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 www.choosepawind.com), 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.