Appalachian Basin

Reflections as Promised Land Viewings Come to a Close

Attorney Chris Denton reflects on the film Promised Land based on his interactions with the real landowners of New York and Pennsylvania.

*Editor’s note: Promised Land has slowly been declining in popularity as it enters its 5th week in theaters. Box Office Mojo has yet to put up this past weekend’s stats, but as of last weekend the film was dropped from over 1,600 theaters in its opening week to just over 100.

Having spent many of my youthful summers working on farms in upstate New York and having represented farmers and landowners on oil and gas issues for over 14 years,  and being an unrepentant movie buff, especially of Matt Damon in his Jason Bourne incarnation, it was with genuine anticipation that I paid my $10.00 to watch Matt’s latest movie “Promised Land.”   Knowing Matt’s film prowess,  I was surprised to see what he got right and what he got wrong.  Here is what I saw.

What Promised Land got wrong:

From Houston Business Journal, August 2011, Four Houston women define what it means to be a landman. Landmen (left to right) Karen Schnell of Petrohawk Energy, Lauren Williams of El Paso Corp., Shandy Robl of NFR Energy and Carol Sledge of Swift Energy.

1. Landmen: What does a real landman look like and do? They never arrive in buses. They drive their modern, current model, pick-up trucks all the way from Texas, Oklahoma or West Virginia. They can talk a beaver out of his pelt. They know that they know their business and that you don’t. The good ones can read a person’s personality within 60 seconds of their introduction. They dress here the way they dress at home, except warmer in the winter. Most speak in a drawl and most are polite to a fault. Good ones are solid people who know their business. Like every profession the bad ones stand out like a swollen thumb and are just as painful to deal with after they have left. Most are subcontractors and will never see the landowner again once the lease is signed. They are not Steve and Sue of Promised Land.

2. Landowners: Landowners have learned, most of them, to not sign anything brought to their door by a stranger. They actually call attorneys to assist them, and many attorneys will reject any lease that they conclude does not protect their clients and they will explain the ramifications of the leases, economic and environmental. Towns don’t hold meetings to decide if they are going to lease. Landowner coalitions hold meetings. The towns don’t own the land, the landowners do.

Without coalitions, leases are negotiated one household at a time, to the general disadvantage of the landowners. However, if the landowners band together as they did in Northeastern Pennsylvania and in the Southern Tier of New York, then the leases included not only better economic terms for landowners, but better environmental terms. Yes, environmental terms. It is landowner coalition leases that demanded full disclosure of all chemicals used on site, base line testing of water before, during and after drilling and completion, closed loop drilling, re-cycling of water, storm water runoff plans, spill management plans, no open pits, well site screening, advanced restoration and reclamation plans, bonding and insurance, best industry practices, and no on-site disposal of waste or drill cuttings.

Nowhere in the movie is there a single mention of attorneys for the landowners or organizing of the landowner groups who have worked so hard to protect the environment and the economics of the landowners’ land and resources.

3. Environmentalists: No company uses fake environmentalists. They don’t need to. The environmental movement, which was originally built on science, has lately, in its worst manifestations (thank your deity or your lucky stars, a small minority) begun to embrace a kind of magical thinking.  A small but very vocal and activist minority (a sort of environmental version of the tea party) has the rest of the environmental community running in circles, abandoning reason for political ideology.

The main stream environmental movement, as a consequence, is so bipolar and schizophrenic about natural gas that one could produce an entire movie about how the environmental movement has begun to drift towards nihilism.  The current radicalization of the environmental movement risks creating a parody of the once respected scientific discipline of ecology.  Has anyone asked where have all the conservationists gone?

4. Town officials: Town officials are not routinely offered nor do they routinely accept bribes. They are local members of the community who are elected to public offices, which offices most people do not want because it is a thankless job, of little remuneration, assumes everyone else’s headaches, and often requires the officials to learn on the job at their own expense in time and effort, without additional compensation for it.   They are not urban sinecures.

5. Rural Folks: Guns, gas, guitars and etc.   Rural people are just as complex as urbanites, they just tend not to wear it on their collective sleeves.  Rural people actually understand that land is what we live from, not just on, and that land has to produce food for 300,000,000 people to survive. They know that meat comes from live animals and that fruits and vegetables have to be planted, cultivated, and harvested, with one eye on the weather every day, while urbanites only worry about the weather when a big storm is finally coming to blow away or wash away all those buildings built in flood plains, or on environmentally fragile sand barrier islands which every environmentalist, at all other times, would demand to be development free.

6. The existence of natural gas in ground water: In the Southern Tier of New York and in the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania the locals have known from the beginning of Native American history that there are oil and gas seeps in rocks, streams and wells from the sedimentary rock in the region. The stories of the seeps are fascinating. (The USGS has a recent report on it in New York.)  Even the girl scouts cooked their camping food from ignited gas naturally flowing out of the ground. The first commercial oil production in Pennsylvania was gathered by towels which soaked up oil flowing from natural oil seeps in the ground. (see Yergin’s The Prize)

What Promised Land got right:

1. Lure of Easy Money:  “It’s the lure of easy money, it’s got a very strong appeal, Perhaps you’d understand it better standing in my shoes” (Eagles, Smuggler’s Blues) In the landowner groups they call it the ‘Flashbulb Effect’, because everyone has a money point where they stop reading the company lease, sign it, take the money, and pray that things will work out. Here, the movie was right as 60 % of the landowners in the movie had taken the company lease without protections or legal advice, all because the Lure of Easy Money.

2. Free Trade: Yes, free trade. Cheap overseas food and cheap overseas labor have cost rural America its local plants and its local farming economies. Of course natural gas is popular with this part of the rural population who must earn a living where they live, as opposed to an urbanite who buys the cheap goods and cheap food, and then buys up the now cheap farmland from insolvent farmers for a ‘country estate’, to flee their congested urban world and its near total lack of connections with its historic ecology.

3. It’s All Political:  Yes, sadly, the topic of natural gas development has been made political.

4.  The Star Gets the Girl:  Matt Damon (Jason Bourne) always gets the girl, not the creepy guy from “The Office”.


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