'Promised Land' Movie Gets to the Root Of the Fracking Problem in America

The new film, Promised Land, focuses on an energy company’s attempt to secure leases for fracking operations in a small rural community. The gas industry reacted strongly to the film distributing counter fact-sheets and considering leafleting movie viewings or setting up “truth squads” on Twitter. Yet, despite the industry reaction, the film is not strongly anti-fracking, unlike the documentary Gasland. The New York Times review states that the movie, while clearly biased towards the anti-fracking position, presents both sides of the issue.

While the gas industry tries to rebut the environmental damages caused by fracking, what cannot be disputed is the lack of choice rural communities face when it comes to economic development. This lack of choice is the real message within Promised Land. Rural communities across the country have so little access to economic development that they are easy targets for polluting industries. Even if, for argument’s sake, fracking can be done safely, it is far from having the regulations necessary in place to ensure its safety. Yet communities are already being exposed to unsafe fracking practices for limited potential economic benefit. The choice is literally between continued poverty or health and environmental hazards.

Fracking is not a hypothetical extraction method. The debate over whether or not it can be done safely ignores the reality that it is currently not being done safely. Communities across the country, including in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Ohio, are suffering from fracking operations. A small recent sampling of articles highlights:

Wyoming Fracking Linked to Tainted Water

Fracking Forces Eviction of Entire Pennsylvania Trailer Park

Ohio Fracking Wastewater Test Reveals Toxic Mess

U.S. Insurer Won’t Cover Fracking Gas Exposure

Why would future operations be any different? Any meaningful regulations are strongly opposed by the industry, including their refusal to disclose what chemicals are being pumped into the ground. Plus, the level of fines imposed for violating regulations is so low that it fails to act as a deterrent.

At the same time, the economic growth promised rarely materializes. Overall employment in counties with high drilling activity has not increased and most fracking jobs go to workers from out of state. Land leases can provide some relief for struggling landowners but overall, gas drilling lowers property values and if anything goes wrong, like contamination of groundwater, the property loses all value.

The gas industry, on the other hand, is making a killing. Chesapeake Energy makes millions of dollars by re-selling leases, a practice much more profitable than gas production. While these rural regions remain economically depressed, Chesapeake posted nearly $3 billion in revenue in the third quarter of 2012 alone.

There is a line in Promised Land where a local farmer tells the natural gas sales man, “The only reason you’re here is because we’re poor.” The truth behind this statement is the real message of the movie. We should be focusing on ways to increase economic opportunity in rural areas that doesn’t force residents to choose between poverty and pollution. Fracking operations do not meet this basic criterion.

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Mijin Cha

Dr. J. Mijin Cha is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Sustainable Progress Initiative at Demos, a progressive think tank based in New York City. Prior to joining Demos, she was the Director of Campaign Research at Urban Agenda, where she was the primary author of the New York City Green Collar Jobs Roadmap. Dr. has also worked as a senior policy specialist working with state legislators and local advocacy groups to promote smart growth, clean energy, and green economy legislation at the state level. Her most recent international work experience was in Nepal with the Integrated Center on International Mountain Development (ICIMOD) on a Ford Foundation project to increase access to environmental justice in rural areas of South Asia. Dr. Cha is a graduate of Cornell University and holds a JD from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law and LLM and PhD degrees from the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies.

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