Resourceful Earth has written previously about Hollywood’s decision to take on hydraulic fracturing, but it’s getting close to release time and the Wall Street Journal reviewed the movie today, so it’s worth revisiting:
After a decade of war and half-century of costly military involvement in the Middle East, the United States stands on the brink of “energy independence.” Then a shadowy Canadian billionaire coupled with Mideast oil interests sponsor a Hollywood propaganda movie aimed at luring Americans into throwing away the instrument of their deliverance: shale energy.
If a movie were to tell the truth about fracking, it would begin with the core conflict, which isn’t between environmentalists and earth-raping oil companies. Fracking was a bone of contention first of all between landowners who wanted to cash in on energy royalties and neighbors who didn’t want the neighborhood invaded by heavy industry.
Yard signs abounded. Longtime acquaintances bellowed at each other in town-hall meetings. Groups professionally hostile to energy development only arrived later, having had the wit to notice that the more affluent, country-home owning opponents of local fracking were the environmental groups’ natural constituents.
Thus was born a political war, complete with standard “Big Oil” versus “Greenies” symbology, out of what had been a neighbor versus neighbor dispute. Yet, truth be told, neighbor versus neighbor is still the only story that’s interesting. Fracking, in Pennsylvania and upstate New York, came into a world long abandoned by economic dynamism. Fracking threatened to transform a bucolic quietude that some liked just fine and others couldn’t wait to earn enough money to escape.
This is the story of economic development in every time and place, which is never without its ambivalences, transforming landscapes, inflating property values, altering social dynamics. To treat these themes realistically in a movie is not a sin. Energy companies in the Marcellus Shale were never going to be especially sensitive to the dilemmas they created for residents with the big money they were handing out. Residents were always going to be what they were: conflicted, greedy, frightened, resentful.
If you watch the trailer above, the movie brings Matt Damon into a small town that has been hit hard by the 21st century economy (shuttered factories, run down schools, etc.). Damon offers land-owners the opportunity to sign contracts to drill for natural gas on their property. Co-star John Krasinski appears later to convince the town that fracking has (and will continue) to bring horrible environmental consequences. From there, the movie delves into the typical evil-oil company conspirators with shadowy phone calls from an unnamed voice, demanding that Damon “handle it” along with threats of what a “9 billion dollar” company can do [to a town or individual].
However, as The Wall Street Journal notes, the fight over fracking has mostly taken place between landowners in small towns, not landowners versus oil companies. And I suspect that the fights taking place have much to do with some initial environmental scares (exaggerated by the environmental left) as well as the fact that not everyone in a small town will have natural gas deposits on their land. This pits people who stand to benefit from the very valuable drilling contracts against their neighbors who do not stand to gain from the boom.
I suppose it would be too much to ask of Hollywood to make a reasonably fair movie about hydraulic fracturing. Regardless, it’s unfortunate that millions of Americans will see this film and receive a highly misleading and one-sided look at an industry that has done wonders for the country: revitalized our manufacturing sector, created millions of high paying jobs, and lowered domestic energy prices. When public opinion is misled, it leads to things like bans or moratoriums on fracking, or onerous regulations that hurt the industries potential.
Finally, though Resourceful Earth isn’t generally concerned with the funding behind any particular movement or activity, the message can be judged on its merits independent of who is pushing it, it’s worth pointing out that this film appears to be funded in part by the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, whose economy is largely reliant on the price of oil and might have a financial interest in limiting the extension of fracking for oil in the United States. The Heritage Foundation has more on that here, including a leaked script of the movie.