The film Promised Land, directed by Gus Van Sant, deals with exploitation of rural America by oil and gas corporations, made possible by the process of fracking. Fracking has become a highly controversial topic in the last few years, due to both its unchecked and unregulated expansion, and because of the environmental destruction this expansion has brought with it. The film in turn has attracted its own controversy, enduring full throated attacks from the oil and gas industry and their shills. So, how accurate is the film?
To start, Promised Land does a good job representing the way powerful oil corporations move through towns leasing up land. As the film depicts, they use landmen, people who are trained to knock on doors and get the best possible leasing deals from land owners. Best possible in the case of the landmen means lots of land at a low price, since the fracking companies pay bonuses to the landmen that close the most leases with the lowest payout. These landmen therefore have a vested interest in downplaying any possible negative effects of fracking, which they do. Many landowners sign leases having no idea what the process of fracking will entail, and are shocked when thousands of trucks, heavy industrial machinery and tons of chemicals set up shop next to their house.
However, Promised Land does not give a very coherent explanation of what fracking is and the dangers inherent to the process. The cost of fracking includes, but is certainly not limited to the poisoning of groundwater, which is the main focus in the film. Chemical spills, 24/7 truck traffic, leaks of hazardous gas, and the creation of millions of gallons of toxic fluid are also inherent to fracking, and the film never really explains that. Not to mention the inevitable escape of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. For a detailed description of fracking, see Greenpeace’s fracking page.
As for the big plot twist in film, I’ll try not to spoil it… But I will say that while the twist seems unbelievable, fracking corporations have actually done some mind-boggling things to rural communities that oppose them. The fracking corporation Range Resources was caught on tape bragging about hiring ex-soldiers to use psychological warfare techniques on Pennsylvanians that oppose drilling. Multiple corporations are actively suing small towns that have attempted to vote on whether or not to allow fracking in their neighborhoods. The truth is, oil and gas companies are capable of being much more villainous than the fictional shenanigans at the end of this film would suggest.