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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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Stay focussed. I agree that cows are a big problem, but there are lots of big problems in the world. What have cows got to do with fracking?

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 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.

This is a foolish wrong-headed position. Try reading "Folks, This Ain't Normal," by Joel Salatin and you'll see how important the cow, and other animals, are to healing the land that Big Ag has all but destroyed. He's a working farmer who doesn't talk the talk of an armchair environmentalist, but walks the walk.

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