The movie Promised Land tells the story of Steve Butler (Matt Damon), a landsman hired by a natural gas company to enter a rural area and lease land for natural gas drilling. Promised Land, with its flat, green fields, orderly farms, and miniature horses, could be a tourism film for the state of Pennsylvania. The story follows Steve and his partner Sue as they negotiate leases from local farmers. As Sue puts it, everything is a little “too easy” until a town meeting where the high school science teacher urges residents to google “fracking,” and the town decides to put fracking up for a vote.
Like several of the characters in Promised Land, I ‘m a fifth generation landowner and the daughter of a dairy farmer. We leased our land for gas drilling almost five years ago, and over the summer, they drilled, fracked, and flared the first wells underneath our farm. Over the last five years, we’ve watched jobs grow and crime rates rise, truck traffic increase and burning wells light up the night sky.
I went to see Promised Land to see if Hollywood could make a movie about natural gas drilling and rural life, and get it right. It’s hard to get everything about energy and farms and an iconic American landscape into one film, but Promised Land mostly did. Underneath the beautiful images and the salt of the earth farmers and well-intentioned landsman portrayed in the film, Promised Land gets the deeper issue right, the harder truth: for the landowners approached by gas companies and the people in “gasland” there’s not really a choice, there’s just an illusion of choice.
I am not going to give too much away about the film, in case you haven’t seen it, but I would like to think here a bit about choices.
Damon’s character, Steve Butler, approaches farmers, clip board in hand, with a pitch. “You could become a millionaire.” Some people want to sign on the spot. It didn’t work quite that way with us or those we knew. My parents, who live on the farm, entertained landsmen over several months. My mother gave the landsmen coffee and homemade chocolate chip cookies while they discussed offers. They sat in the living room, and the smart ones admired the childhood photos of my sisters and me with our 4-H project calves before they made a pitch.
As the initial lease offers crept up, my father called the neighbors, an assortment of retirees, local farmers and small business owners. A few of them began an informal alliance. They researched gas companies and traded information. At the time, the dangers of hydraulic fracturing were not well known, and they did not have much information on the environmental implications, but they considered the companies sizes, how much drilling experience they had, and whether or not they owned or leased their drilling equipment.
These old farmers and their families are smarter and more thoughtful than most people give them credit for. If you’re a landsman who couldn’t look beyond the John Deere cap, flannel shirt and manure-covered work boots, you underestimated the person sitting across the table.
Promised Land hinges on a vote by the town that, even if it happened in Pennsylvania, couldn’t be enforced.
Most decisions about whether to frack or not depend only on an individual landowner’s signature, not on the preferences of a township. Those without land, or those without much land, don’t get a say in the process. Even individual landowners who choose not to lease can’t prevent a natural gas well from being placed close to their property. A faulty well casing can destroy any water well within range of that drill site, whether the resident has leased or not.
Some Pennsylvania towns have tried to regulate gas drilling with zoning. Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania tried to enact conditional use zoning. Local government, in this case, the township supervisors, tried to put a process in place to determine the locations of gas wells pipelines, and compressor stations. For the most part, the township supported the gas industry, but they wanted to preserve the town by putting guidelines in place for particular kinds of usage.
But as This American Life reported, the gas company’s response to zoning regulations was to threaten to pull out of Mt. Pleasant entirely. They wanted the ability to drill anywhere (called permitted use zoning) or they would not drill there at all.
The state of Pennsylvania is trying to make permitted use zoning standard throughout the state. Townships will not be able to have stricter zoning regulations than those at the state level, or they will lose the impact fees generated by natural gas drilling. As natural gas grows in Pennsylvania, we’re looking at less and less local control rather than more. This provision by the state is still making its way through the courts.
In Promised Land, Steve Butler threatens to walk away from the town when he encounters complications. When my father’s loose coalition of neighbors got together for the final pitch for the company they had chosen, the landsman gave them an ultimatum: sign on the dotted line now or you won’t have this chance. The group of old farmers demurred. They wanted to read the fine print and talk with their lawyers. The gas company walked. The group went to another landsman representing a different company who had also eaten my mother’s cookies, and got the deal they wanted.
Ultimately, though, this didn’t make any difference. After we signed a lease, the gas company that initially reject us bought our lease. Like a home mortgage loan, a gas lease can be sold or traded. The company that is currently drilling our wells is not the company we originally signed with. In fact, its Cabot Oil and Gas, the company featured in the documentary Gasland.
Without giving too much away, at the end of Promised Land, it’s clear that the town hasn’t really had a choice. They’ve been set up. In real life, too, there have been very few choices about natural gas. From the state regulations that prevent physicians from disclosing information to patients, to the lack of zoning regulations, regular people have not had much of a choice about how this “shale game” plays out. I hope that films like Promised Land make more people aware of how few choices we have before all of our options for clean energy, air, and water are gone.
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