[Originally published in MasterResource]
The story of hydraulic fracturing (frac’ing) is one of the most important stories of our time. It needs to be told far and wide–and certainly by our top talent in Hollywood.
The true story of frac’ing is utterly inspiring. A band of renegade oil and gas executives, engineers, and rig-workers developed a technology that could transform worthless rock into wondrously abundant and affordable energy–enough to improve the lives of every single American. Frac’ing gives some states the cheapest electricity in the world, a boon to our manufacturing. It gives us the oil and gas that run our farms, warm our homes, and fuel our fun.
Whatever ways frac’ing technology has been misused–and for a pervasive technology there are shockingly few instances–our basic attitude toward the industry should be one of gratitude. And the most grateful of all should be the landowners who, thanks to the ingenuity of the frac’ing industry, now have the opportunity to participate in and benefit from a torrent of wealth creation miles beneath their feet.
A good, honest movie about frac’ing would inspire hope and inspire gratitude.
Promised Land, Hollywood’s first take on frac’ing, is neither good nor honest–it is a shameful smear-job by writer-actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski.
Matt Damon Plays The Straw Man
Promised Land is an awakening story; slick but earnest frac’ing land-man Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is selling his latest rural town on frac’ing but discovers that it’s a mortal danger to human life.
But the awakening, much like Damon and Krasinski’s real-life call to outlaw frac’ing, is completely incoherent. Steve Butler is introduced to us as a master of persuading towns to embrace frac’ing. But at no point does he explain the staggering improvements to human life this technology is bringing about, nor how the technology works to minimize risk, nor how the damage is often reversible when something goes wrong.
His only case for frac’ing is that the landowners are poor, and will make a lot of money if they lease their land to Global, his company. But he has no answer to the mortal danger argument–even though, were that even remotely true, every frac’ing operation would be out of business and we would be flooded with stories of people dying from frac’ing related causes.
Interestingly, it never seems too important to anyone to explain exactly what the danger is. The most thorough argument made against frac’ing is a few empty sentences pronounced by an old man at a town-hall meeting. Fracking “is some dirty business. The potential for error is just too high. There are people all over the country whose water is being contaminated…Mr. Butler, you and I both know the information I’ve been talking about is vast and detailed.” No specifics, no sources, just a fabrication of “vast and detailed” evidence that frac’ing is incredibly risky–and the film’s superstar defender of frac’ing has nothing to say. (The filmmakers later back up the old man’s fabrications by fabricating him advanced scientific degrees from MIT and Cornell.)
The implication of all this is that support for frac’ing can’t stand up to scrutiny. In reality, the opposition can’t stand up to scrutiny.
Any entry-level land-man could have set the town straight–which is why so many real land men persuade people to eagerly embrace frac’ing.
The Truth About Frac’ing
Frac’ing is a wonderfully safe technology, thanks to 100 years of safety innovations in oil and gas exploration, plus the fact that the frac’ing process is separated from groundwater by a combination of thousands of feet of impermeable rock combined with fortress-like steel casing. Frac’ing is a lot safer for health and for water than, say, the process many foreign mines use to get materials for solar panels and windmills–and yet no one in Hollywood seems to want to make a movie about those risks (“Wasteland”?). And, it’s worth emphasizing, we have laws to protect us against misuse of frac’ing, and the companies frac’ing are obsessed with safety for many reasons, including to avoid the terror of lawsuits.
But there is no one in the movie who understands frac’ing, so the case against it, in the minds of the characters, anyway, mounts and mounts.
The rural town, Butler progressively “realizes,” it would be better off without frac’ing–and so would America. Butler’s rival, charming anti-frac’ing activist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) persuades him (and the town) of this with many arguments he can’t answer–including (I am not making this up) a diorama of a farm that he lights on fire in front of local school children to simulate what natural gas will do to their farms.
But then, for a brief moment, Butler feels vindicated. Why? Is it because he realizes that frac’ing is one of the greatest technological breakthroughs of our era, because more affordable energy will help every American flourish, and most of all help those who are fortunate enough to live a mile or two above the once-worthless stone that frac’ing turns into the lifeblood of civilization?
No, because it turns out that Noble told a particular lie about a particular Nebraska farm. Of course, this proves nothing; if frac’ing is energy Russian Roulette, it’ll decimate a town in Louisiana if not Nebraska. And sure enough, it turns out that Dustin’s fraud was engineered by Global to help out Butler by discrediting opponents of frac’ing. They’re that devious. (This plot development, it turns out, was inspired by the fact that the anti-frac’ing stories that motivated the film turned out to be false. This did not make Damon or Krasinski question their quest.)
Butler doesn’t want to face the full evil of what he’s involved with–in reality, improving human life with an incredible degree of safety. Not knowing that frac’ing is good, he “tells the truth” to–i.e., completely misleads–the town, depriving many in the town of a fortune and every American the increased prosperity that comes with energy growth. For his newfound virtue, he loses his job but of course he gets the girl.
What will happen to the town? What will happen to an America without new sources of energy? Butler doesn’t care, and neither does Damon. Producing energy, the movie makes clear, isn’t very important–what matters is what might, maybe go wrong when producing energy. What matters is avoiding new things that people say are dangerous, and keeping things pretty much the way they are. Thus, if anyone has misused frac’ing technology anywhere, then it should be illegal for everyone to use frac’ing technology everywhere.
In reality, the risk we should be afraid of is the risk of not frac’ing. But in the land of Promised Land there is no such risk. There is essentially no discussion of the need to produce energy and the fact that new production is always necessary to sustain and improve life. Promised Land is a poor man’s Garden of Eden–a place where it’s not necessary to produce energy (or much of anything) because nature will give the rural town pretty much everything they need–as long as they “take care of things,” the theme of Butler’s final speech. “Take care of things” is code for: don’t develop.
The movie acknowledges that these towns are poor because industry is shutting down, but it never occurs to anyone that frac’ing–and the absence of anti-development activists like Damon and Krasinski–could resurrect American industry.
Of all the despicable aspects of Promised Land, what bothered me most was that it positively oozed with moral righteousness even as it was defaming a truly heroic industry–just as the broader anti-frac’ing movement does. In both cases, the opposition has nothing positive to offer, only blind fault-finding.
It reminded me of Teddy Roosevelt’s immortal characterization of “the critic”–the man who looks at doers only to point out where they have done wrong.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
For today’s critics, the easiest, safest thing to criticize is new industrial development–a new mine, a new factory, a new well, a new skyscraper, or a new energy revolution. Damon and Krasinski have done a vicious thing in making this movie, but they are just the blind followers of the anti-industrial philosophy they were weaned on, the philosophy misleadingly named “environmentalism,” the philosophy that we should leave the planet alone instead of transforming and improving it. It’s tempting to respond to the “environmentalists” by fixating on their endless fabrications. But it is far more powerful to just stand up and say: frac’ing is good, industrial progress is good, and anyone who attacks them is dead wrong.
Alex Epstein is Founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, a Principal at MasterResource, and creator of Energy Ethics 101. He has a standing offer to teach Fracking 101 to Matt Damon, John Krasinski, and Mark Ruffalo as part of CIP’s Energy Education for Celebrities program. They have not yet signed up.