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Fact Check: Truths and Myths in Matt Damon's Anti-Fracking Film 'Promised Land


"...purely a work of fiction..."

(Editor's Note: Potential movie spoilers below)

Matt Damon's film "Promised Land," which is considered by most to be an anti-fracking statement set in a fictional tale, was criticized by the pro-fracking community long before its debut. But now that it has been released, it still seems to be seeing less than favorable reviews and a poor box office showing, and recent fact checks are calling out some elements of the film as well.

Matt Damon and John Krazinski created and co-star in "Promised Land," which is in most theaters now. (Photo: Promised Land/Focus Features)

One of the recent fact checks of the movie comes from Steve Maley for the conservative website the Red State. Maley takes issue with the fact that the filmmakers didn't look into some of the actual local laws that apply to fracking in Pennsylvania where the movie is based. Maley wrote:

We see Damon/Butler negotiating with a landowner, signing him to a lease for $2,000 per acre and an “8% share of the profits”, knowing that his company is willing to pay $5,000 and 18%.

This highly misleading exchange is wrong on multiple levels. A royalty paid to a landowner under an oil and gas lease is a non-cost bearing share of a well’s gross revenue, not “profit”. Hollywood types know the difference between “a percentage of the net” and “a percentage of the gross”; the latter is a lot more valuable, and is risk-free to the owner. Also, 12.5% royalty is the minimum permissible rate under Pennsylvania law [58 PA. STAT. § 33, pdf link]. In can be double that, or more.


I found a 20-page pdf file from the Penn State Cooperative Extension Service entitled Natural Gas Exploration, A Landowner’s Guide to Leasing Land in Pennsylvania. It explains, in very clear layman’s language, the terms and provisions of an oil and gas lease, the contract that dictates the relationship between the operating company and the landowner. It also advises the landowner to engage an attorney (you can find one of those on Google). Maybe screenwriters Damon and John Krasinski should have read it, so they could understand 1) that dealing with an energy company is not a one-way negotiation, and 2) leases cannot contain provisions preventing the landowner from “talking about it in court”.

Maley also calls out the concerns in the movie over groundwater contamination and fracking. Just last year, the EPA and other scientists said these concerns are unfounded and not scientifically based. A new bit of research to tag the water, which is pumped into shale rock to extract natural gas, with DNA and trace these tags to see if it does lead to groundwater contamination shows though that many still question fracking's safety.

American Public Media's Marketplace also has a fact check of the movie. Here are a couple of the things that it looked into and found:

  • Fracking and dead cows, really? Yes, it is true. Cows have died according to a Cornell study tallying reports of human and animal ailments near drill sites. Direct exposure to hydraulic fracturing fluid occurred in two cases: in one, a worker shut down a chemical blender during the fracturing process, allowing the release of fracturing fluids into an adjacent cow pasture, killing 17 cows in one hour; the other was a result of a defective valve on a fracturing fluid tank, which caused hundreds of barrels of hydraulic fracturing fluid to leak into a pasture where goats were exposed and suffered from reproductive problems over the following two years.

  • Do natural gas landmen push this hard? Not that I’ve heard. I spoke to several landmen in the gas industry, who say they’re paid daily rates rather than commission. In other words, they get paid whether the landowner signs a lease or not.

Marketplace also addressed flammable water. It pointed out that some water supplies experienced methane bubbling up, but also that the industry has frequently cited natural causes of flammable water as well. In fact, the documentary film FrackNation, which seeks to tell the truth about fracking and is a response to what it considers "lies" told in Gasland, has taken out billboards reminding people of natural burning springs. Just this month, FrackNation sponsored one of these billboards, which called out Matt Damon directly, in New York.

Listen to the Marketplace podcast:

The Marcellus Shale Coalition released this statement with regard to "Promised Land" last week:

This film is purely a work of fiction and is not reflective of the work our industry undertakes, all done within an aggressive and effective regulatory framework. Our focus remains on creating even more American jobs, safely producing our abundant, clean- burning, domestic natural gas resources, revitalizing rural communities and our nation’s manufacturing base, and most importantly, doing it in a way that is safe. We live and raise our families in these communities, and have an unmatched commitment to protecting our air, water and environment.

While "Promised Land" continues to show in theaters, "FrackNation" made its premiers in New York City and Los Angeles this week. It will premier to the public on Jan. 22 on Mark Cuban's AXS.tv.

Here's a trailer for "FrackNation":

Watch "Promised Land's" trailer:


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