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I love movies. In fact, this weekend my wife and I are off to the Palm Springs International Film Festival for the third straight year. So I was greatly disappointed by the much-hyped, Abu Dhabi-financed anti-fracking film “Promised Land,” which I viewed a few days ago. And not so much because of its anti-fossil fuel bias and inaccuracies regarding shale gas drilling, but because it’s a lousy, boring movie with a predictable story line and a silly script wasted on some really excellent actors like Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, and Hal Holbrook. Here’s the setup: Matt and Frances are the evil corporate representatives bent on leasing up most of the promising geology in a small farming community in Pennsylvania. Everything is going swimmingly until John Krasinski, an extremely committed environmentalist, shows up with posters of dead cows on his Nebraska farm that allegedly succumbed to drinking water contaminated by hydraulic fracturing. This same water supply, claims Krasinski, has also killed all the vegetation and crops grown on his farm. To demonstrate the dangers of fracking, he pours of mixture of supposed “fracking fluid” on a toy model of a farm, and guess what? It catches on fire when lighted! Based on this newly acquired information about the dangers of fracking, the community decides to vote on whether or not to allow drilling in their town. There are some plot twists at the end of the film I won’t reveal. But here are a few of the principal scientific distortions. The first absurdity is making Nebraska the site of the purported environmental crime. Nebraska is a relatively small gas producer, ranking 26th among the 32 states with commercial production. What’s more, the only part of the state where fracking occurs is the Western Panhandle, where most land is unsuitable for farming. More seriously misleading is the overarching message of the film that farming and natural gas production can’t co-exist. In other words, if farmers sign drilling leases, they’ll no longer be able to work their land. Yes, farmers will get rich, but their land will be contaminated and they’ll no longer be able to grow crops or sustain their herds. Worse yet, the community will lose its soul as well as its special, small-town quality of life. In reality, we know that’s not the case. Indeed across much of the Barnett, Haynesville, Marcellus, and other shale plays, the bonus payments and royalties from gas production have enabled farmers and ranchers to stay in business during tough economic times. The water contamination issue is also a straw man. In recent months reports have been forthcoming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and even the New York State Health Department concluding that hydraulic fracturing does not contaminate ground water. The good news is that audiences aren’t showing up to “Promised Land.” Even with a “superstar” playing lead, the film could only muster $4.3 million last weekend. Without any Golden Globe nominations, and based on poor reviews not likely to receive any Oscar nods, “Promised Land” will soon be relegated to Netflix and Red Box. In short, the movie isn’t likely to foment a nationwide surge of anti-fracking sentiment.
Bernard L. Weinstein is Associate Director of the Maguire Energy Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Business Economics in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. He has taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the State University of New York, the University of Texas at Dallas, and the University of North Texas. He has authored or co-authored numerous books, monographs, and articles on the subjects of economic development, energy security, public policy, and taxation. His work has appeared in professional journals as well as the popular press. He earned an A.B. degree from Dartmouth College and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University.Full Bio