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Natural gas vs. Matt Damon: the furor over 'Promised Land'

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Scott Green/Focus Features/AP/File

(Read caption) This undated publicity film image provided by Focus Features shows Matt Damon starring as Steve Butler in Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land." Cobb writes that, in the wake of the film's release, the natural gas industry continues to be extraordinarily foolish in its handling of the media.

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Matt Damon's new fictional movie about natural gas development in a rural township was being lambasted by the natural gas industry even before it premiered. And yet, the film shows no tanker trucks laden with toxic fracking fluid. It depicts no roughnecks descending on a small town unprepared for the influx of new workers. It features no ghastly wastewater ponds and not even one drilling pad or derrick. In fact, drilling has yet to begin in the fictional township of McKinley.

As a result there are no wheezing people made sick from fumes associated with the drilling. There are no flaming water taps--first seen by many in the documentary Gasland, a film which displays devastation which it attributes to hydraulic fracturing and other processes associated with natural gas drilling in America's deep shale deposits. In Promised Land there is not even one dead farm animal unless you count the ones pictured on a yard sign distributed by an environmental activist who opposes the drilling.

So why is the natural gas industry having such a hissy fit over the film? I think the answer lies in its premise: That the people of this small community ought to have a public discussion about whether they want the drilling--one informed by all the facts, not just the ones the natural gas drillers want them to hear--and that the community should then take a vote. God knows that in corporate America, democratic governance should never, ever take precedence over corporate imperatives. Could things be any more infuriating than that?

Well, yes they can. We are treated to acts of perfidy on the part of Steve Butler (played by Damon) who believes that everyone has a price, one that his company is only too willing to pay. Butler is a landman for a large drilling company though he is never referred to using this industry term. His job is to lease the mineral rights from landowners in the township quickly and cheaply. But a well-informed high school teacher (played by Hal Holbrook) challenges Butler at a meeting of townsfolk that was designed to close the deal. After that things get complicated. Butler and his partner, Sue Thomason (played by Frances McDormand), must abandon the playbook that has worked so well for them in the past and improvise.  

As resistance grows, Butler and Thomason hurry to close as many deals as they can. Increasingly, people turn them down. Here is where Butler's frustration leaks out as he loses his cool in front of people he ought to be trying to gently persuade. Whether such flashes of temper accurately portray the behavior of landmen, I have my doubts. But these fits are illustrative of the arrogant attitude of the industry in general. How dare anyone question what the industry is doing to make America energy independent! How dare people who have so little money and so little prospect of getting any turn down the chance to become wealthy! How dare these little people from rural nowhere resist a big, powerful company that is only trying to help them, their communities, and the country at the same time!

Butler is likeable, even sweet when we first meet him. But later he seems to pout on behalf of the entire natural gas industry when he runs into inconvenient questions about his story and his motives. It's possible that people in the industry who watch the film will mistake his arrogance for righteous indignation, a pose which industry leaders have spent time perfecting so as to portray themselves as victims.

In his initial townhall-style meeting with community members, Butler challenges the townspeople saying that if they are against natural gas, then they are for more oil and coal consumption, both dirtier alternatives. He adds that the only other option is to reduce our energy use, and, of course, nobody wants to consider that. This is the one positively revolutionary thought slipped into the film. For it would be utterly revolutionary to proceed on the premise that we could remake our society into one that ultimately does not depend on fossil fuels for energy. The first crucial step would be to reduce our energy consumption dramatically. And, we actually know how to do this, both by adjusting our behavior and through existing technology. Optimists love to tout technology when talking about increasing the energy supply. They seem to forget that that same technological prowess can and should be focused on reducing our energy consumption. But then no oil and gas company can make a profit on that.

Will you be entertained by Promised Land? I was and I think an open-minded moviegoer will have much to enjoy in this film. The acting is excellent, the characters are well-developed, and the plot has enough twists to keep the audience interested. The script is a little heavy-handed in places. But keep in mind that this film is as much about an issue as it is about the characters. If the characters never talked about or defined the issue as carefully as they do, then Promised Land might still be a good film. But it would not be an issue-oriented film which is part of its appeal.

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The reaction from the natural gas industry has been as predictable as it has been puzzling. By launching an all-out smear campaign, they are only helping to make Promised Land a must-see movie for 2013. Everyone will want to know what all the fuss is about, even those who have no strong feelings one way or another about fracking and natural gas. Those who do see the movie will certainly have more questions about the motives and veracity of the industry than before.

But the natural gas industry continues to be extraordinarily foolish in its handling of the media and completely idiotic in its reaction to environmental and health concerns. Instead of ignoring critics in the media, the industry has vilified them, thereby making them even more visible to the public. Instead of vowing to address environmental and health concerns with some kind of credible industry-wide standards, the industry has dismissed those concerns as imaginary, making the public all the more distrustful.

With that kind of track record, the producers of Promised Land should be thanking the natural gas industry for all the free publicity and for elevating what might otherwise have been an obscure, low-budget film into a contender for socially conscious movie-of-the-year--one that will now be labeled mandatory viewing for all right-minded people.


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