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The Green Carpet: Hollywood

TV and Film Tackle 'Fracking' Debate

If you want to join the debate about fracking, or simply want to figure out what it is and why it matters—start with Promised Land, which opened in theaters this month, and a recent CBS Sunday Morning News story, “Digging into the Practice of Fracking.”


“What if I told you that we have a new source of fuel?” begins New York Times technology reporter David Pogue in a recent CBS Morning News cover story. “It’s cheap, it burns cleaner than coal, it’s found right here in America, and there’s enough of it for the next hundred years. This fuel is natural gas and its source is gigantic deposits of shale rock from miles underground.”

And more good news? Pogue reports that with our 36,000 fracking wells in America, the price of natural gas dropped by 33 percent since 2006, and supplies are plentiful enough that we are about to export it. It also can make millionaires out of struggling farmers.

Matt Damon and John Krasinski in a scene from Promised Land

In Promised Land, Matt Damon is Steve Butler, who represents a $9 billion a year natural gas company and buys rights from farmers and rural townsfolk to use their land to set up fracking wells. Problem is, the process of fracking is imperfect, and even potentially dangerous.

“Sure, it's a clean and efficient resource,” says the town’s trusted science teacher Frank Yates, played by Hal Holbrook. “But the way they go about getting it is some dirty business.”

Here’s how the "dirty business" works. The gas is locked inside the shale rock, so we drill about a mile down below the water line, then make a right turn horizontally before injecting millions of gallons of water and chemicals at extremely high pressures to open the rock and free the gas and oil. As Pogue points out, we’ve been fracturing rocks for oil for more than 60 years. “But in the last decade, we’ve totally transformed the process by adding that horizontal business . . . all the chemicals . . . and the colossal pressure of the water.”

The integrity of pipes—many of the mile-long pipelines leak over time—and the undisclosed chemicals used by the companies—it’s proprietary information, but according to the EPA, includes benzene, toluene, xylene, diesel, hydrochloric acid, and glycols— crystallize the problem with fracking.

“You’ve got spills, you’ve got aquifer pollution. Fracking is a very industrial process that uses chemicals that are toxic, carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting,” explained environmentalist Ramsay Adams, of Catskill Mountainkeeper, to CBS Morning News.

“We did not find evidence for the chemicals in fracturing fluids,” reported Duke University Professor of Environmental Science Rob Jackson, who studied water at hundreds of homes near fracking wells. “What we did find was much higher likelihood that you would have gas in your water—methane, ethane or propane, the things that are in the natural gas itself. We think the simplest explanation for that is poor well integrity.

Damon’s Promised Land character believes the risk is worth it for rural America, where the farming town fantasy has been shattered. “I’m not selling them natural gas,” the well- meaning Butler says. “I’m selling them the only way they have to get back.” The script—written by Damon, co-star John Krasinski, and based on a story by Dave Eggers—is not a predictable corporate-bashing tale, but rather an adept portrayal tackling the complexities of the issues. “[Butler] sees himself as a realist who’s helping them, but with limits,” Damon told Written By, a Writers Guild magazine.

For the original story, Eggers drew from interviews with rural residents faced with the difficult choice to allow fracking. As the townspeople in the film grapple with the promise of financial gains over the potential destruction of their land, these same real-life discussions are happening across America as thousands more wells are built each year.

What protections are in place? None yet. The EPA is conducting their first studies, with results not due until 2014. The EPA plans to study the impact of drinking water during the fracking process, the chemicals injected in the ground, the drilling wells and waste-storage wells construction, and the potential for toxic fluids to migrate from deep underground to near-surface drinking water supplies.

“Over time, it’s a good bet that regulations and public pressure will make fracking get cleaner and safer,” says Pogue. But the pressure to drill remains as intense as our insatiable need for fuel. Perhaps it’s time to reinvigorate our efforts toward alternative energy sources. With a critical eye, of course.

The writers for Promised Land admit that wind farming, not fracking, was the script’s original target. “We read about how some people were erecting wind towers, and not even plugging them in, just selling the energy credits to coal companies,” Krasinski told Written By. But a series of New York Times articles led the writers to fracking. “The biggest compliment to Matt and me would be that [the movie] starts a discussion,” Krasinski continues. “It doesn’t matter to us which side you fall on. We’re not trying to convert anybody—we’re just saying, ‘This would be a great time to get involved.’ ”

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Tommi Lewis Tilden

Tommi Lewis Tilden

Tommi Lewis Tilden has worked as an editor for several notable media outlets including Disney Publishing, Teen magazine and TV Guide. The Los Angeles-based editor, journalist and book author is also actively involved in environmental efforts including Tree People and Heal the Bay.
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Tommi's eco awareness has long encompassed her work (e.g. while editor at TEEN she researched environmentally friendly printing), as well as her personal life (she's a proud Hybrid owner and her home sports solar panels).

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