A Dubious Review of Matt Damon’s New Film about Fracking

Washington Times writer Joy Overbeck lambasted Matt Damon’s new film, The Promised Land, as little more than ill-founded propaganda meant to turn public opinion against hydraulic fracturing (better known as fracking). The problems with her review are numerous.

Here is Overbeck’s central criticism against the film:

The funniest thing about the movie is, all the evidence Mr. Damon planned to use against fracking imploded. First Hollywood celebrities trooped to little Dimock, Pa., to bring fresh water to the 11 families who blamed fracking for polluting their wells, and then the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported their accusations were without merit. This was very bad news for Matt, since Dimock was the inspiration for his film, which is also set in Pennsylvania. Investigation of the wells had found some naturally occurring contaminants, but the regulators concluded, “There are not levels of contaminants present that would require additional action by the Agency.”

Precisely where Overbeck is getting her information is unclear. It is true that the EPA has questioned residents’ complaints about tainted water, as Reuters reporter Timothy Gardner explained last May. More recent reports, however, indicate that recent studies have positively linked the fracking done by Cabot Oil & Gas Co. in Dimock to tainted water. As Bloomberg reporters Mark Drajem and Jim Efstathiou said last October (months after Gardner’s report was released),

Methane in two Pennsylvania water wells has a chemical fingerprint that links it to natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing, evidence that such drilling can pollute drinking water.

The data, collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are significant because the composition of the gas –its isotopic signature — falls into a range Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. (COG) had identified as that of the Marcellus Shale, which it tapped through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

“The EPA data falls squarely in the Marcellus space” established by Cabot’s scientists, said Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University. That evidence backs up his findings linking gas drilling and water problems in the town of Dimock, applying the very methodology that Cabot established to try to debunk it, he said.

Even if more recent reports hadn’t refuted claims that no link between fracking and tainted water existed in Dimock, the same sentence from regulators that both Gardner and  Overbeck quote (“There are not levels of contaminants present that would require additional action by the Agency.”) does not resolve the debate by any means. That levels of contamination are not high enough to merit additional action by the EPA does not mean that the water is safe. If anything, it admits there is contamination to some degree, just not enough to justify further action yet. Also, it is very well possible that additional action would have been necessary had the EPA’s standards for action been different and more developed. In October 2011, Cynthia C. Dougherty (the EPA’s Director of Ground Water and Drinking Water) said before the Senate that

the EPA is committed to using its authorities, consistent with the law and best available science, to protect communities across the nation from impacts to water quality and public health associated with natural gas production activities. Where we know problems exist, the EPA will not hesitate to protect Americans whose health may be at risk.

Part of taking additional action and protecting at-risk Americans necessitates the EPA’s policies for action and its currently-accepted levels of pollution in drinkable water be altered significantly. Since fracking is a relatively recent oil extraction method (it was first done decades ago but only recently came into widespread usage), the EPA will no doubt need to revamp its protective policies to ensure the safety of drinking water. The EPA’s safety policies will have to update quickly to respond properly to the quick surge in hydraulic fracturing in recent years.

Another significant problem with Overbeck’s piece is that those wishing to check the statements made by representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency are given uncontextualized quotes, but little more. Early in her critique, she quotes EPA Administrator Linda Jackson (who announced she is stepping down from her position recently), who at one point said, “In no case have we made a definitive determination that hydraulic fracturing has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” The quote comes from a soundbite on Fox News and lacks sufficient context to understand her remark properly. Even isolated as the quote is, it doesn’t prove Overbeck’s case as she says it does. “In no case” may very well mean in the studies conducted so far, not that there will never be a case where a definitive link is made. Also, just because Adminstrator Jackson and the EPA have not made a definitive determination, it does not follow that they have determined fracking is therefore entirely safe.

The EPA and other organizations do need to conduct continued investigations of the effects of fracking, specifically the long-term effects that may not become apparent for years. I have yet to see The Promised Land. Even if the immediate point of the film is that fracking is bad and environmentally dangerous, the trailer makes clear another point underlying the immediate one about the dangers of fracking: the allure of sudden wealth made quickly can and does drive people to make poor choices with long-term consequences (externalities, in economic terms). That second, underlying point is an important one we need to be reminded of continually.

About C. Ryan Knight

C. Ryan Knight teaches English at Randolph Community College in Asheboro, NC, and he lives with his wife outside Greensboro, NC.
Email: knight.cr@gmail.com


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