Oil and Gas Industry Set to Attack Matt Damon's "Promised Land"

Read time: 7 mins

Next month Focus Features releases Matt Damon’s new movie and the oil and gas industry is worried sick about it.

The movie, Promised Land, is about a Pennsylvania farm town deciding whether to go forward with shale gas drilling after a team of landmen arrives in the area.

Damon plays one of these landman, who rolls into town presenting himself as a humble flannel-wearing farmboy from Iowa. Damon’s character is an ace salesman, famously good at convincing homeowners to sign away the rights to their land. But halfway through the story, he starts having ethical pangs about his profession. Damon’s internal conflicts grow deeper as he grows closer to locals.

By Hollywood standards, it’s a small film, with a budget of $15 million. The script was written by Damon and co-star John Krasinski (best known for his role as Jim in “The Office”) and is based on a story by Dave Eggers.

The drilling industry is none too pleased about the movie’s at-times unflattering portrayal of landmen and it has already geared up its attack machine to aggressively respond.

The irony here, of course, is that the industry’s plan for taking on the movie runs parallel at times to the movie itself.  It a case where art imitates life imitates art.

I will come back to this.  But first, meet Mike Knapp.

You can find Mike pretty easily on the internet. He presents himself as an average dude. On his twitter feed he talks about his favorite beers. He sends out instagram shots of snowfall on a barn and pickup truck. He bemoans the passage of time and aging when his drivers license expires. And he’s a solid citizen. “Just loaded up a car full of groceries from our small local market!” he tweeted last month.

Mike is not happy about Promised Land.

On his blog, he writes indignantly about detractors of shale gas, attacking critics of Pennsylvania drilling and laying out lengthy arguments in favor of the industry.

Of course, Mike Knapp isn’t just another Pennsylvanian, despite his “Average Joe” presentation.

Mike is a landman, a participant in the Marcellus shale rush. And he also works for Energy in Depth, the fracking industry’s most vocal front group. Like Damon’s landman character, Mike doesn’t conceal his connections to the industry. But like Damon’s character, Mike Knapp tries to present himself as simply working for the best interests of his neighbors when in fact he works for the drilling industry, pure and simple.

Even though he hasn’t seen it, Mike rails online against the Damon movie.

Flaming farms?  Pasture fields turning brown? Livestock becoming sick and dying?  This is what we were afraid of,” wrote Mr. Knapp in a September 26 blog post. “We weren't expecting a 100% accurate representation of the drilling process, but COME ON!”

DeSmog was given an exclusive chance to view the movie before its release and it is quite clear that Promised Land is not an environmental-scare flick. In fact, it’s not even anti-fracking, per se. Instead, the movie takes a close look at the economic realities that drive people to lease their land, the dying prospects for family farms, and remains vague about fracking’s environmental impacts.

Although the film is far from flattering to the industry, it hardly presents the issues in black and white. Matt Damon’s depiction of a landman is humanizing. Damon's fellow leasing agent, played by Frances McDormand, is a pragmatist, a mother looking to support her family.

All this begs a simple question: is it really the portrayal of slick landmen that scares the drilling industry? Or is there something else that worries them even more?

The answer to this question comes about 20 minutes into the film.

Half the town has gathered in the local gymnasium to discuss drilling and hear from the landmen about its benefits. But the high school science teacher objects.

I would encourage all of you to go home and Google this word [fracking] and see what you find. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as simple as what Supervisor Richards just laid out,” he says. “Now, listen, it’s true there is some money to be made having this industry coming in, but can we at least not pretend that it is not without cost?”

The town decides to hold a vote on whether or not to allow drilling to move forward, setting up the main battle of the film.

This is the part that is so frightening to oil and gas companies – the simple fact that there is a vote at all. It conjures up a possibility that the industry cannot tolerate: local control.

For most oil and gas companies, a depiction of landmen as willing to peddle in half-truths and play on locals' sense of desperation no longer represents much of a threat. The recent land rush for drilling rights in shale areas has, in many of the most promising areas, already passed. So the industry is less dependent on these salespeople than it was four or five years ago.

Local control, on the other hand, remains a very real possibility. And if local governments individually hold the reins on fracking in their area, the drilling industry will face a new battle in each town and may need to make concessions in order to win support – if it wins at all.

Lease rates may be openly discussed instead of privately negotiated. Environmental risks might be openly weighed and assessed by those who will actually bear their brunt. Potential economic benefits could be more carefully reviewed in towns and cities atop the shales.

Across the U.S., dozens of cities and towns have already passed local bans or moratoria. And courts have so far upheld the right of many communities to control if and how fracking is conducted in their locale.

This is the true nightmare for an industry long-accustomed to getting its way with state-level legislators and regulators.

With this specter in mind, the likes of Mr. Knapp and the industry he represents are already in high gear. Their goal is to frame the film as heavy-handed and anti-fracking. Their pitch is that Hollywood Elites just can’t understand Average Americans.

The industry has also already leaked the movie’s script online, in the hope of stealing some of its dramatic thunder by revealing plot twists. The Independent Petroleum Association of America has said it plans to set up “fact-check” websites and to distribute pro-fracking material to moviegoers and film critics.

Others plan a more playful approach. “We’re ready,” Chris Tucker, a long-time spokesperson for Energy in Depth told gathered executives at an industry conference last month.

It’s not a Gasland thing, where you’re gonna put together a 6,000 word rebuttal. There’s no sort of rebuttal to a Hollywood fictional film – you don’t want to be silly about it,” he said, describing “hilarious” plans to arrange visits by celebrities and the entertainment press to drilling sites.

Shell plans to use the film’s publicity to bring attention to their advertisements-cum-cinema, “The Rational Middle,” their PR workers have said.

Others in the industry are looking to use Promised Land’s prominence as a way to draw viewers for their pet films: Truthland and Frack Nation. The director of one of those movies has already been writing op-eds trying to drum up attention.

It’s a misrepresentation of life in rural America and a misrepresentation of the hearts and minds of these citizens,” Phelim McAleer, director of Frack Nation said in a statement about Promised Land.

Like landmen arriving in rural farmhouses with sales tags still tacked to their flannel shirts, these overblown claims and the rest of industry's spin about the movie are virtually parodies of themselves. They represent opinions from people who are paid to hold them, because they support their customer’s broader policy goals.

Despite the industry's faux-outrage and attempts to stir up hype, the Damon movie is not anti-fracking or a propaganda piece. The film offers up a clear-eyed look at economic hardships faced in many rural communities.

It also makes a simple point: with so much at stake, shouldn't communities have a candid, informed discussion about the risks and benefits of oil and gas drilling?

Get DeSmog News and Alerts


Is that actually an open pit for toxic water disposal? 


It kills ducks in Canada, so I'm just curious to know where your boom cannons are.  In Wyomming they found ponds like that full of dead animals.  I guess having your fence mostly up is good enough.  Eh?

Attacking Damon for a movie.. whatever.  Movies attract actors of a particular persuasion.  This is nothing new. If its not Matt, its someone else.  Leneord DiCaprio perhaps?  To me it sounds like you're engaging in the usual tactic of attacking the messenger.

Perhaps you have something meanful or meaty to add to your anti-Damon attack blog?  Fracking Defence perhaps?  Didn't think so.

You mean mud from drilling?  Its got chemicals in it as well.  That's why the EPA used an air hammer in Wyoming.  No mud… Nothing to get into the formation.  Nothing to corrupt the measurements.

Its a shame they do so few wells with air.  What do you think?  I mean without the mud so many wells collapse before they can even be cased and cemented in.  Then you have to send in a regular rig to redrill it.

My experience is mostly limited to Western PA.  Here, well bores hold up very well.  Companies obviously drill horizontally with mud, but the vertical bores are always done with air.  No chemicals, no chance of contamination of the aquifers when drilling through.  Can't really speak to other areas, but thankfully thats one less thing to worry about here in PA.  Cheers!


Its too bad about leakage rates though.  All that seepage outside the concrete still gets into the aquafers.

The worrying thing is that siemens noticed that they all leak eventually.  Even if you cement up the bore.

I wonder when someone will solve that problem.

Leakage rates? 

There is no leaking on our wells.  We use special cement, we run pressure tests, and we lower special tools down the wellbore to ensure that the well is sealed. 

We put a man on the moon and a rover on Mars.  We can drill a hole in the ground and seal it off. 

But we're not talking about you specifically.  I'm more concerned about the industry as a whole.

(You don't sound like someone whose been around wells.  There was another guy on here before, TroyDonScott?, and he'd been around wells. I don't get that sense from you.)

I present you with leaks!  Lots of them!

Wellbore leackage;


And your daily Toluene intake;


You do know that as wells age, they are more likely to leak, right?  Cement breaks down.  Most wells aren't tested that often, and never after they've been shut in.  (Ever pressure test a cement plug?)

Mr. Knapp,

I wonder why it always takes a more “activist approach” of justified critique to get industry to clean up after itself? Oil and gas developers would have a much better reputation and an easier time convincing people if they actually “cared”, not just for people (or is it “just business”?), but also for the environment (oh sorry, forgot that the atmosphere is a free dumping ground …). Not just one, but now several tens of studies (I encourage you to check the recent AGU Fall meeting sessions on Atmospheric Impacts of Oil and Gas Development for details) show that the gas boom is everything else but the “clean” energy the industry proclaims. Methane leaks appear larger than expected (canceling much of the positive effects gas has on displacing coal and oil as CO2 sources), huge fenceline NHMC levels are detected (leading to strangely high ozone levels, such as in wintertime Utah; and I wonder how the local workers are affected). Makes one wonder whether it is cheaper to run a multi-year massive PR campaign such as the industry does, instead of trying to do a better engineering jo and fix leaks. You know how to fix leaks, right?

Sorry for the sarcasm, but your attempt at a rebuttal was indeed poor. Instead, the critique of the fracking industry is well founded, and it could use some honest engineers cleaning it up, and weed out the black sheep …

Seeing your land smeared with oil.


In some cases, your life gets really difficult when this happens.

The two oil companies may decide to tie up their activities in court, while your land remains polluted.  The drilling company may decide that its not an issue… so you have to hire a lawyer, and bankrupt yourself.  Maybe they are cheap and decide to just stir the oil into your soil. (A common practice in Alberta since hauling toxic waste is expensive.)

Arguements with oil companies have gone as far as murder.


(This is an interesting story in that the land owner involved was also in the oil industry, and knew its dirty practices.  Did you catch the fact that the oil company you may finally get to sue will be essentially broke?)

The point I would make to anyone considering a lease is that there is a risk associated with it.  The chance of disaster isn't zero.  If it happens it can result in your ruination.  Your health, your finances, your life.

Do not under any circumstances trust anyone who tells you there is no risk.  And don't trust an industry which works hard at hiding the truth and the facts.

Landmen have screwed enough people in Alberta for surface rights groups to form.

Like this;


Here's a great story;


Nowthe lefty comment.  You see, its the far right in Alberta who's been backing the land rights movement.  Its called the Wild Rose Party whose leader was educated by none other than the Fraser Institute.  (And they have to be right wing if Koch funds them…)



In any case Hank, perhaps you should adopt a more right wing attitude to this stuff.  People matter.  Their property matters.  In Alberta we know we can't keep hosing the farmers for fun and profit.

Keep in mind that all this hub-bub just acts as publicity promoting the movie.   At some time in the discussion, one must decide to go see it.   So the movie company is thrilled with the conroversy.