Before Gus Van Sant's latest film Promised Land even premiered, the energy industry was up in arms, gearing up to counter the film's apparent anti-fracking stance with a barrage of "community" responses (read: thinly veiled corporate PR). James Schamus, chief executive of Focus Features the distributor of the film, expressed shock about the attacks on Promised Land: "We've been surprised at the emergence of what looks like a concerted campaign targeting the film even before anyone's seen it." With blogs, astroturf websites, Facebook pages, internet ads, and theater ad buys in advance of the movie, the industry is working hard to spin the conversation in a more fracking-friendly direction.
The film chronicles the story of a gas industry salesman, played by Matt Damon, and his attempt to convince the residents of a rural Pennsylvania town to agree to fracking development. The questions raised by actors in the film mirror the debates taking place in communities across the country. What type of chemicals are used in fracking? What is the effect of fracking on air and water? While the industry may make a few struggling families rich, what is the cost for the community as a whole?
Conveniently, the fracking industry has launched a number of websites to answer these questions for you.
Energy in Depth Launches "Real Promised Land" Site
The fracking industry was caught unprepared by the brilliant, 2010 documentary Gaslands by Josh Fox, whose indelible images of tap water bursting into flames introduced fracking to the American public. Having learned their lesson, the industry was not eager to repeat its mistakes.
Before it was even released, Energy in Depth (EID) took issue with the new movie, which is not a hard-hitting documentary like Gaslands and has more romantic content than factual content. Through a new website titled RealPromisedLand.org, EID rolled out "real stories" from "real Americans" about their positive experiences with fracking. Videos from Ohio, Colorado, Texas, and Pennsylvania highlight seemingly ordinary citizens who have benefited from fracking development in their area. On their glossy Facebook page you can learn that: "the natural gas industry takes all the safety measures possible in order to protect the earth and water from any contamination" and other tall tales.
The website does not disclose that EID was launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America to serve as the PR mouthpiece for the gas industry. As CMD has documented, EID is funded by the likes of Shell, BP, Chevron, and XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil. EID has also privately described itself, in a memo, as the "online resource center to combat new environmental regulations."
Industry Buys Ads for PA Movie Theaters
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, the drilling industry's biggest trade group in Pennsylvania, cut ads to run before the film aired in Pennsylvania theaters. The ads direct viewers to their website, learnaboutshale.org, which seeks to dispel the "complete work of fiction" they call Promised Land. Would-be viewers of the film are implored to engage in a "straightforward" and "honest" conversation on natural gas. Folks worried about fracking's impact on water will not be told what chemicals are used or how many wells have been contaminated, but they will be reassured that water sources will be just fine -- as long as the drillers follow all state and federal regulations.
"Propaganda Specialists" Fight Anti-fracking Narrative
"To be honest," said Schamus of Focus Films, "if I could afford the kind of propaganda specialists the fracking industry has sent after our little movie... They're pretty impressive at what they do."
Curiously, none of the countless websites and articles published against Promised Land have countered any of the movie's factual claims about hydraulic fracturing. The attacks against the film are more centered on the notion that the film's narrative is flawed, not that it presents false information.
Despite finding no factual errors in Promised Land, the gas industry will not take bad PR lying down. In response to Gasland, the industry produced a film called Truthland. We can't wait to see what their next "blockbuster" will be, Broken Promises?