A blend of engineering and geology hardly makes for a Hollywood blockbuster. But the latest movie about hydraulic fracturing – yes, there's more than one out there – has an A-lister taking shots at the controversial practise.
The film – Promised Land, co-written and starring Matt Damon – opens Friday, but the energy industry's supporters are already fuming over how they have been painted as the bad guy. The movie, they argue without knowing all the details because they have not watched it yet, is full of scare-mongering rather than facts. And they say Hollywood has done just the same: made judgment calls without having all the necessary information.
Hollywood has used its broad reach to try to persuade the masses before. James Cameron's Avatar was interpreted by some as a potshot against the oil-sands industry. Films such as Thank You for Smoking chastised tobacco companies and their lobbyists, and the documentary Super Size Me went after fast food businesses. Gasland, released in 2010, was critical of natural gas players and famously showed someone lighting tap water on fire. The energy industry, experts say, must battle Promised Land or risk losing ground in the fracking debate. The audience for Promised Land, after all, is full of folks who have not spent years figuring out how guar gum and water can be mixed together to shatter previously impenetrable rocks.
"There's a lot of misinformation in any story," Deborah Thompson, principal of communications and executive consultancy DT Communications, said. "It doesn't matter if it is as contentious as this, in any story for any company, regardless of whatever industry they are in, you have to correct misinformation. While that doesn't sound terribly Hollywood sexy, that's what you have to do."
Fracking is used to extract oil and gas from stubborn rocks. After a hole is drilled, fracking crews inject a mix of water, sand, and chemicals underground, using extremely high pressure to create fissures underground. This frees the trapped hydrocarbons. Concerns over contaminating water and causing earthquakes are among the hot-button concerns.
Oil and gas executives and lobbyists are already on the job when it comes to Promised Land , jumping on the movie's trailer, which shows a man in a dark pub wearing a ball cap and plain sweater taking the stage with a warning message.
"Hi everybody. I'm here because my farm is gone. The land just turned brown and died. If it happened to one of us," he says as the camera cuts to photographs of dead cows, "it can happen to all of us."
This line makes Michael Binnion, Questerre Energy Corp.'s chief executive, bristle. There is no evidence, he says, that the energy industry has wiped out entire farms. Movies like Promised Land, he says, will stoke confusion.
"Just because somebody has made an allegation doesn't mean there really are two legitimate points of view," Mr. Binnion said. "It just appears that way to the uninformed."
Opponents argue they are far from ignorant, pointing to studies supporting their claims.
Earthquakes, for example, are cited by the two sides as evidence to support their cases.
Critics say the energy industry is causing earthquakes as it pushes fracking fluid into the ground. The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission released a report in August, 2012, supporting this claim, saying "events observed within remote and isolated areas of the Horn River Basin between 2009 and 2011 were caused by fluid injection during hydraulic fracturing in proximity to pre-existing faults."
Some energy proponents note fracking, by definition, is meant to cause seismic activity, although in tiny doses. Further, the industry's supporters note small earthquakes are common and fracking has just brought these shakes into the news when they have previously gone unnoticed.
Similar sparring continues over water, again with both sides presenting reports and evidence. Experts are split.
In interviews leading up to the release of Promised Land , Mr. Damon said the controversy over fracking divides communities – with some arguing in favour of energy development because of the financial benefits and others challenging projects out of environmental concerns – and provides the perfect backdrop for the film.
"It is a temporary lifeline to some people. But there are potential downstream horrific outcomes," Mr. Damon told The Fresno Bee in California.
"It's such a high-stakes games, it was a perfect place to kind of set a movie about decisions we make as communities."
Janice Mandel, president of String Communications, says the energy industry would be wise to find third-parties to examine the issues and use their findings to support their case in the aftermath of movies such as Promised Land. "Their credibility is very good and they are speaking on your behalf," she said. She cautioned, however, the outsiders should not be paid.
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers spokesman Travis Davies says he does not think the movie can be taken for anything other than fiction. Mr. Davies, like other critics of the film, noted funding for Promised Land came in part from Abu Dhabi's Image Nation, a government-controlled production company. The United Arab Emirates is ranked seventh in the world when it comes to proven reserves for both oil and gas.
"I don't think that anybody that wants to learn about what the process means for communities, or what the impacts are or how companies operate, is going to learn anything here," Mr. Davies said. "This movie has about as much in common with the reality of current natural gas production as any Hollywood romance has with love."