Some residents of a rural Pennsylvania region at the heart of the natural gas boom say they hope that a Matt Damon film about drilling will return scrutiny to complaints about water pollution rejected by state and federal regulators.
“Promised Land,” opened nationwide Jan. 4, including at the Dietrich Theater in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania. It’s the closest showing to the town of Dimock, where residents have drawn national attention with a years-long battle against regulators they claim have failed to hold gas drillers accountable for environmental damage.
The film, produced by a unit of Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal Media LLC, depicts Damon as a gas company employee called a land man. He goes to the fictional town of McKinley to acquire drilling rights from farmers and homeowners. Carol French, who owns a dairy farm in Ulster, Pennsylvania, said she hopes the story will resonate with people who know little of the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, she blames for spoiling her water.
“Contamination knows no boundaries,” French said. “If you don’t lease and you’re trying to do the right thing, that is not protecting you. Your state is not protecting you. I’m hoping that ‘Promised Land’ will create a thought and create conversation.”
French watched the film’s premier in Tunkhannock Jan. 4 with other critics of fracking who say gas drilling has affected their drinking water. Tunkhannock is about 15 miles south of Dimock, a community at the center of the debate over the potential impact of fracking on well water.
After the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection determined that Cabot Oil & Gas Corp.’s drilling “affected” 18 drinking-water wells, the company agreed to provide the families with fresh water, install filters and pay twice the value of their homes. Its sampling found the water there was safe, and, after some residents refused to settle, it cut off water deliveries in 2011.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency supplied water until July when it said its own tests of water wells near a gas drilling operation found no unsafe levels of contaminants. Cabot, based in Houston, maintains that its operations haven’t contaminated homeowners’ wells in Dimock. George Stark, a company spokesman, did not return a call seeking comment on “Promised Land.”
Ray Kemble calls Dimock “ground zero” and counts about 40 gas wells within a mile of his home and auto repair business there. On the day he was told his water was safe, Kemble said EPA officials declined to drink from his well.
“Promised Land” will make it harder for drillers to take advantage of people, Kemble said.
“It should have had a little bit more of a punch,” Kemble said. Still, “it’s going to make people that have never seen or dealt with a land man come out of the theater and go ‘ooh.’ And they’re going to have questions if a land man comes knocking on their door.”
Fracking and horizontal drilling have allowed companies to tap gas in deep rock formations in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado. The processes have boosted local economies and spurred manufacturing growth across the U.S. because of lower gas prices.
“This film is purely a work of fiction and is not reflective of the work our industry undertakes,” Steve Forde, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pittsburgh-based industry group, said in an e-mail. “We live and raise our families in these communities and have an unmatched commitment to protecting our air, water and environment.”
The movie was filmed partly in western Pennsylvania though the state where the town of McKinley is located is not identified.
The industry, in a bid to head off criticism about fracking that might follow “Promised Land,” bought advertising time in 75 percent of Pennsylvania theaters for a pre-buttal of the film. The on-screen ad lasts 16 seconds and refers the audience to an industry-sponsored website, www.learnaboutshale.org, for “a community conversation on natural gas.” The ad, sponsored by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, did not appear before the screening in Tunkhannock.
On Route 29 between Dimock and Tunkhannock the signs of the natural gas boom are everywhere. Rig workers fill local restaurants at lunch while trucks hauling drilling wastewater or heavy equipment are an ever present sight on the two-lane road.
A turn onto almost any smaller, local road reveals well pads and staging areas for drilling operations. Backhoes are at work digging trenches for new pipelines to deliver the gas.
“This gas industry coming to our area has changed how we operate,” French said. ‘It’s changed our families, changed our communities.’’
The film, directed by Gus Van Sant, pits Steve Butler (played by Damon) against Dustin Noble, an environmentalist played by John Krasinski (Jim Halpert in the television series “The Office”). Butler, who uses cash bribes and hard-sell tactics to acquire drilling rights, is himself unaware of the extent his employer will go to to achieve its goals.
“Promised Land” took in $4.3 million this past weekend in the U.S. and Canada, placing it 10th in box office receipts behind films such as “Texas Chainsaw 3D,” which took in $23 million, and “Django Unchained,” which had sales of $20.1 million.
Even with its Hollywood ending, “at least it’s putting attention on the evil” side of the business, said Sheila Russell, an organic farmer in Rome, Pennsylvania. “At least it’s showing that part.”
Towns in northeast Pennsylvania were among the first in 2006 to be approached by gas drillers seeking to tap into the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation deep underground stretching from New York to West Virginia that the U.S. Energy Department estimates may hold enough gas to supply the U.S. for about six years.
Without the benefit of “Promised Land” and “Gasland,” a 2010 Academy Award-nominated documentary that criticized fracking, it was too easy for drillers to secure leases that took advantage of property owners, Russell said.
Critics of fracking, in which millions of gallons of water are mixed with sand and chemicals to blast apart underground rock formations and free trapped gas, say it has spoiled water and polluted air in scores of rural communities. Supporters say fracking doesn’t pollute water and cheap gas has supplanted coal in power production, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In the film, Butler uses hard-sell tactics to close drilling deals with people who are expecting to become millionaires. Mike Knapp, a land man for MDS Energy Development LLC, in western Pennsylvania, rejects the caricature and says he runs into high-school classmates or parents of his friends when he offers leases.
“We aren’t some company coming out of Texas,” Knapp said in an interview. “We were all born here and raised here.”
Russell said Damon’s character only hints at the tactics used in real life. She recalled how in 2006, a gas company land man approached her elderly father with an offer to renew a long-standing agreement to allow mineral production on the family property.
“When my dad signed and re-upped for $5 an acre, there was no mention of hydrofracking,” Russell said. “They came out to these depressed farms and took advantage of 80-year-old men like my father with a big smile on their faces.”