Fears over fracking spilling into popular culture

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Fracking already has transformed the nation’s energy landscape, but it’s also begun to worm its way into American pop culture.

The controversial drilling technique, responsible for huge increases in domestic production of oil and natural gas, is now the focus of major films, rock ‘n’ roll songs and late-night monologues.

Critics of the process — which uses millions of gallons of water combined with sand and chemicals to crack underground rock and release fuel — think greater public awareness helps their cause.

“We’re going to see the movement against fracking grow exponentially, and we’ll see more of this pop culture awareness about it. It’s one of the best ways to combat” the spread of the practice, said John Armstrong, spokesman for the opposition group Frack Action.

Meanwhile, industry groups are fighting back against what they argue are inaccurate depictions of the process, which they maintain is safe and does not harm water supplies.

The most notable instance in the ongoing public relations war centers on the upcoming Matt Damon movie “Promised Land,” which tells the tale of small American towns ruined by fracking.

Mr. Damon stars in the film as a corporate salesman who convinces residents to lease their land to big oil and gas corporations in exchange for hefty royalty payments, a premise which mirrors reality in towns across Pennsylvania, North Dakota and elsewhere.

The movie is set to be released Dec. 28, but oil and gas industry groups have mounted a fierce PR campaign to push back against the film’s highly negative portrayal of fracking.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America, for example, plans to set up fact-check websites and distribute pro-fracking material to moviegoers and film critics.

“When you have a movie like ‘Promised Land,’ you don’t have to have a balanced opinion from the industry,” IPAA spokesman Jeff Eshelman said. “You can show whatever you want to show and no one will be able to debunk it right away. We have the science on our side. Now we have to make sure we have some better ways of delivering our messages.”

Fracking’s move into pop culture goes beyond the silver screen, and some of music’s most legendary acts are also tackling the topic. The Rolling Stones’ new tune “Doom and Gloom,” released as part of the band’s 50th anniversary collection, includes direct references to fracking and cryptically ties the process to water pollution.

“Fracking deep for oil / But there’s nothing in the sump / There’s kids all picking at the garbage dump / I’m running out of water so I better prime the pump,” reads a portion of the lyrics.

Earlier this summer, “Late Show” host David Letterman, also weighed in on fracking. He told his audience that “we’re screwed” if the technique finds its way into more states.

“They’re poisoning our drinking water,” he said in July, referring to the oil and gas industry.

More than 100 other entertainers — including Lady Gaga, Robert DeNiro, Flea, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hugh Jackman, Mark Ruffalo and the Strokes — have joined with actors and other celebrities in the “Artists Against Fracking” campaign. The group’s top priority is to convince New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban the process in the Empire State.

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, has for months delayed a final decision, but he reportedly is still considering a plan that would allow oil and gas companies to drill in portions of New York near the Pennsylvania border. A denial by Mr. Cuomo would represent a major defeat for the expansion of oil and gas drilling across the U.S, and opposition groups are pulling out all the stops.

“Over a number of years, we’ve been working to get some higher-profile celebrities engaged so people around the U.S. are aware of what’s going on” with fracking, Mr. Armstrong said, explaining the coordinated effort to involve celebrities in the fight against fracking. “It’s a grass-roots driven movement, but over time, that movement has reached out to mainstream institutions and celebrities and asked them to help amplify our voice and get the truth out.”

The IPAA and other oil and gas industry leaders concede that public attention, partly driven by celebrity activism, is focused on fracking like never before.

“There’s certainly an uptick in Hollywood’s involvement in energy issues. Part of the reason is, [critics’] arguments don’t stand up scientifically,” Mr. Eshelman said. “They can’t win this argument based on facts and science, so they have to turn to a community that is going to listen to them. They find that with the Hollywood crowd and the entertainment community.”

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