There are "a lot of scare tactics in play here," Steve Butler, protagonist of the new anti-hydraulic-fracturing film "Promised Land," warns a local politician skeptical of the benefits of hydraulic fracturing. Played by Matt Damon, Butler is an earnest salesman for the energy giant Global Crosspower Solutions, bent on convincing a rural town in Pennsylvania that hydraulic fracturing will save its outdated agrarian economy from collapse.
At first glance, Butler seems like a savior to the town, promising poor, unemployed farmers an economic renaissance. But he quickly becomes a villain -- a henchman of the big, bad corporation out to exploit the destitute and uninformed through bribes and get-rich-quick promises. That is, until a wizened old man (representing the film's voice of justice) stands up to Butler at a town meeting and exposes the alleged dangers of hydraulic fracturing that Butler was covering up.
The town, taken aback, puts its hydraulic fracturing decision up for vote. Butler feels confident in his ability to persuade the town until an anti-fracking environmentalist named Dustin Noble appears on the scene. Noble is David taking on Goliath, saying he wants to stop Butler because Global's fracking allegedly destroyed his family's longstanding farm with water contamination.
With charm and wit, Noble wins over the town and leaves Butler at the point of despair. But then the film takes an unexpected twist.
I won't give away the film's ending, except to say that its anti-fracking message relies predominantly on -- to use Butler's own words -- scare tactics. Never once does the audience see hydraulic fracturing in action or even a well or the controversial wastewater. "Promised Land" lacks any substantive scientific evidence illustrating the alleged dangers of fracking.
Instead, the film falls back on many conventional anti-capitalist themes. The "only reason you're here is 'cause we're poor," declares a farmer to Butler at one point.
Of course, what the film does not explain is the incredible economic revolution that hydraulic fracturing has already brought to much of America. From 2008 to 2011, natural gas production in the U.S. has risen a staggering 10%, according to a recent report from the International Energy Agency. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts U.S. natural gas production will increase 44% by 2040, thanks in large part to increased shale gas production made available by hydraulic fracturing.
The energy boom is bringing jobs and increased tax revenues back to rural America and not just to the pockets of big energy companies, as Damon and his co-writers would have you believe. Inflation-adjusted income in America's rural areas is up 3.8% per person since 2007, while it has declined in urban areas. The unemployment rate in North Dakota, home of much of the Bakken shale reserves, is a stunningly low 3.1%.
And contrary to Damon and company's screed, it's not all about the money. Many states, such as Texas and Oklahoma, use the tax revenues from oil and gas to fund state education projects, health care obligations and rainy-day funds.
As to the controversy surrounding the environmental safety of hydraulic fracturing, "Promised Land" offers little credible, scientific evidence to illustrate the alleged dangers of hydraulic fracturing. It's worth noting -- because "Promised Land" does not -- the head of the Environmental Protection Administration, Lisa Jackson, is on record as saying, "In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter ground water." Furthermore, Jackson said in February, "(Fracking technology) is perfectly capable of being clean. It requires smart regulation, smart rules of the road."
A monumental energy revolution is under way in this country.
And while industry leaders and politicians are debating the best way to effectively and safely bring the benefits of this revolution to millions of Americans, Damon and his colleagues instead aim to frighten the potential benefactors of this revolution.
Clearly we cannot take this energy revolution for granted. "Promised Land" will not be the last of its kind. The public deserves to know the truth about America's energy potential.
By freeing up more state and federal lands for drilling, cutting unnecessary, burdensome restrictions while protecting wells and ground water with safe and smart regulations, every American might soon get his own slice of the real promised land.
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