The Gus Van Sant movie “Promised Land,” written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski was recently panned by one reviewer who used “Promised Bland,” to describe her reaction to it. While it is true that this film does not offer an impassioned feud between the good guys and the bad guys by portraying the evil energy company pitted against the innocent, hard-working, salt of the earth town folk, “Promised Land’s” substance lies in the character of one man, Steve Butler, sales executive for Global Corporation, played by Matt Damon. The truth is that a hackneyed plot would not do justice to the complicated landscape of hydraulic fracturing in the twenty-first century. Damon’s character has come to McKinley, Pennsylvania to convince its residents to allow his energy company to lease their land for natural gas fracking. As the story unfolds, the viewer is likely to be surprised by its unpredictability.
On the one hand, the movie does not “dig deeply,” so to speak, into the perils of fracking for the land and all living beings, but on the other hand, it may actually have succeeded in excavating even deeper territory in terms of the human psyche. Steve Butler’s assertion near the beginning of the film, “I’m not a bad guy,” verbalized in his attempt to justify himself and his company’s fracking leases is actually borne out by the end of the film in a plot twist that may leave both environmentalists and champions of so-called “progress” affronted.
I would argue that the epiphany Butler had near the end of the film is one that has informed the lives and decisions of many students of energy depletion at the end of the age of oil. When we fully awaken to peak oil, climate change, and global economic decline, we move beyond merely sorting out good and evil, into the deeper layers not only of all of the crises confronting us, but within ourselves. As with Steve Butler, the ground rattles beneath us, and we are compelled to ask: Why am I doing what I do? What really matters?
While proponents of fracking are quick to point out that the process has been going on in the United States for over 50 years, in reality, it now inhabits an entirely new milieu in 2013.
I learned about hydraulic fracturing in 2010 upon viewing Josh Fox’s documentary “Gasland.” The film focuses on the severe impact of fracking on groundwater contamination and the release of fracking chemicals into the air. Several individuals living in close proximity to fracking sites share their experiences of chronic and terminal illnesses, the debilitation and death of their livestock, and the de-valuation of their property after energy companies began natural gas extraction nearby. During the past three years, fracking has increased throughout the United States, and so has our understanding of its devastating consequences.
Many energy companies, such as those in my home state of Colorado, are quick to argue that fracking isn’t actually contaminating groundwater because, they insist, natural gas resides far below water tables and is extracted safely through a variety of methods. Moreover, natural gas has been touted as a climate “savior” which purportedly produces many fewer greenhouse gases than coal or oil. However, in Joe Romm’s February, 2012 article “Bombshell Study: High Methane Emissions Measured Over Gas Field ‘May Offset Climate Benefits Of Natural Gas’” a study from NOAA (National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration) is cited which states that methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 which is released when any hydrocarbon is burned. The study further estimates that here in Colorado where fracking occurs along the Front Range, about 4% of natural gas is escaping into the atmosphere.
In another article from the Think Progress website, Romm cites a National Center For Atmospheric Research (NCAR) study which concludes that:
The most important result, however, in accord with the above authors, is that, unless leakage rates for new methane can be kept below 2%, substituting gas for coal is not an effective means for reducing the magnitude of future climate change.
Natural gas as a so-called “bridge fuel” between fossil fuels and renewable energy is clearly untenable because a March, 2012 study confirms that “even if you could switch entirely over to natural gas in four decades, you won’t see any substantial decrease in global temperatures for up to 250 years. There’s almost no climate value in doing it.”
But in addition to the possible (and likely) contamination of groundwater from fracking, the amount of water used in the fracking process is nothing less than mind boggling. A 2011 Wall Street Journal article “Oil’s Growing Thirst For Water,” reports that “Each oil well in the area, using the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, requires about six million gallons of water to break open rocks far below the surface and release oil and natural gas.” On Page 16 of a 2012 report from the Pacific Institute, entitled “Hydraulic Fracturing And Water Resources: Separating The Frack From The Fiction,” the typical amounts of water usage for one fracking well are shown, and again, number in the millions of gallons. In Western states where droughts are becoming increasingly severe, is the use of such quantities of water for energy acquisition which appears to be increasingly untenable anything but unconscionable? I think not.
It is difficult to dispute three facts about fracking:
- It frequently does contaminate groundwater, causing chronic or terminal illness for humans and animals in the vicinity of the drilling.
- It emits methane into the air, and methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas.
- It requires ghastly amounts of water.
Chris Nelder’s 2011 Slate article, “What The Frack? Is There Really 100 Years’ Worth Of Natural Gas Beneath The United States?” also unpacks and debunks much of what has been used to inflate natural gas hysteria.
So back to our natural gas protagonist of “Promised Land,” Steve Butler. For me the one character equally as pivotal in the movie as Butler is the character of Frank Yates, played by Hal Holbrook, who is a retired engineer turned school teacher who speaks out against fracking and begs the town to research the procedure before selling its land and soul to Butler’s energy company. One evening Butler and his energy executive partner, Sue Thomason (Francis McDormand), are invited to the Yates home for dinner. A brief philosophical conversation ensues which appears to make Butler quite uncomfortable. In this scene, the wise elder and younger energy sales executive are juxtaposed on opposite sides of a chasm of life experience and wisdom. After some repartee regarding the viability of fracking in McKinley and his commitment to personal integrity, Yates says, “I thank God for the privilege of dying with dignity.” While in the moment, Butler appears affronted and leaves, I’m not so sure that in the end, he did not arrive at the same conclusion.
“Promised Land” is the story of one man’s journey from what he believes is the epitome of decency to an inward struggle with ethical issues he had never anticipated having to confront. In an era of societal unraveling and economic decline, like Steve Butler, we must all return to those two troubling questions: Why am I doing what I’m doing? What really matters?
Shredded as it may be by movie critics, if we allow it to do so, “Promised Land” takes us deeper than cliché, not only into disturbing questions about hydraulic fracturing and energy depletion, but about who we want to be as humanity transitions from one paradigm to another. In these times and on so many issues, we must cultivate the discernment of Frank Yates who firmly asserts, “Sure, it’s a clean and efficient resource, but the way they go about getting it is some dirty business.”