-page pdf file from the Penn State Cooperative Extension Service entitled Natural Gas Exploration, A Landowner’s Guide to Leasing Land in Pennsylvania. It explains, in very clear layman’s language, the terms and provisions of an oil and gas lease, the contract that dictates the relationship between the operating company and the landowner. It also advises the landowner to engage an attorney (you can find one of those on Google). Maybe screenwriters Damon and John Krasinski should have read it, so they could understand 1) that dealing with an energy company is not a one-way negotiation, and 2) leases cannot contain provisions preventing the landowner from “talking about it in court”.

Krasinski plays the role of “Dustin Noble”, an environmental activist who, in the big denouement, turns out to be an intentional fraud planted by Global. Damon/Butler figures out the ruse: Noble’s brochure carries the title “How Fracking Can Effect You” (sic). His poster portrays dead dairy cows on a hillside at his Nebraska (?!) farm that were (inexplicably) killed by fracking. But on the poster, Damon notices a lighthouse in the background!! Why, there are no lighthouses in Nebraska! Those dead cows are in …. Lafayette, Louisiana! For G_d’s sake, Global’s fracking killed them!

Which is all well and good, except that:

  • I live in Lafayette, Louisiana;
  • Here, you have to go a ways to find a hillside;
  • You have to go even farther to find a dairy cow;
  • You have to go farther than that (like 100 miles) to find a lighthouse (Google, again);
  • You have to go 200 miles to find fracking comparable to the Marcellus Shale.

You’ll not see many lighthouses in South Louisiana. Or dead cows lying about, for that matter. (Photo: USFWS)

Yep, these Hollywood guys are geographically challenged and blissfully ignorant of the industry they portray. In the movie, one potential signee tells Damon/Butler, “The only reason you’re here is we’re poor. That’s why there are no gas wells drilled in Manhattan or in Pittsburgh.” (Never mind the oil wells in Beverly Hills, or all over the Los Angeles Basin. Google, again.)

In the movie, Damon’s character explains his affinity for small-town folk by saying he’s “from Eldridge, Iowa, but it may as well be Rifle, Colorado, DISH, Texas or Lafayette, Louisiana.” Maybe to a couple of Hollywood knuckleheads, everything in flyover country looks like Kentucky. I think they meant it as a compliment, but it just betrays their limited, Left Coast perspective.

Making a balanced, compelling story about the risks and rewards of domestic energy development shouldn’t be all that hard. There are other stories to be told, stories of people working every day for themselves and their families in places like Dickinson, ND, Odessa and Alice, TX, or Vernal, UT. Places that, believe it or not, no one would ever confuse with Kentucky.

[Update: If you desire an informed, independent fact-check of the film, Marketplace from American Public Media would be a good source. Listen to the audio interview with John Hanger, a Pennsylvania Democrat and candidate for Governor - I would have a hard time disagreeing with any of his comments relative to the risks, rewards, and tradeoffs implicit in domestic energy development. And as it turns out, 17 cows were allegedly killed by a surface spill of fracturing fluid in Caddo Parish, LA, which happens to be near Shreveport, about 200 miles from Lafayette. - Ed.]

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(1) From Focus Features, Participant Media and Image Nation Abu Dhabi FZ (4). Rated R for language and abject stupidity.

(2) There is a real community called McKinley in PA. I found it on Mapquest, not Google Maps. You can see it if you click on the link. Another thing you’ll see is a road called “Burning Well Road”. Can’t exactly blame fracking for that one. Not far away is Titusville, PA, site of Col. Drake’s first successful well drilled for oil (in 1859, to a depth of 69-1/2 feet). Drake drilled on Oil Creek, so-named for the natural seeps of crude oil which dot the valley. Can’t blame fracking for that, either.

(3) Of course, if you do Google “fracking”, the top link is for the site www.dangersoffracking. com, which is full of misinformation and misleading statements about fracking. I have no idea who funds the site or how it got to the top of a Google search, but it has links to Josh Fox’s Gasland website. So there’s that. (More on Josh Fox and his nonchalant way with facts here.)

(4) Wait! Image Nation Abu Dhabi FZ?! You’ve gotta be frackin’ kidding me!

Image Nation Abu Dhabi FZ … was launched in 2008 as a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media, a company fully owned by the government of Abu Dhabi.The Abu Dhabi and the UAE economies have been driven by profits from their respective oil reserves for decades. … More gas derived from fracking means that the United States might need to purchase less oil from OPEC states like the UAE — which produces 2.7 million barrels of oil a day. (Source: Business Insider)

Cross-posted at stevemaley.com

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