Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Promised Land review stirs passion over fracking debate One reviewer takes aim at another with pie, misses mark

We could expect this. The release this week of “Promised Land,” the Matt Damon movie about shale gas development in rural Pennsylvania, has inspired the industry to run pro-drilling commercials inside theaters to counter anti-fracking rallies outside theaters and the influence that industry fears the film will have on viewers. But could we expect a pie fight?

“Promised Land” (my review here) is the latest in a cascade of films about drilling – in the categories of fiction, non-fiction and propaganda – vying for the hearts and minds of audiences. Because of the ideological sensitivities inherent to the debate over fracking – the controversial process to extract oil and gas from rock -- and global dependence on fossil fuels in general, movies such as Gasland, Frack Nation, Gas Odyssey and Truthland aim for nerves and they tend to hit their marks with partisan viewers. But “Promised Land” is unique because it will draw audiences who might actually care less about fracking than what they expect to be a good Matt Damon flick. It’s just the sort of mainstream audience that the polar extremes want to win over. This gets interesting from the start, because a fictional firm called Global Energy is the villain of “Promised Land.” Consequently, there is fear among industry supporters – given the star power and down-home appeal of the film’s setting and characters -- that it will misinform or unfairly influence movie goers.

Prospective audiences are naturally swayed by reviews, and here the fight begins. It is often not pretty, and in at least one notable instance, it gets barnyard ugly. That would be the critique by Chip Northrup, the Texas oil and gas man turned-anti-fracking activist, of the work of Michael Wines, who wrote a piece about “Promised Land” for the New York Times earlier this week. Wines wrote about why, in his view, the movie was not grounded in the real world. Specifically, he piqued Northup’s ire by dismissing the movie’s relevance to the battle playing out in upstate New York. This is one of many places where a vocal anti-fracking movement has capitalized on the state’s on-going attempts to come to grips with an industry unlike anything regulators have seen in terms of scope, intensity, and impact on economic and natural landscapes. Wines suggests the anti-frackers are getting in the way of a good thing in upstate New York.

Truthful or not, the opponents of hydraulic fracturing are winning. Otsego County, like much of south-central New York, sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation, a gas-rich sheet of rock that underlies much of the Appalachian Basin. In Pennsylvania, where fracking is already under way, some landowners have made a comfortable living by allowing drilling on their property.

But the critics’ case against the process — that land and groundwater can be poisoned by the chemical cocktail that is forced into the earth to fracture the shale and free the gas — is carrying the day. The number of Otsego towns with bans or moratoriums on fracking has risen in just 18 months to nine, from five, including the city of Oneonta and the surrounding town. And the share of the land under lease to gas companies for future exploration has dropped as well.

Wines then juxtaposes views of people who would gain from gas development with those trying to block it. He articulates the merits – economic development – without elaborating on risks aside from his general reference to “the critics’ case.” He further provokes anti-fracking displeasure by featuring in his article criticism from gas proponents who had not seen the movie.

Perhaps if Wines were writing for a publication other than the New York Times, his interpretation might not have drawn notable backlash. But because the assessment appeares in one of the most influential media outlets in the world, Wines becomes a strategic target for anti-frackers, and specifically Northrup, who has become a significant voice in the debate due to his broad and credentialed knowledge of industry. Northrup responds with his own informed assessment, which he then proceeds to undermine with a lowbrow pie-throwing antic.

In a blog post for Shale Shock Media, Northrup reasonably argues that Wines misses a central point to both the movie and the situation unfolding in upstate communities. That is Home Rule, a battle where municipalities are challenging the state for jurisdictional control over shale gas development. Home Rule gets legally complicated. States have traditionally overseen gas and oil development partly because, the reasoning goes, resources and related infrastructure underlying multiple towns cannot be developed efficiently and economically with a patchwork of local ordinances and bans. The public good of bringing the gas to market, in theory, is weighed against the disruption development presents to given areas, much like major infrastructure projects, and the state is in a better position to make this calculation than towns. Towns in New York and Pennsylvania are challenging this on Constitutional grounds. So far they have successfully argued in lower courts that the state does not have the right or authority to limit a municipality's control over land use policies that pertain to shale gas exploration and development within its borders. It is an issue that will have a significant bearing on the outcome shale gas resources over the long term.

In “Promised Land,” the essence of Home Rule is portrayed with eloquent if abstract simplicity. After being approached by landmen seeking property rights, residents gather at a town meeting and decide to put the matter to a vote. This sets the stage for the ensuing battle that becomes the film’s central theme – a battle between divisive outside forces to influence the decision of local residents.

Northup fairly points out that Wines neglected to give fair treatment to this aspect of both the film and the real-life situation in Upstate New York alluded to in the film.

His interviews consisted primarily of sound bites from some local gas bags, who had not bothered to actually see the movie. So they did not talk about the movie, nor did Mr. Wines. The plot of which centered around a town’s right to exercise land use laws. You know, like the Town of Middlefield, not far from Oneonta, which has defended its land use laws in court. Or the Town of Otsego, right up the road, which was the first town to ban shale gas drilling in New York. Or the City of Oneonta itself (which has banned shale gas drilling) where Mr. Wines was when he was conducting the interviews. Towns like the one portrayed in Promised Land.
So far, so good. And then this:

So the piece read as a bit of a hack job – and now I can see why. The reporter is evidently a bit of a hack from way back. Under the heading, really truly can’t make this stuff up. . . . behold a memorable moment in Michael Wine’s brilliant career in journalism:

This is followed by a piece summarizing an incident 12 years ago when Wines was hit in the face with a pie made out of horse sperm by pranksters who had deemed him to be the “worst Journalist in Russia.” Northrup links to a lengthy article that ran in eXile Magazine, an alternative publication in Moscow, detailing how the sperm was gathered and how the pie was cooked. Wines at the time was working as Moscow Bureau Chief for the New York Times when eXile staff arranged and executed the prank.

Pieing is a weird tradition intended to bring somebody – usually an authority figure -- down a notch or two in the public eye. It’s not unheard of in academia, and it has been employed from the halls of Oxford to the steps of the Capitol in the service of public protest. It may get a lot of views online, but in my view, represents a Three-Stooges approach to polemics with corresponding political effect.

To be clear, Northrup did not physically hurl a pie at Wines. That happened 12 years ago under the direction of a group with questionable motives. Nonetheless, Northrup’s celebration of the event – along with a picture of Wines’ pie-smeared face in his recent blog post -- is clearly a metaphorical pie toss that Northrup assumes will somehow call into question Wines’ credentials. Casting Wines in the light of ridicule might meet the approval of anti-frackers who are regular readers of Shale Shock. But by making a classless event from long ago and far away the centerpiece of his argument against Wines’ assessment of “Promised Land,” Northrup will likely lose more points than he scores with mainstream fans of Damon. Northrup is a tall, gregarious, raw boned, Texas country boy. It’s a role he relishes in his pubic appearances, and he is obviously not bashful about barnyard humor. But subjecting readers to this kind of detail of an event of questionable relevance is surely ill advised if he wants the anti-fracking movement he represents to be heard outside of the echo chamber.


  1. Interesting tidbit for anyone who may care, "exile" now called "exiled" was started by Matt Taibbi who now writes for Rolling Stone. Taibbi was working in Russia at the time. And in my most humble opinion is awesome. He coined the phrase "Vampire Squid" when referring to Goldman Sacks during Wall Street's salad days of the mid naughts.

    1. Thanks for that back story, Michael. Interesting how the world of journalism is connected.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. When you are faced--as I and so many others are--with the nightmare of large-scale shale gas drilling and fracking, when you have spent countless hours working on this issue for almost five years, and when you are struggling with the very real possibility that if you want to have any sort of reasonably enjoyable and safe future you are probably going to have to move away from your home and rebuild your life in another part of the country, it's just really, really hard to come up with the energy needed to figure out whether you are pro-pie or anti-pie. Personally, I've decided not to take any stand on the pie issue and to save my energy for other things that are much higher on my list of priorities. I will, however, take a moment to express my gratitude to all of those who have been and still are working to keep the public informed about the shale gas issue, and that includes both Tom Wilber and Chip Northrup.

    1. I agree, the pie is something of a distraction to the monumental issues at hand. But I cover to the degree it reflects the tenor of discussion. And thank you for your close involvement and informed comments over the years

    2. Hi Tom--I know you were writing about the pie as a reflection of the tenor of the discussion. Frankly, I think that given just how monumental the issues at hand are, the tenor of the discussion has, for the most part, been remarkably civil.

    3. I agree. From this reporter's perspective, it’s been an impressive and inspiring demonstration of First Amendment rights.

  4. Wow, I hadn't heard of this whole pie issue! I did hear that the movie had to be changed quite significantly partway through though, to remove the references to methane contamination.

    I work for an energy consultancy in the UK and recently wrote an article on whether we might have a shale gas revolution over here in the coming year. Thought your readers might find it interesting as it refers to the US quite a bit, and the differences to the situation over here: http://utilitiessavings.co.uk/2013/01/a-2013-uk-shale-gas-revolution-unlikely/


  5. Tom W.--Still trying to contact you about a possible speaking gig at Thiel College, April 9-11. Bill Bixby

  6. I've been called a "close reader," which means that I have editor's eyes. So, in this post, the glaring misuse of words can't be overlooked. Try "prospective" rather than "perspective," and "bearing" instead of "baring." Your post was otherwise informative, and I certainly got the gist of what you were saying, even with the improper word use.

  7. DZ -- Thanks for those catches. Glad to have your keen eyes on any and all of my work!