In this April 22, 2008 file photo, a natural gas well pad sits in front of the Roan Plateau near the Colorado mountain community of Rifle. Opponents of a law restricting federal oversight of injecting fluids underground to boost oil and natural gas production hope a new bill and a new administration will tighten regulation of the practice called fracking.
The first sentence of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring proves a good template for most stories about the environment in America: "There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. … Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change."
Promised Land, which opens nationwide today, begins its story about fracking, the drilling technique that’s enabled today’s boom in natural gas, coming to a small community in a different way, with Steve Butler, the gas company land man and "good guy" played by Matt Damon, knocking the idyllic vision of small-town America as "delusional self-mythology." It's the first scene of the movie, and he's interviewing for a big-deal job, VP of Land Management with Global, the $9 billion natural gas company that's about to start collecting mineral rights from landowners in yet another state. This is the secret to his success, he tells his bosses: having grown up in a small farming community in Iowa, he knows the story about the town in the heart of America, and he knows that it's, in his words, bullshit—that small town prosperity depends on industry.
Promised Land has been called an anti-fracking movie, and perhaps this is why so many people have found it disappointing. It's not against the fracking, so much as it's for the fable, the self-mythology of small-town American life. The movie recognizes that the old environmental yarn, in which small-town folk stand up against the big, evil company that's ruining their home, has been told so many times it doesn't feel real anymore. Instead, Promised Land tells a story about the moment in between harmony and blight, when people living in one heartland town can make a choice about their future. The strongest argument it makes against natural gas extraction is that fracking comes with risks.
There is a powerful story to be told about those risks and the difficulty of weighing the danger to local water and air against the benefits of gas company payments and the environmental advantages of gas over coal and oil. Gas companies have argued fracking poses little danger to the environment, and some local and state governments agree. (The New York Times just obtained a 2011 report from the New York State health department that found that fracking is safe, for instance.) But there have been cases in which leaky wells have contaminated groundwater with methane, the main component of the gas, and fracking chemicals. Methane and chemicals like benzene, which escapes from fracked wells, have also taken a toll on air quality in states like Wyoming.
There are still some environmentalists who favor natural gas as less carbon-intensive alternative to coal, and, for individuals, financial incentives to sell the gas sitting under their properties.
Damon and co-star John Krasinski, who worked together on the script, recognized these tensions. “People had so much potentially to gain, so much potentially to lose (because of environmental impacts associated with fracking),” Krasinski told the San Francisco Chronicle. “So they were making very, very human decisions. Survival decisions.” But instead of telling the story of anyone who stands to benefit or lose from taking those risk, Promised Land focuses on characters who have little at stake. Damon and Krasinski’s characters—both outsiders who trade on their backgrounds in small farming communities to earn local trust—sweep into town to represent opposite sides of the argument over natural gas. Among the people they meet, the ones they spend the most time with are not people whose livelihoods are tied to the land but two teachers who’ve chosen to make their homes in this cozy place. All of these people have every reason to oppose fracking and no reason to support it, letting the movie shy away from the difficult environmental question it poses—can fracking ever be worth it?
Environmentalists and towns in shale country have been asking just that question for the past few years, as the boom in natural gas has polluted air and water in some communities, while contributing to a drop in the country’s carbon emissions. In its first half, Promised Land neatly lays out these tensions, with Damon’s Steve Butler arguing that the benefits of fracking outweigh the risks. Butler’s strongest argument for fracking is the economic boost he can offer individual landowners and their town. But he also trots out points about clean energy and government oversight when he needs to. With regulations, he argues, fracking is “pretty close to perfect.”
His fiercest opponents are Frank Yates, a retired Boeing engineer who teaches science at the high school and raises miniature horses, and Krasinski’s charcter, Dustin Nobel, an activist who rolls into town as a representative of a small environmental group called Athena. Frank’s main argument against fracking is that it’s not perfect: "The potential for error is just too high,” he says. Nobel’s role is to illustrate that worst-case scenario: a farm strewn with dead cattle, sickened by poisoned water.
This image, which Nobel plasters on signs all around the town, could have come straight out of Silent Spring. But it does not represent quite the same threat as the images of dead birds and animals that Carson conjured did—the strange blight that crept over the land. The chemicals that blanketed America in Carson’s age were supposed to be harmless to all but the insects and plants they targeted; no one believes that chemicals used in hydrofracking don’t come with risks. But in modern America, it’s almost impossible to tell an environmental story about a dichotomy between bliss and blight. In the decades since the country realized that industrial pollution, cars, household chemicals, resources extraction, and a litany of other human activities were posing real dangers to Americans’ health and happiness, the government has not outlawed any of these dirty practices. Instead, we’ve compromised: like the regime of a chronically ill patient managing a disease, a system of regulations tries to limit the harm drilling or driving or cleaning might inflict.
Promised Land comes down heavily for the idea that there’s no way to justify those compromises—not because of the environmental risks, but because of the inherent value of a small town life. In the end, there are no environmentalists in this movie: Frank says at one point that none of the town’s fracking skeptics “consider themselves to be part of some big environmental revolution.” (As for Nobel, consider: what kind of environmentalist drives a pick-up truck with a shiny new coat of green paint?)
The movie’s not particularly sympathetic to the landowners who will have to continue living in this town, with or without fracking, and are being asked to choose whether to risk their land and their livelihoods. At the beginning of the movie, the people who welcome fracking are mothers and fathers thinking of a better future for their children, but by the end, pro-fracking townspeople are portrayed as rubes and idiots who waste their signing bonuses on sports cars. The movie gets a lot of right: The land that overlays the Marcellus Shale is as pretty as it’s portrayed in the movie. (Martha Stewart once named Washington County, just south of Pittsburgh, one of the ten best places in the country for fall leaf-peeping.) And gas companies have both bullied landowners and obscured the truth about fracking’s dangers as they’ve sought to snatch up mineral rights.
But those landowners there aren’t as naïve as they’ve been drawn in this movie. Farmers use signing bonuses to buy new farm equipment, not new sports cars. And plenty of people who’ve signed away mineral rights have read the same information about fracking’s dangers as people who want to ban it.
Whatever their motivations, in the moral calculus of Promised Land, anyone who supports fracking is not a good guy. Throughout the movie, characters, including Steve himself, emphasize that he’s good man, not a bad guy, a good guy, and, it’s this aspect of his character that ensures in the end, he cannot condone the risks of fracking. It’s easy for Steve to come to that conclusion, though. Both he and Dustin are outsiders who have only their principles at stake. Steve might come originally from a town like this one, but unlike these landowners, he has the option of leaving (and, one hopes, a fat chunk of savings from his time as a corporate pitch man). One of the basic rules of writing is to create characters for whom the stakes of the story’s outcome are high: the land man who doesn’t have a change of heart until he’s ruined someone’s farm, the dad who signs away his mineral rights against his best interests loses out, while his greedy neighbor makes out fine, the environmentalists who still argues for for natural gas on climate grounds, even if it’s damaging his home. For Bulter, though, he question—to frack or not to frack—is ultimately abstract.
In this way, Promised Land is conservative and nostalgic: it argues that the best choice in this case is to preserve the status quo. It’s not an optimistic vision, though. Even Frank recognizes that the town’s simple routine of farming and town-hall meetings in the high school gym can’t last for much longer. “I'm lucky to be old enough to have a chance of dying with my dignity,“ he tells Steve. Nor is it one driven by environmental values. By the end of the movie, Steve is less worried about dead cows than about making it to open-mic night at the local bar.