Fact Check: The truth behind fracking claims in 'Promised Land'

Dead cows in Pennsylvania? Sorting out fact from fiction in the new feature movie "Promised Land" starring Matt Damon, which examines the underworld of the booming industry of hydraulic fracturing.

A new Hollywood film opened nationwide this weekend, and this one's not about Hobbits or French Revolutionaries. It's about fracking. You heard that right. Matt Damon and John Krasinski star in a film called "Promised Land" about a natural gas drilling company coming to a town in rural Pennsylvania.

I caught an early screening of the film and decided to fact-check the plot and events from the movie to see what they got right and what they got "Hollywood right" from dead cows to flammable water. And Click play on the audio player above to listen to my interview with John Hanger, former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, about his take on the accuracy of the film.

"I wish the industry was more forthright and honest about the fact that you can't do gas drilling with zero impact,"Hangar say. "That's simply not true."

Q: Fracking and dead cows, really? This is a central premise of the film -- that shale gas drilling well, kills cows. Photos, posters in the film – even the big twist at the end – all suggest as much in Nebraska and Louisiana.

A: Yes, it is true. Cows have died according to a Cornell study tallying reports of human and animal ailments near drill sites. Direct exposure to hydraulic fracturing fluid occurred in two cases: in one, a worker shut down a chemical blender during the fracturing process, allowing the release of fracturing fluids into an adjacent cow pasture, killing 17 cows in one hour; the other was a result of a defective valve on a fracturing fluid tank, which caused hundreds of barrels of hydraulic fracturing fluid to leak into a pasture where goats were exposed and suffered from reproductive problems over the following two years.

The case of the 17 dead cows occurred in Caddo Parish, Louisiana in April 2009. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, well operator Chesapeake Energy stated in a letter:

“During a routine well stimulation/formation fracturing operation by Schlumberger for Chesapeake, it was observed that a portion of mixed 'frac' fluids, composed of over 99 percent freshwater, leaked from vessels and/or piping onto the well pad."

More here and here and here. Industry response here.

The Takeaway: Relative to other industrial and agricultural sectors, is this a lot? With the right rules, is this a manageable risk?

Q: Water catching on fire? This is the yikes, doozy image for fracking haters. John Krasinski plays an environmentalist who goes all show and tell in a grade-school classroom. Purporting to represent the fracking process, he pours chemicals onto a toy barn scene, saying companies do this to “water you drink, the water the cows drink, the water your puppies and kittens drink.” Then he pours chemicals on the scene, and poof, it lights. Kids cheer.

A: Disputed, shocking as that may sound. You may have seen the tap water catching fire scene in the documentary Gasland, which industry has roundly criticized.

First, an important and nerdy distinction. Shale gas drilling has several steps. One is fracking, sending water, sand and chemicals down the well. Has frac fluid ever entered groundwater? No, said just-departed EPA head Lisa Jackson in April 2012.

“In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.”

Many state regulators have also made similar statements.

But then we have the big, big fight: Pavillion, Wyoming and EPA’s finding that fracking “likely” polluted ground water. There, residents near a drilling site suspected  water contamination near a site where the company fracked very close to a shallow water source. EPA’s draft report includes this carefully worded connection:

When considered together with other lines of evidence, the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing.

The Takeaway: This will go extra innings. EPA’s work isn’t done. Another federal agency is doing its own testing, the company accused and state regulators aren’t happy. And industry groups are saying this kind of thing about after EPA's ongoing work. More here

Q: What about flammable methane getting into water at other stages in the process? That’s the big concern of many. This draft document from Pennsylvania tallies several reported cases.

A: In a high-profile case in Dimock, PA , a backyard water well blew up (there was another explosion in Ohio) and many residents reported methane bubbling out of their faucets.  State regulators blamed well operator Cabot Oil and Gas: “Cabot is pre­sumed to be responsible for the pollution to these 10 Affected Water Supplies.” More here.

Industry groups note frequently that methane also gets into water naturally.

The Takeaway: Does anything get opponents more riled up than water on fire? Remember the Cuyahoga River, c. 1969?  Whatever the facts, however frequently this occurs, these images are golden to fracking opponents, and a continuous headache to the industry.

Q: Do natural gas landmen push this hard? Matt Damon plays a landman, who tries to talk landowners into allowing drilling on their land, in exchange for money. Damon’s character and his landman colleague go to great lengths to succeed, including bribing the local supervisor and … another person in the film (can’t give this one away).

A: Not that I’ve heard. I spoke to several landmen in the gas industry, who say they’re paid daily rates rather than commission. In other words, they get paid whether the landowner signs a lease or not.

Some critics find this entirely not credible. And I must say, a quick trip to Mr. Google finds commission-based jobs here and here. And for a database on landmen behaving naughty and nice, go here

The Takeaway: What's your experience with landmen been?

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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The name of the article was fact check, but there is more fact checking in the comments than in the story itself. "It will go extra innings" to me means just that there is enough uncertainty about the technology that we should not be pushing cracking out faster than the EPA can keep tabs on. Political pressures have placed jobs ahead of the environment with logging and offshore drilling and hunting and fishing. Same goes for coal mining causing sinkholes and wind turbines causing 10,000 birds to die (per windmill?). We should be smarter than to aasume that any method of energy isnt potentially harmful, and I brlieve the impacts can really only be measured after implementation, but once discovered these problems must be actually mitigated, not just accepted as a cost of the business nor a mere scapegoat for the cause. I am grateful of the skepticism regarding fracking which is yet another in a list of industries that has used power of money to manipulate politicians. If only environmental concerns were ever considered.

I was just looking for this information for a while. After 6 hours of continuous Googleing, finally I got it in your website. I wonder what is the lack of Google strategy that don't rank this type of informative web sites in top of the list. Generally the top websites are full of garbage.
<a href="http://vimax.yuku.com/topic/4">Read more</a>


Thanks for the balanced review and interview with John Hanger. I live in PA, own land leased for drilling and have been very frustrated at the lack of balanced coverage of the topic. By and large I agree with Secretary Hanger's perspective, but wanted to make a few comments based on my experience.

First- I have never met a conniving or openly dishonest landman, but I have interacted with many and find that in general the oil & gas companies hire well intentioned contractors with little or no knowledge of the industry or the company's specific intent. This is highly deceptive as landmen by definition are the intermediary who explain the lease, the processes and technology and set the expectation of the landowner. In many cases the landmen personally have good intention and try to share the information they have. Unfortunately this is almost always wrong as they have no training or accountability and never have actual information about the company's plan for the lease. Invariably the landmand tells landowners what they want to hear to incent them to sign the lease and very few landmen on the ground delivering leases have an understanding of the actual lease terms. The actual leases are complex legal contracts that often have economic value of hundreds of thousands of dollars. So this is a situation where misinformation and disinformation serve to advantage the oil & gas companies and landowners are deceived every day.

Second - I strongly disagree with Secretary Hanger's assertion that landowners can protect themselves by seeking legal counsel. In PA this industry is so new that there are virtually no experienced attorney's who have an understanding of the actual business practices of modern oil & gas development and are willing to represent landowners. This is a huge problem and after 4 years we now see the unfair and ambiguous interpretation of obscure lease terms. Also it is very rare that an oil & gas company negotiates a lease. They sometimes compete with each other for leases which can result in a better lease for a landowner, but for the most part they do not negotiate any significant lease terms.

My concern's about fair dealing aside - I suggest that large majority of landowners in Pennsylvania agree that the risks of development are acceptable given the significant economics of leasing and or potential royalties. In my town even those who do not stand to gain from leasing their property are exceedingly happy that the oil & gas companies have rebuilt a number of state and local roads to standards far beyond what we can expect from PA DOT. Interestingly there was a lot of organized opposition to a recently completed wind farm in the area and virtually no local opposition to gas development.


Your takeaway on dead livestock: you ask the reader "is this manageable risk?"
Your conclusion on flammable water: you first state that the issue is disputed but then give evidence that fracking has caused water to become flammable.
Your takeaway on pollution of ground water by frack wastewater: you state that some EPA sources say yes, and other EPA sources say no and that "it will go extra innings".
Your takeaway on landmen's behavior: you ask the reader what their experience has been.

If you're not going to come to conclusions about the questions you ask then I suggest you not call your blog post a "fact check" and not call your concluding question a "takeaway".

Also, people have overreacted to the flammable water issue. For a clear-thinking environmentalist, it's not the most important pollution concern. I would much rather have some methane (which is non-toxic) in my well water than diesel fuel, barium, strontium, manganese, arsenic, or cadmium in my drinking water, or have carcinogens such as benzene in the air, sickening me, my kids, and my pets.

The gas industry loves to cling to statements such as "there are no proven cases of fracking contaminating groundwater". Their "logic", such as it is, often revolves around the challenge: how would the fracking chemicals get from one mile down where the fracking takes place all the way up to the aquifer, which is only a few hundred feet below the surface?

There are many possible ways, and we would be wise to proceed very very slowly with fracking until we're sure that it's safe, since so much of this is underground and therefore invisible. Contamination needs only one channel!

Some of the ways: new or old gas wells (Pennsylvania has about 200,000 abandoned wells) could have a poor casing or a corroding casing. These wells form conduits that allow gases and liquids from one depth to mix with those of another. The pressure of gas released by fracking can cause deep chemicals to be pushed up to the surface. Impoundments on the surface can leak. Wastewater trucks can have accidental spills or do intentional dumping that result in frack wastewater flowing into yards, pastures, farmland, and streams, killing livestock and wildlife downstream, and polluting the water supply of cities downstream. And if frack wastewater is trucked away to Ohio and injected into deep wells there, can we be sure that geologic processes there won't lead to those toxic chemicals making their way into the local drinking water?

The gas industry tries to deny or hush up (with lawsuits and gag orders) any evidence that fracking has contaminated groundwater. The tobacco industry got away with denying that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, also, but eventually the truth caught up with them.

John Fox admitted that the water was catching on fire before fracking was ever started. This is a practice that has been going on since this 1940's and has only come to the political fore front now that it is being used to help keep energy prices low. The political left wants energy prices to go up to artificially support "green" energy. Here is a nice documentary disputing anything put out in Gasland


Thanks for the fast check on Promised Land. Am re-reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, a book written 50 years ago, and a catalyst for the modern environmental movement. The old adage, the more things change, the more they remain the same, would adequately capture my overall impression so far. With the financial debacle brought on by Wall Street gamblers (oops, I mean investors) as a parallel, we would do well to remember that industry reps (including engineers) are an unreliable source of information, while government fails lamentably to protect the general public from disasters both environmental and financial.

Nice job Scott. The guest was finally someone (though not an engineer) with some broad knowledge of the issues. The piece helped increase my understanding of the issues and it gave me some things to think about. Well done.

Scott, you asked, "Has frac fluid ever entered groundwater? No, said just-departed EPA head Lisa Jackson in April 2012." You then back this statement with a quote from Administrator Jackson: “In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” Saying that “In no case have we made a *definitive* determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater” is not to say that EPA has determined that frac fluid has not ever entered groundwater: it is only to say that it has not (yet?) drawn such a link definitively. In fact, EPA has an ongoing scientific study of the matter, and the results will not be known until 2014:

" The study has been designated a Highly Influential Scientific Assessment, meaning it will receive the highest level of peer review in accordance with EPA’s peer review handbook before it is finalized. The 2014 draft report will synthesize the results from the ongoing projects together with the scientific literature to answer the study’s main research questions. "

In fact, while they are still taking followup samples, in 2011 a draft EPA "Investigation of Ground Water Contamination near Pavillion, Wyoming" "indicates that ground water in the aquifer contains compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing."

Per the report, unlined surface wastewater pits were the likely sources of the contaminants in the shallow groundwater sources: "detection [of these contaminants] in ground water samples from shallow monitoring wells near pits indicates that pits are a source of shallow ground water ".

At the request of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, the US Geological Survey collected additional groundwater-quality samples and associated quality-control dat from two of these wells; the resulting data were consistent with EPA's original findings, although the authors demurred to speculate as to the origin of the diesel and other contaminants.

* * *
“At a quick glance, these results appear consistent with the earlier EPA study,” Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University, said in an e-mail. “The stray gas concentrations are very high, not only for methane but especially for ethane and propane. That combination suggests a fossil-fuel source for the gases.”
* * * *
Dr. Jackson (of Duke -- not the Administrator) and fellow scientists subsequently authored a peer-reviewed study in which they "document systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale-gas extraction" in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, finding that "methane concentrations in drinking-water wells increased with proximity to the nearest gas well and were 19.2 and 64 mg CH4 L-1 (n = 26), a potential explosion hazard". Based on the ratios of methane to higher-chain hydrocarbons and the carbon isotope signatures of the methane, the gas had almost certainly come from fracking, not from natural sources that would have migrated on their own.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group and Earthjustice discovered a 1987 EPA report, concluding that:

“In 1982, Kaiser Gas Co. drilled a gas well on the property of Mr. James Parsons. The well was fractured using a typical fracturing fluid or gel. The residual fracturing fluid migrated into Mr. Parson’s water well (which was drilled to a depth of 416 feet), according to an analysis by the West Virginia Environmental Health Services Lab of well water samples taken from the property.”


We and the environment could do with a lot less cows for a multitude of reasons. Bring on the the fracking. We, physically, and the environment will be much healthier once we start talking about the real impacts of "the elephant in the room" which isn't really an elephant but a cow.

There is also a problem with human jackasses who think they get to dictate over everyone. It isn't your land and they aren't your cows. Take some ritalin and pay attention to the topic and try not to say something stupid.


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