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Promised Land Brings Fracking to the Big Screen, but Offers Little Insight

The new movie is short on details. Here are the key environmental issues with fracking, and how to deal with them.
January 4, 2013

Matt Damon’s Promised Land is a movie ostensibly about fracking and shale gas, but it has little that’s helpful to say about the real issues involved—other than hinting that the subject is complicated.

The movie is about a man struggling to be good and successful, weighing the demands of his career with his need to do what is right and to be accepted by his community (and a pretty teacher named Alice). It’s also, secondarily, about a community struggling to take care of itself in a difficult economy, while still holding onto its pride and taking care of its land.

But the economic issues are never vivid. Everyone seems well-fed, well-housed. The town is clean, neat, picturesque and recently painted. Local townspeople seem to be successfully addressing the economic crisis by selling freshly squeezed lemonade for 25 cents a cup and raising miniature horses.

And the environmental issues are fuzzy. It’s never made clear what, if any, of the possible hazards of fracking that get brought up are real. And fracking itself is something that happens off the screen—we never see a fracking operation, a drilling rig, or lines of trucks bringing loads of water needed for the process (for a view of what it looks like, see “Drilling for Shale Gas”).

Indeed, that lack of clarity forms one of the strongest themes of the movie. The community needs good information—about the value of its land and resources, about the dangers of fracking—but that information is hard to come by. The only advice given for learning about fracking—advice that is repeated several times—is to “Google it.”

The fact is that there are several environmental issues with fracking, although not necessarily the ones evoked by burning farms, or the exploding kitchen sinks seen in Gasland (see “Can Fracking Be Cleaned Up?” and “Cleaning up Fracking with Ozone”).

Fracking involves drilling a large number of wells—in some cases 10 times as many as in conventional natural gas drilling—and then fracturing shale deposits deep underground with high pressure water that’s been treated with various chemicals to help improve the fracturing process and prevent fouling of the equipment. The fracturing releases the natural gas that’s bound up in many shale deposits.

Because so many wells are needed, there’s a relatively high density of diesel generators running, along with many trucks hauling equipment throughout an area. This can be noisy and cause local air pollution. The fracking process itself can release harmful volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere. When the chemicals for fracking are pumped underground, they’re very dilute. But they’re brought to the fracking site in concentrated form, so there’s a danger of chemical spills that could contaminate water supplies.

On a less local level, there’s the issue of methane emissions from the process, which aren’t well-quantified—methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. There’s also a danger that methane will leak from wells into local water supplies, although it’s also true that some reports of methane in water stem from natural leaks or other man-made sources of methane. And then there’s the issue of the sheer volume of water used by fracking, which can be a problem for local water supplies and a strain on water treatment facilities. Some of the wastewater from fracking is pumped deep underground, and this process has been linked to earthquakes—as has the process of fracking itself in some cases (see “Studies Link Earthquakes to Wastewater from Fracking”).

So air, noise, and water pollution—and earthquakes—are all possible impacts of fracking. But the risk of these problems can be decreased by following good procedures and using the latest technology. Water treatment on site can also allow natural gas producers to recycle much of the water they use, and eliminate the need to truck large amounts of chemicals to a site. They can build containment ponds for wastewater with sensors that detect any leaks. And they can run some equipment on natural gas, which is cleaner than diesel. Furthermore, earthquakes can be minimized by carefully choosing drilling and wastewater injection sites. If producers in an area coöperate, they can reduce the amount of traffic and further limit water consumption. And the issue of exploding sinks can be dealt with by doing a good job cementing wells.

If local communities, like the one in Promised Land, are better informed about these issues, they’ll be in a better position to make sure that natural gas companies take measures that will limit the environmental and social impact of fracking.

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