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Fracking concerns: An extended Petro-State Frack Check of 'Promised Land'

Actor John Krasinski, director Gus Van Sant and actor Matt Damon arrive to the premiere of Focus Features' 'Promised Land' at the Directors Guild Of America on December 6, 2012 in Los Angeles, Calif.

As a follow-up to a previous post, here are more fact-checks and comments relating to "Promised Land" - the film about a rural community debating the merits of natural gas drilling was co-written and co-produced by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski. These will likely be my last comments on the movie, which in Hollywood blockbuster revenue collection terms was not exactly a Spindletop gusher. 

First, a correction, of sorts:

Several listeners frowned on my Frank Capra citation for the quote “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.”

Listener KNewman4 writes:

Mr. Tong also did not do much homework when he decided to use one of the most overused clichés in film criticism. He quoted Frank Capra as saying "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." The quote is most often attributed to film mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who supposedly said it in 1943.

Fair enough. We checked, found an awful lot of references to Goldwyn saying it, and then started getting confused. What was described to us as an authoritative biography of Goldwyn indicated it was a myth that he said it. Another theory is that it could have flowed from the ink of playwright Moss Hart. Suffice to say, we under-checked before putting it on the air. 

As for the rest of the responses from natural gas commentators on the topic (told you it was coming), I'll write up a full posting within the week, once I check a couple things with my employers at American Petroleum Media. (Ha, who's reading carefully?)

Onto the frack check:

Q – What’s up with the Dish, Texas; Rifle, Colo.; and Lafayette, La. references in the film?

A - In "Promised Land,' Matt Damon’s landman character mentions he’s traveled to these spots, convincing landowners to let his gas company drill on their property. Significant?

Turns out, at least two of these are well-known battleground locales for the No Gas camp.

In Dish, Texas -- atop the productive Barnett Shale -- Mayor Calvin Tillman eventually left town when his sons experienced severe nosebleeds. His family blames the health issues on drilling-related pollution. Tillman spoke in the anti-fracking documentary "Gasland." Air testing in Dish turned up some nasty chemicals, but my good public radio colleagues at NPR have reported no direct link to illness.

Rifle, Colo,. is another fracking combat site. One resident, Chris Mobaldi, thinks drilling caused pollution in her drinking water and is to blame for her neurological problems. Resident Laura Amos claims a drilling company exploited laws, caused a water well to blow up, and polluted her drinking water. The company has denied it.

Lafayette, La.? Head scratcher. One non-governmental worker recalls a methane sinkhole turning up there. But it's unclear if that's linked to drilling. And in any event, that event was reported after the film was shot. A little help, Mssrs. Damon and Krasinski? (Or do any readers have an idea?)

My takeaway is that throwing in a couple fracking-could-be-risky geographic references can’t hurt, if you're making a film that sacrifices reality for drama, and maintains sympathies with the Church of Never in the gas drilling debate. As you may know, the Church of Always has panned the film as pure fiction.

Q – Why the “scorched earth” reference?

Promised Land’s designated truth-teller, teacher Frank Yates, played by Hal Holbrooke, equates gas drilling with scorching the earth. See script section below:

FRANK:

We have nothing left to sell and we can't afford to buy anything. You came here to help us. Offer us money... All we had to do to get it was be willing to scorch the earth under our feet.

FRANK:

Don’t get me wrong, Steve, I’m not better than my neighbors -- hell, I need the money too.

(Beat.)

 FRANK:

(Chuckles)

I guess I’m just lucky... lucky to be old enough to have a shot at dying with my dignity.

Let me know when you’re ready to head back.

(We hold on Steve’s face. Frank walks to the door. He suddenly stops... and without turning back:)

FRANK:

I’m so worried for us, Steve... 

Seems the fracking fight is busting with war metaphors. Amy Mall at the Natural Resources Defense Council tells me perceived victims of drilling talk of themselves as “collateral damage,” and their fracking spots as “sacrifice zones.”

On the other side, drillers reportedly have talked of “PsyOps,” the military term for psychological operations to change hearts and minds. At an industry event on media and stakeholder relations strategies, environmental activist Sharon Wilson apparently recorded Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella on countering local community fracking concerns:

“We have several former psy ops folks that work for us at Range because they’re very comfortable in dealing with localized issues and local governments … Really all they do is spend most of their time helping folks develop local ordinances and things like that. But very much having that understanding of psy ops in the Army and in the Middle East has applied very helpfully here for us in Pennsylvania.”   

Asked by CNBC about the talk, Matt said he was referring to one employee at the firm. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Matt Pitzarella, he took me on a rig tour in 2010. Solid professional in my workings with him, and yes Matt, I will reply to your email within the week).

Q – Any other fighting words in this fracking debate?

A - The term “insurgency” turned up at that same industry event.  And also there, a spokesman for Anadarko Petroleum told fellow industry media professionals:

“Download the U.S. Army-slash-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual, because we are dealing with an insurgency … There’s a lot of good lessons in there and coming from a military background, I found the insight in that extremely remarkable.” 

Ok. So just to recap: Scorched Earth, Collateral Damage and Sacrifice Zones are lined up across the line of natgas scrimmage from PsyOps and Insurgency.

Takeaway? No, Virginia, maybe you can't expect an enlightened, adult conversation about one of the biggest energy developments of our time.

Q – In the film the community plans to take a popular vote on fracking. Do they really do that?

A – My excellent pubradio colleague Jeff Brady at NPR reports communities hardly ever vote. John Hanger, former head of environmental protection in Pennsylvania and now running of governor, has told me that, too.

Having said that, one community – Longmont, Colo.  – just passed a ballot measure banning certain types of fracking. But here we have a jurisdictional fight. Colorado is one of several states with industry-supported laws on the books that preempt the decisions of cities and counties.

Another hot spot to watch: New York state has had a ban in place since a 2010 executive order. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo may decide very soon what happens next. Among the activists weighing in: Yoko Ono. Indeed, she’s already formed an anti-fracking group and put the line “Imagine There’s No Fracking” in a New York Times ad.

Takeaway – Oh boy. I can smell the opportunities now, for Beatles-themed PsyOps counter-measures and billboards.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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