Damon film sheds no light on critical issues

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The wind power industry was probably breathing a sigh of relief last week as a new movie about a different energy industry debuted in theaters across Maine.

“Promised Land” is Hollywood’s take on the hydraulic fracking boom that is transforming U.S. communities from New York to Kentucky and reshaping the nations’ energy outlook.

The script was originally about the wind-power industry, but by the time the movie came to production the fracking boom seemed like a hotter topic, according to one of the film’s four producers.

Which just goes to show that when it comes to the Hollywood take on corporate behavior, one industry is as good a target as another.

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Although star Matt Damon starts out as a slick-talking salesman trying to convince simple farm folk to sign over their land to an oil conglomerate, he becomes more enlightened as the plot develops

Actor Hal Holbrook is a “flinty” high school teacher who begins to raise unanswerable questions during public meetings with landowners.

The trailer for the movie describes an unexpected event that causes Steve Butler (Damon) to begin questioning his own beliefs.

Of course he does. You really didn’t expect Damon to emerge as a corporate hero who brings riches to impoverished farmers and saves his nation’s economy by providing cheaper, more reliable fuel.

The equation for a box-office winner is simple: Big industry is bad; crusading environmentalists are good.

That’s a really simple narrative, but this is not a simple subject and it would be a shame for Americans to receive only one side of the story.

There have been several dominant threads to the anti-fossil-fuel argument during the past 40 years.

First, the U.S. has a dwindling supply of oil and we are running out.

Second, dirty fuels such as coal and petroleum are causing global warming and other health threats.

Third, our dependence on foreign oil from unstable regions threatens our national security.

And they were all true. But the development of hydraulic fracturing has spun the old debate in three new, complex directions.

First, we now believe the U.S. is sitting atop a vast and untapped reservoir of natural gas and oil.

Second, that we can gradually become less and less dependent on hostile OPEC nations; and

Finally, much cleaner natural gas is already replacing coal and oil for electrical generation and, possibly, for transportation as the use of hybrid and electrical vehicles spreads.

Unfortunately, in scattered places the petroleum industry seems to be following the prevailing Hollywood script.

Some landowners have been misled about how their land will be used or talked into signing deals that they later regretted.

In some places, injection wells have leaked chemicals or natural gas into rural water systems, contaminating drinking water for farmers or their neighbors.

The high-stakes land-buying process has sometimes turned neighbor against neighbor and public meetings into angry shouting matches.

“Promised Land” will do little to educate or inform viewers about the real risks and rewards of hydraulic fracturing.

The fate of fracking in the U.S. will, instead, depend upon two things:

First, the oil and gas industry must deliver on its promise to do fracking without unreasonable environmental damage.

Second, it must convince the American public that the public benefits of fracking far outweigh the risk to human health and drinking-water supplies.

Unfortunately, “Promised Land” will do little to clarify the important issues at stake.

rrhoades@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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