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OVERBECK: Damon’s ‘Promised Land’ ignores EPA, touts fracking myths

Film promotes hysteria without facts

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Matt Damon wanted to do a hit piece on fracking, the process by which natural gas is extracted from shale deposits deep in the ground. This would be a film promoting all the usual Hollywood eco-hysteria: Fracking will reduce your idyllic farm to a barren wasteland, poison your water and make blood spurt out of your ears. The film is about a "Promised Land," like God's gift to the Israelites of a land of milk and honey, which is threatened with utter destruction by the evil, greedy oil companies.

The funniest thing about the movie is, all the evidence Mr. Damon planned to use against fracking imploded. First Hollywood celebrities trooped to little Dimock, Pa., to bring fresh water to the 11 families who blamed fracking for polluting their wells, and then the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported their accusations were without merit. This was very bad news for Matt, since Dimock was the inspiration for his film, which is also set in Pennsylvania. Investigation of the wells had found some naturally occurring contaminants, but the regulators concluded, "There are not levels of contaminants present that would require additional action by the Agency."

Mr. Damon may also have run across the alarming statement by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who said after various EPA investigations, "In no case have we made a definitive determination that hydraulic fracturing has caused chemicals to enter groundwater." Former EPA Administrator Carol Browner said the same thing years ago.

Did the evidence that fracking isn't toxic to groundwater deter intrepid eco-apparatchik Mr. Damon from his appointed task? Of course not. The show must go on. Robbed of an enviro-horror story to tell or a factual leg to stand on, Mr. Damon and his partner in this crime, the amiable John Krasinski of "The Office," rely on dark innuendo via goofy dialogue like this: Steve (Mr. Damon's character, the oil company leasing sales guy) to Dustin Noble (get it?) the brave environmentalist: "We're a 9 billion dollar company -- do you know what we're capable of?" Dustin Noble: "Do you?"

If you're intent on creating a propaganda film but have no actual facts to make your case, you can always put your ugly yet unproven accusations in the mouth of the smartest guy in the room. In the film, he's a high school science teacher named Frank Yates. But Frank is no ordinary science teacher -- he's a megabrain with a master's in engineering from MIT and a Ph.D. from Cornell in physics, who worked in research and development for Boeing for 32 years. When this modern Einstein starts frack-trashing, saying it poisons water, kills livestock and renders the Promised Land unlivable, who would dare question him?

If that's not enough to convince, the film also uses pyrotechnic visual aids. In a memorable scene, the "environmentalist" hero Dustin Noble nonchalantly sets afire a toy farm with a toy house and barn and a bunch of cute farm animals, giving his rapt audience of fifth-grade schoolkids a foretaste of their families' future if their parents sign a fracking lease. Are you smarter than a fifth grader?

The fiery demo intends to remind the viewer of scary scenes in anti-fracking "documentaries" that show homeowners torching their tap water. The famous Colorado water-flaming scene in the film "Gasland" is a fraud, however, because methane gas naturally occurs in the local aquifer unrelated to oil and gas development, according to the Colorado state oil and gas regulatory agency that investigated the matter. In fact, homeowners in that area have been amusing themselves for years by lighting up their tap water, a fact that Mr. Damon dismisses as "irrelevant." Film-flam director Josh Fox likewise refused to allow the state's regulatory director to address these inaccuracies in the film prior to its release.

The widely viewed YouTube video "Hydraulic Fracturing turns garden hose to flamethrower" was likewise unmasked as a hoax by a Texas judge who ruled that the homeowner and a helpful "environmental consultant" had created the demonstration "not for scientific study but to provide local and national news media a deceptive video, calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning." These co-conspirators had attached a garden hose to the well's actual gas vent -- commonly installed to allow any gas naturally present to escape -- and then lit a flame from the gas itself. Judge Trey Loftin also cited proof that they had sought to mislead the EPA, which had issued an emergency order against the gas company based on the fake water-flaming.

This is the problem: Just as the EPA can be tricked by false but dramatic "evidence" like this, so can the public be stampeded into anti-fracking hysteria by fraudulent films. The reality is that out of the approximately 1.5 million wells drilled in the 60-plus years of fracking in the United States, not one farm has combusted, not one cow has died, and of all the wells tested, the EPA has found virtually no contamination of groundwater due to the procedure. There are new and ongoing investigations all the time to confirm safety.

When dramatic lies are promoted by celebrities, filmmakers and enviro-hucksters, they seep into the cultural groundwater and poison the public's understanding of this sophisticated technology. People get the idea oil and gas companies operate with reckless lawlessness when in actuality, dozens of state and federal regulations govern their every move and assure safe practices. Nevertheless, there arises a public outcry for a halt to the process by people unwittingly deceived by agenda-driven zealots who want to eliminate all use of carbon-based energy.

The real-life casualties of the lies are the families and suffering communities that will lose tens of thousands of jobs and a prosperous future if drilling is needlessly restricted or banned. Matt Damon, Josh Fox and their Hollywood cronies will just go back to their energy-gobbling mansions and their electric cars that run on coal power, ignoring the fact that their celluloid play-acting would deprive real people of a better life.

Joy Overbeck is a Colorado journalist and author.

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