Matt Damon Fracking Film Lights Up Petroleum Lobby

10 08, 2012 by The Wall Street Journal

The premiere of a Hollywood film featuring hydraulic fracturing is months away, but the energy industry already is preparing for battle.

"Promised Land" stars Matt Damon as a gas-company salesman trying to lease natural-gas drilling rights in rural Pennsylvania, where fracking has become a widespread, though sometimes controversial, technique to release natural gas from shale deposits.

Worried that the movie will portray fracking in a negative light, the industry is working up responses that it says could include bombarding film reviewers with scientific studies, distributing leaflets to moviegoers and mounting a "truth-squad" effort on Twitter and Facebook FB -2.30% .

"We have to address the concerns that are laid out in these types of films," said Jeff Eshelman, a spokesman for Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents energy producers.

The film's producers say they don't have a position on fracking and note that the movie is not set to open until Dec. 28.

"We've been surprised at the emergence of what looks like a concerted campaign targeting the film even before anyone's seen it," said James Schamus, chief executive of Focus Features, a unit of Comcast Corp.'s CMCSA -0.74% NBC Universal that produced and will distribute "Promised Land" in collaboration with Participant Media LLC. The film was written by Mr. Damon and actor John Krasinski and directed by Gus Van Sant.

Image Nation, which is partially funded by the Abu Dhabi government, provided financing to the film through a deal covering several Participant movies. Image Nation said it invests in Participant films "regardless of genre or subject matter."

Participant specializes in films about public issues, such as Al Gore's climate documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," and creates "social action" campaigns for its films. The campaigns suggest ways to get involved in issues, from tips to conserve energy to ways to help military veterans. The website of the studio's digital division hosts dozens of postings related to fracking, most of them opposing the practice.

"Fracking is the catalyst for a bigger story about the complex challenges confronting small towns across America today," Participant Chief Executive Jim Berk said in a prepared statement. The film is meant to "raise awareness of the importance of transparency and regulations for public health and safety," he said.

Fracking involves blasting millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals into a well to break up shale and allow oil and gas to flow out. The practice has helped spur a boom in U.S. oil and gas production but also has sparked public concerns over the potential impact to drinking water and air quality.

The HBO documentary "Gasland," which raised concerns about the environmental impact of fracking, was nominated for an Oscar in 2011. The energy industry initially underestimated the film's impact but recently has stepped up efforts to discredit it.

The energy association produced its own documentary, "Truthland," which it began showing at in June at community centers and hotels across the country.

Josh Fox, who created "Gasland" and is filming a sequel, said the public-relations efforts are wrong-headed. "The problem is that they are in denial, and they are addressing real technical and engineering problems with PR," he said. He added that the problems can't be solved.

Energy companies dispute that but have increasingly sought to beat back concerns about drilling. Exxon Mobil Corp., XOM -0.49% Chevron Corp. CVX -0.35% and ConocoPhillips COP -0.43% have run advertising campaigns in the last two years that tout the economic and environmental benefits of natural gas and defend fracking as safe.