Movie sparks debate

WARREN – Opposing sides of the polarized hydraulic fracturing debate are clearly outlined in “Promised Land,” a motion picture starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski that opened last week in theaters nationwide. It leaves the door wide open for locals on both sides to jump in.

A Pittsburgh-based nonprofit natural gas coalition is responding to the movie’s theme with a 15-second preview ad in Pennsylvania theaters and on social media websites.

Marcellus Shale Coalition’s advertisements highlight its Learn About Shale platform and asks viewers to submit their own questions about natural gas production and use. The Learn About Shale initiative – launched last fall – serves as the hub of the coalition’s public education campaign and answers questions from consumers with facts, independent resources and third parties.

“We’re taking this as an opportunity to engage and continue this conversation and respond in this conservation with facts,” said Steve Forde, vice president of policy and communications for Marcellus Shale Coalition.

“This film may run in theaters for a several weeks – maybe a couple of months, depending on its success at the box office,” Forde said. “But the work of our industry is going to continue for generations to come.”

He called the movie a complete work of fiction.

Much like the people of an imaginary western Pennsylvania town portrayed in the movie, local opponents of the controversial natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing have launched a petition drive to get a Youngstown Community Bill of Rights on the May election ballot with the ultimate goal of banning fracking in the Meander watershed area.

According to Lynn Anderson, a member of Youngstown-based FrackFree America National Coalition, the group already has secured more than 1,000 signatures in their quest to obtain the required 2,836. The local Bill of Rights, she said, will guarantee the right of local residents to clean water, air and land.

From there, Anderson said, arguments of civil rights can be made in a legal attempt to stop local fracking, which could then be fought all to way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

The movie focuses on the controversies of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking. That is the process in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped at high pressures down well bores fracturing the rock and injecting the materials to free natural and wet gases thousands of feet below the earth’s surface.

Frack opponents have argued that the process can harm the environment, particularly the water table.

Dan Alfaro, communications director for Energy in Depth, a research and education group funded by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, echoed comments from the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s Forde.

“The movie is not fact, and this isn’t part of the conversation on Ohio’s, or this country’s bright energy future. It’s a drama that is designed to be dramatic, not factual or accurate,” Alfaro said. ”So there are those who are opposed to the safe, responsible development of fossil fuels at every turn who will tout the film, but everyone else will take it at face value for what it is, a Hollywood yarn.”

The storyline of the motion picture focusing on environmental concerns versus the promise for economic revitalization triggered by deep well natural gas drilling runs parallel to the ongoing debate in the Mahoning Valley as drillers begin tapping into the burgeoning Utica Shale here.

Damon and Krasinski, who wrote the film in addition to starring in it, have been vocal in questioning the environmental impact of fracking.

Jane Spies, co-founder of Youngstown-based FrackFree America National Coalition, described the movie as a journey through the debate.

”Do the people really want this or do we want to keep our farm land and our pastures?” Spies said. ”It’s about the decision. What do we want to do? What do we want to be? Is money everything if there is a threat to public health and safety? And there are high risks.”

Further raising eyebrows to the motivation behind the movie is the fact that much of the financing for the movie came from Image Nation Abu Dhabi, based in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, the world’s third-largest oil exporter, which sees fracking as an economic rival.

The International Energy Agency in November predicted that the new shale oil boom in areas like the Marcellus and Utica Shale plays will allow the U.S. to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer by 2020 and lead to a continued decline in U.S. oil imports.

Spies said she was aware of the middle eastern funding, but dismissed it as a non-issue.

”I think that group is just trying to make some money off the movie investment,” Spies said.