“Fracking” movie review

Shane Chaplin    By Shane Chaplin, Senior Engagement Manager at GES

GES doesn’t normally venture into the area of movie reviews, but as the film Promised Land, directed by Gus van Sant, attempts to deal with the one of the big responsible investor issues of our time (hydraulic fracturing for shale oil and gas, aka “fracking”), I thought it was worth giving it a go.

Promised Land is film about two oil company executives whose job it is to buy up shale gas development rights from farmers and landowners in a small US farming community. Matt Damon plays Steve, a likeable young executive who’s got a track record of success convincing locals to part with their land for minimal cash. His company loves him, we’re led to believe, and his success is due to his own genuine small town credentials and his sense of conviction – he genuinely thinks shale gas is good for communities. His work partner Sue (played by an on-song Frances McDormand), is driven not by conviction, but by the need to provide for, and get home ASAP to, her son, who she single parents too much via “social media”. There’s great humorous banter between these two throughout, and the first part of the film sets the scene nicely both in terms of what Steve and Sue’s mission is and the local community characters and concerns. The visuals of the Pennsylvania farms and countryside are terrific. It’s enjoyable, funny and easy to go along with.

But after a good start, the film loses its way somewhat, partly by the introduction of love triangle situation and by the manner in which Steve fails in his mission. The love triangle is just plain unnecessary and definitely “mushes” up what could have been a much more interesting storyline and conclusion. As for Steve’s other stumbling: quite early in the film, Steve and Sue encounter resistance in the form of a solo, way-too-polished, environmental activist named Dustin Noble (believe it or not), and a pensioned engineer, Frank, who knows a fair bit about fracking problems. This geriatric smarty pants succeeds in embarrassing Steve at a town hall meeting, and in my view, Steve, given his prior successes, loses control of the situation and suffers “character-crumple” way too fast – especially in the face of such rickety opposition. Those of us within corporate engagement know that oil company execs usually put up a much better fight than this, and nine out of ten times keep their cool as well. Steve doesn’t. Yet strangely, community disunity, often a reality in fracking towns, was left almost completely unexploited by the writers and directors. Maybe it’s just too sensitive. These flawed elements are included in, or excluded from, the film most likely because of the commercial realities of the Matt Damon brand, rather than because they make any plot-sense.

I would also really have liked to see engineer Frank throw up a Powerpoint or two at the town meeting to help put the movie audience and his co-inhabitants properly in the picture about fracking risks – instead of Dustin’s primary school shocker. Matt Damon failed in his altruism here, but his good guy image ends up being preserved as Steve’s old Ford Bronco predictably, a bit too early, a bit too easily, heads off down the road to Damascus.

For Steve’s change of heart (which let’s face it, we’d all like to see in reality), the humour, and for attempting to raise fracking issues at all, I give Promised Land a score of three out of five. But if you want to see a really restrained and heart-warming film about when big oil comes to town, then rewind to 1983 and check out Local Hero as well.

GES’ extractive sector research and engagement team is following shale oil and gas, and other unconventional hydrocarbon, project developments and has even been approached by a large Swedish corporation seeking advice on how to manage its involvement in US shale operations.

We have also engaged with US operators that employ hydraulic fracturing techniques, and see that there are a range of company practises in existence, from those with minimal care and management systems, through to highly transparent operations which have adequate control over project risks.

Investors therefore need to look carefully at each company and the operational risk management in order to ascertain whether company practises align with investment policies, standards and criteria.

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