Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Promised Land Fracks Or Blows It: My Review

Promised Land had an opportunity to be a great movie but blows it.

Promised Land blows it, because it could have challenged and prodded all to think about what they know for sure that just isn't so. It could have caused  those who are either for, against, or unsure about "fracking" to reflect and reach out.

Instead of making everyone in the audience question some part of their beliefs or knowledge, Promised Land takes the easy path and will polarize. It is a simple tale of bad and good guys competing for the affections of a beautiful lady. Yet, "fracking"--its tensions, contradictions, especially the good people involved on all sides--offers dramatic, powerful material and requires better.

Surprising probably nobody, the gas industry is the baddest bad guy, followed closely by corrupt elected officials whom the industry bribes, and then landowners who sign drilling leases.  This movie sends the horribly unfair, false message that those who sign drilling leases typically are greedy, stupid, and waste their gains on conspicuous consumption like sports cars.  And so Promised Land becomes grating, arrogant, elitist especially since this bad sermon is coming from the fabulously wealthy Matt Damon and his Persian Gulf investors.

Also, probably surprising nobody, the good guys in this movie are those who won't lease their land for gas drilling and who campaign successfully to ban drilling in their town.  The three best of the good guys are a sage teacher and landowner, who is convinced gas drilling is unsafe and leads his community to oppose it; a struggling farmer who had a relative killed in Iraq and who explains why foreign oil is no reason to drill here; and a gas industry employee who repents his evil ways.

Damon plays the repentant landsman, who goes from taking pride in selling drilling leases for well below market value to making a public statement that insures the defeat of gas drilling in Promised Land. For doing so, he is fired by the evil gas company but wins the beautiful, spunky lady.

In interviews, Damon disingenuously insists that the film is even handed and that the film not showing the result of the community vote on gas drilling proves it is so.  Really? Damon must think that his viewers are fools and perhaps making movies is "just a job," the dismissive phrase employed more than a few times to deride or excuse earning a living in the gas industry.

Rest assured, nobody will leave Promised Land wondering whether or not the town voted down gas drilling.

Those who hate natural gas production will find Promised Land safe, comfortable but not deep. Also, the movie's Abu Dhabi financiers will be pleased, as the movie contains a vignette dismissing the idea that US gas could decrease oil imports and generally assails fracking.

Unconventional oil and gas production threatens the power of oil dictators in the Middle East and Putin's Russia that has a near monopoly on supplying gas to Europe.  These oil and gas oligarchs, therefore, use their bulging purses to assault shale gas production that could mean new gas production in many countries and a lessening of their geopolitical power.  And so during my time as Secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, it was no surprise that I was interviewed by a Russian TV station touring the US to highlight the accidents and spills of shale gas production.

Though the Abu Dhabi investors get their money's worth, Promised Land insults the many millions who work in or with the US gas industry, lease their land, or receive royalty checks.

In Promised Land, everything is a clear choice between good or bad.  There are no shades of grey.  I wish only that our real energy choices were so simple and perfect.

In Promised Land, gas drilling only destroys farms and never fends off a farm foreclosure. There are no moms, dads, sons, daughters who move from unemployment to $50,00 a year drilling jobs.  And no gas industry workers who are honest, work hard to be safe, and are proud to provide low-cost, domestic energy that emits less carbon, mercury, soot, and arsenic than coal and oil do.

In Promised Land, there are no troubling facts like 51% of America's homes heat with natural gas or millions of poor struggling this winter to pay their heating bills and some being shut-off and in the cold.  Heat is a necessity of life and producing more gas means more affordable bills, while producing less insures higher gas and electricity bills.  Who are the good or bad guys? Those who produce more gas or those who want to slash gas production to stop development impacts?

In Promised Land, there are no old coal-fired power plants that emit soot and other toxic pollution that substantially cause hundreds of thousands of illnesses and 34,000 premature deaths every year.  Is someone doing the right or wrong thing, if his or her decisions cause local environmental impacts but make possible  more electricity to be produced by natural gas power plants that emit no soot, mercury, and other toxic air pollution, as well as half of the carbon emissions of a coal plant?

Is someone doing right or wrong, if his or her leasing or work means land disturbance, inevitably some spills and accidents, but lots of cheap gas that displaces coal and oil, as has been happening in America, with coal-fired generation dropping from 48% in 2008 to 37% in 2012.

In Promised Land, there is no recognition that 34% of America's total energy comes from oil, 19% from coal, 26% from natural gas, 10% from nuclear power, 11% from all types of renewable energy, including large hydro and corn ethanol.  There is no recognition that solar and wind provide 3%, though both are growing rapidly. There is no understanding that water pollution from corn ethanol or the damage done to river systems by big hydro dwarfs the harm done to water resources by gas production.

In Promised Land, ignorance is bliss.

Promised Land blew it, not because gas drilling has zero impacts or risk.  It has impact and risks that can be higher or lower but never zero. Poor gas drilling did cause methane to migrate in Dimock, Pennsylvania to 18 private water wells.  There are spills, accidents, flaring.  Gas drilling is industrial activity, with impacts on the environment, that must be strongly regulated.

And even when it is strongly regulated, gas drilling will damage some lives. That's one reason why gas companies, if they won't do it themselves, must be made to compensate families fully when problems do occur.  It's also a reason why gas production must be reasonably taxed to provide revenue that can make communities better for all.

But the brutal truth today is that all our energy choices have strengths and weaknesses.  Our real energy choices are far from all good or all bad.

Using more natural gas has slashed US carbon emissions and toxic air pollution--lead, mercury, arsenic, soot--in the nation's air by displacing large amounts of coal and oil. That cleaner air saves thousands of lives every year. And no nation in the world has cut its carbon emissions more than the US since 2006.  Indeed, thanks in substantial part to shale gas, US carbon emissions are back to 1995 levels and fell about another 4% in 2012.

Is gas production safer or riskier than nuclear power? Most of the time one could say nuclear power is safer and cleaner, even though there is still no place to dispose of safely and permanently the most toxic industrial waste ever created.

Yet, I live in the Three Mile Island evacuation area and have one perspective. People living within 50 miles of Fukushima have still another perspective, and how could they not wish they had in their community a gas plant, a coal plant, anything other than the 6 nuclear units that were there, when the earthquake and tsunami hit in 2011?

At my home, I buy 100% wind power for its electricity (please go to, heat with a high efficiency gas furnace, and drive a high-mileage, gasoline-hybrid vehicle.  In my public advocacy, I strongly support more renewable energy and energy efficiency. I also support regulated strongly and reasonably taxed gas production.

Though I strive to limit the health and environmental impacts of my energy use, my energy choices and behavior have negative environmental and health impacts.   With the possible exception of my wonderful sister and her family, who have installed solar panels on her home and drive a Volt, when it comes to energy, nobody is really righteous.

Promised Land blew it by not educating the public about our real energy choices and the difficult, even wrenching decisions they create for every American.  It blew it by not recognizing that good people are on all sides of the fracking wars.

No matter where they stand on fracking, good people are struggling to know and to do the right thing for their families, communities, and America.

Despite blowing it, Promised Land does have two, positive qualities.  It serves as one more powerful reminder not to sign drilling leases or other important legal documents without good advice.

Promised Land also is not a documentary and does not pretend to be.  It's just a movie, made by people just doing a job, entertainment that bashes gas drilling and those involved.


  1. I hope you didn't pay to watch this. Keep up the good blogs.

  2. Thanks for the review Mr. Hanger. While I haven't seen the movie yet, I've read the script and a slew of reviews and it certainly sounds like the real life narrative I see playing out every day is far more interesting and compelling than the one Mr. Damon fabricated.

    A shame indeed.

  3. Yes Mike, the real life narrative is far more interesting and compelling. Care to write it?...I have not seen the movie yet but have read enough about it to expect to be disappointed. I dream about telling my experience, knowing I cannot and praying someone does. And John, who would play you in the movie?

    1. Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't you on 60 minutes telling your experience? And didn't Seamus McGraw write a book about you?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. John: I think this possibly the best articulated, pragmatic argument I have ever seen regarding gas development, whether it has to do with this movie or not. In a partisan world, it's a huge breath of fresh air.

  5. For people dealing in the truth, like the folks that were lied to and got duped and are dealing with the ill effects of fracking, I think it's pretty accurate. I'm actually seeing it Friday with some of the extras, so I will reserve MY review until then.

    If you spent half as much time with people that are affected as you do with industry people, maybe you wouldn't be so jaded.

    1. Please see my reply to Anonymous below. During my career and on this blog, I am proud to say that I have spent a great deal of time with lots of different people, including poor families, environmentalists, those that have leased and have suffered from gas drilling problems, clean energy business people like wind developers and solar businesses, small business people, utilities, and many more. This blog also keeps me quite connected with a diverse array of people. Thank you for commenting.

  6. Spoken as a true wanna be politician. Touting your use of real clean energy, yet concerned about the drilling industry being bashed. Which side of your mouth will you speaking out of tomorrow? Mimicing Mitt and you know how it turned out for him.

  7. I have a consistent 28 year record working for affordable and clean energy that began in 1984 as a legal services attorney representing poor families who had their utilities shut-off. Have you been in homes that are dark and cold all the time? Candles lit, not because of a storm, but because of poverty? Have you talked with a mother who lost children in fires started by kerosene heaters and candles that were being used because the gas was shut-off? My record also includes successful work to pass Pennsylvania's Renewable Portfolio Standard, Act 129 (the $2 billion energy efficiency program), the PA Sunshine Program, and Growing Greener 2. Nobody has done more for renewables and energy efficiency in Pennsylvania than me. And we now have 25 wind farms and over 6,000 solar projects. Jaded I am not. But I also know that about 80% of our total energy comes from coal, oil, and gas and they are not the same environmentally, economically, or for our national security. I also strongly support real regulation and taxation. There is nothing inconsistent in these positions and they are the polar opposite of Governor Romney.

    1. Interesting John. When did personal opinion become fact? Perhaps the movie "Promised Land" did miss an opportunity to inspire real conversation. However, your opinion does not justify your defending a process that is threatening ALL of our health, not just those that are against fracking, for generations to come. The energy industry has portrayed the use of natural gas as our economic savior to the public and is using the excuses of job creation, ceasing dependence on foreign oil, and making money as the reason to continue to drill for it. Big problem though. The process the industry is using, fracking, is the most illogical, ludicrous and down right scary answer to our energy problems that could have ever been created. It is a process that is racing us toward an environmental disaster that will make the dust bowl of the 30s look like a walk in the park. The water issues connected with fracking alone make the ridiculous trade off discussion of energy for poison crystal clear. Regulation doesn't work if the process itself is poisonous. It cannot be done safely if the process itself is intrinsically unsafe and no amount of regulation will change that. You know how regulation works John. Remember NUMEC? Clean up of plutonium is STILL being conducted in Kiski Township and that mess was regulated by the big boys, not some state appointed industry insiders. What good does a fine do except give the public the false idea that the industry is being watched and that their political leaders care about them? It's a hoax. Smoke and mirrors. The damage is already done. I applaud your work with the poor families in PA, I do. But please wake up and be the leader the people need now. Take your head out of the fracking sand and help us.

  8. The movie was originally supposed to be about wind power, they updated it afterwards to be about fracking. So it's no wonder the movie doesn't go very deep into the real conflicts over values, which would have made for a much more complex and more enriching film.

  9. The movie "Promised Land" was not what the anti-drilling community hoped as it paled in comparison to the real life stories and horrible footage so captured on youtube...
    but does open the communication to the masses about the importance of honesty in the true risks...I hope community leaders will all go see the movie and understand the spirit of what the movie seeks to show in how the industry "throws around its weight at any cost” I know cause I live in Arlington Gasland Texas. I emailed our City Council and asked them to show they are not part of “that” problem that movie showed, and that they value also in weighing on the conservative side in the risk to public health (currently they are in total denial of any risk). I asked that they ackowledge the risks in being close to all those chemicals, emissions, and hazardous waste in urban drilling here....the public only wants the truth and deserves nothing less. I live in BarnettShaleHell.

    1. I appreciate the comment. As I stated in the review, gas production does have impacts. I list some of them. You add to them. I also mention specifically in the review that gas drilling did cause methane to contaminate 18 private water wells in Dimock (I still see some in the industry falsely state nothing happened at Dimock) and discuss the critical importance of strong regulation, reasonable taxation, and making gas companies compensate those harmed when they don't do it themselves. That's why I more than doubled the gas drilling oversight staff at the PA DEP and wrote 5 new, stronger rules. And that's why I support a severance tax of the industry in PA. Texas has both a severance tax and a property tax on gas and no income tax.

  10. Well then, now that some of the bluster has tailed off perhaps I might be able to constructively add to the truth about our society's energy policy (& yes, I do agree with the statement that what essentially amounts to an op-ed piece should not be misconstrued as "fact").

    First off, as a practicing Professional Engineer (PE), Certified Energy Manager (CEM), Green Building Engineer (GBE), LEED-AP and a few more acronyms with over 20 years of both public and private sector experience in the Energy, Policy and Engineering / Sustainable Development fields, I am consistently frustrated by the lack of basic building science, engineering and common sense that proliferates from these types of discussions :(

    Let me try to sum it up in just a few words: Solve the root cause and you fix the provlem."

  11. By root cause, I am refering to our societal squandering and waste of precious resources (including energy). If "we" truly want solutions to our energy, environmental, economic, educational and - as is too often the case in these types if "discussions" - our emotional woes, then we need to act like a society, not an anarchy and work collectively to resolve the issues at hand.

    First, reduce waste - as in improve the performance of our existing built environment to reduce energy & resource consumption. This single "measure" (conservation) can affordably ("simple payback" often in less than one year !) reduce the energy consumption of an average home or office or school or ... by anywhere from 30% to 90% - using off-the-shelf technologies ;). By conservation, I am referibg to those measures which improve comfort and the indoor environmental quality while reducibg wasteful & unnecessary energy consumption (such as air-sealing and better / higher levels of insulation of the building envelope or shell, using energy recovery & positive pressurization ventilation strategies, turning off unused / unoccupied energy consuming devices, lights, etc., using public (or better yet, human-powered) transportation opportunities, the list goes on and on and on - aka "sustainability" or living off of the "interest" of our finite resources, while protecting & preserving the "capital".

    Next ? Efficiency ! Improving the performance of the things we use (LED lighting, geo-exchange, earth-coupled heat pumps, higher performance building envelope components & electronics, etc.).

    I could go on for hours & days & weeks & months - but it is Friday night and someone I love & who loves me is waiting ;)

    1. No doubt in most cases, energy efficiency is the cleanest, cheapest energy. This blog is "discussion" about facts. Of course, it has opinion, but my analysis begins with the importance of facts and ends with what works to achieve goals. Ideologues know the answer to every problem without ever needing to know the facts. Some ideologues dismiss energy conservation/efficiency. Others repeat time and again: "Government is the problem." Then Sandy hits and government is the solution "Tax cuts for whatever ails the economy." Never mind ever increasing deficits. And so on.

  12. To be realistic, the movie would have Land Men who get cheap leases, then pay more and more as people wise up. There would be people who are screwed by land men; others whose farms are saved by the leases; and others who moved in for the look of the area and are displeased with change and/or drilling. There would be an "environmentalist" who is totally against all drilling and another who thinks that while gas is better than coal, is still concerned about the physical process of drilling and fracking, but is marginalized by zealot environmentalists. I guess you would have to have a slew of outsiders, sprinkled with famous people, who know what's best for the town and are willing to do what's best for the unwashed masses in the town.

    Have I left anyone out?

  13. I think the movie Promised Land shows the public the dilemmas communities face when gas drilling comes to town. They are economically strapped, but don't realize the ecological, health and other economic impacts on their land, homes, animals and health. It divides communities, as this film accurately portrays. Is this the price or "sacrifice zone" we must pay for cheap natural gas? Extracting natural gas this way is not necessary for our energy needs. Jacobson and Delucchi in their Nov. 2009 article in Scientific American have laid out a plan for transitioning the planet to renewable energy by 2030. They also have two articles in the March 2011 Energy Policy journal updating their research. Germany will be obtaining 80% of their energy from renewable sources of energy while shutting down their nuclear power plants. Their economy is expanding, while their use of energy is declining. I was visiting there last summer. It the Germans can do it we can do it. Fracking is just like nuclear power. It is too dangerous, too expensive and not necessary for our energy needs. According to Jacobson and Delucchi, it is not the technology or lack of capital that is in the way of transitioning to renewable energy, it is the lack of political will because the fossil, nuclear and centralized utilities have bought all of our elected leaders and control of the mainstream media duping the American public to believe that we need this gas and that it can be done safely. Fracking is not needed for our energy needs. Our water is too precious a resource to sacrifice to the greedy gas drillers.

    1. Actually coal use is soaring around the world and in Europe. Coal had its largest share of world energy in 2011 in about 40 years. The Economist just reported on the new coal plants that Germany is building. RWE, one of Germany's largest utilities, is 70% coal. Germany is seeking to have 35% of its ELECTRICITY to come from renewables within about 15 years. Where will the other 65% come from? And what about the transportation and industrial energy use? Still oil at 95%? Coal, oil, and gas simply are not the same environmentally, economically, or in terms of national security. We need to accelerate renewables and California will be at 30% renewables for electricity by 2020. What will provide the other 70%? Answers to that question cannot be wished away and the answers matter.

  14. A pair of articles in The Economist (Jan 5th, 3013) supports several of John’s contentions regarding the benefits of reasonably regulated nat gas.

    As the Economist reports: The world’s mot harmful fossil fuel, coal, is being burned less in America and more in Europe. This is deeply ironic as Europe prides itself as being a world leader on climate, while America is often seen as a climate-policy laggard. Europe’s energy policies deliver the worst of all possible worlds: increased carbon emissions from coal and increased cost of power (2 to 4 times what we pay in the U.S.)

    I hope the American success with nat gas continues. I don’t want to see my power bills go up by 200-400%.

    And one other thing: If Matt Damon makes a sequel to his latest film, I hope he devotes more screen time to exploring all the facts related to the complex issue of fracking. Thanks, John, for speaking truth to Hollywood power!