The debate over gas development in northeast British Columbia has been building in intensity over the past two years, but it is just starting to heat up.
The release of a new film, Promised Land, starring Matt Damon as a gas-company representative who gets ranchers to sign away leasing rights, will give the issue a high profile this winter.
And coming soon on the heels of the Hollywood release will be a made-in-B.C. documentary called Fractured Land, which hopes to get everyone talking about the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the environment and on native communities.
Suddenly, fracking, an issue largely obscured by the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline controversy, is vaulting to the silver screen and into the consciousness of British Columbians. Fracking is a technique that injects a chemical-laced slurry deep underground to fracture rock formations, releasing gas deposits.
If there was any doubt the public relations battle was building, it was dispelled late last week when the newly founded Shale Resource Centre Canada fired off a long commentary on Promised Land.
“With the Canadian debut … shale gas development and hydraulic fracturing could become a hotter topic in the coming months,” states the centre’s blog, which uses the film as a talking point to discuss the positive impacts of the industry.
“We know it’s a Hollywood movie. The industry just wants to get the facts out,” said Karen Carle, a spokeswoman for Shale Resource Centre Canada, a new non-profit founded just last month.
The centre brushed off Mr. Damon’s latest vehicle as “a fictional Hollywood movie and not a documentary on shale gas development.”
But it might not be so easy to dismiss Fractured Land, which is being made by Canadian filmmakers Fiona Rayher and Damien Gillis.
The documentary, which is currently in a crowd-source funding drive, follows Caleb Behn, one of B.C.’s bright, emerging native political leaders, as he explores the complex issues surrounding development in the northeast gas patch. That’s where, as the son and grandson of chiefs, he grew up hunting moose, fishing – and watching his community get torn apart by violence, alcohol abuse and poverty.
Mr. Behn, who sports tattoos, a Mohawk haircut and nicely cut suits, says the goal of the film is to shake people awake.
He wants more than anything else to move the debate over oil and gas development away from the confrontational front lines and into the living rooms of the nation.
“How can we talk … if everyone is aligned one way or the other?” he asked. “It’s not a simple right-left debate. The issues are massively complex scientifically, politically and at the societal level. The issue is polarizing. And we are hoping to convince people that polarization is a real disservice to society. … The hope is to start drawing people together and connecting communities.”
Mr. Gillis put it this way: “What we want to do is open up a much-needed dialogue about the past and future of our country.”
That sounds like a tall order for anyone, but Mr. Behn, who is about to graduate from the University of Victoria law school, is uniquely equipped for the job.
When he gets called to the bar next year, he may become the only lawyer in the country who knows how to follow a blood trail through the bush, skin a moose and present a legal brief in court.
Gasland, by U.S. filmmaker Josh Fox, released in 2010, was the first documentary to draw wide attention to the issue of fracking.
Promised Land dramatizes the issue, with conflicts and love interests thrown in, along with the star power of Mr. Damon.
Fractured Land will tell the story through the eyes of a young native leader, who is largely unknown, but who has a law-school education and a passion for life in the bush.
It will be interesting to see which film has the greatest impact.