The tension between private property rights, individual benefits and community well-being is a familiar one to the business community. That tension encompasses a wide range of issues from zoning, nuisance laws and public health regulations to historic preservation. That’s the background for the new Promised Land movie starring Matt Damon and Josh Krasinski. While exploring broader themes about community identity, the narrative thread follows the drama that can erupt when the natural gas drilling method called fracking alters the civic landscape in an economically fragile town.
Damon and Krasinski, who co-wrote the screenplay, have struck a nerve even before the film’s release. The drilling industry has been gearing up a response to public health issues raised in the film and at least one citizens’ group, Frackfree America, has used it as a rallying cry for local control over drilling decisions.
Fracking in America
Fracking is not a new phenomenon. It refers to a drilling method that involves shooting a chemical laced fluid deep underground where it fractures rock, releasing natural gas reserves. Fracking has been in widespread use for many years in the U.S., but primarily in remote, thinly populated areas. There is anecdotal evidence that fracking can contaminate local water supplies, as depicted in the Josh Fox documentary Gasland, but regulatory loopholes have made it extremely difficult for federal agencies to gather the evidence needed to verify the connection.
What has changed, recently, is the expansion of fracking into high-population areas in the Marcellus shale region, including New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Now that those who have been directly impacted by fracking are no longer an isolated few, organized resistance has been mounting. However, compared to the high profile of anti-Keystone XL Pipeline efforts, for the most part fracking is still flying well under the radar as a national public health issue, and in general America’s natural gas boom is looked upon as an overwhelmingly good thing.
Organizations like Frackfree America are hoping that thanks to the star power of Damon and Krasinski along with director Gus Van Sant, Promised Land could propel fracking out of the shadows and spotlight it as an issue for national action.
Frackfree America has planned a “March to the Promised Land” rally timed for the release of the film today, December 28, in Youngstown, Ohio, a city that has experienced earthquakes linked to fracking waste disposal wells.
The organization makes the case that fracking is a national issue in terms of its broad implications for the role of local control in a democratic society, referencing a key plot point in the movie when the townspeople decide to vote on the issue:
“Nationwide, similar scenarios are playing out in real life where towns and cities assert their right to local control in determining how they want their communities to be. For many, that means preventing drilling rigs, fracking waste injection wells, or other gas and oil infrastructure from being placed near homes, children’s schools, under cemeteries, parks, or national forests – or anywhere.
Fracking and Property Rights
While the drilling industry preps its response, it’s helpful to keep in mind that this whole issue applies, at least in a very general way, to any significant new economic activity in a community. That could include, for example, a new geothermal facility, a wind farm or, for that matter, a mountaintop coal mining operation.
The basic issue is if members of a community collectively have the right to determine their future, even if it means blocking some individuals from realizing a significant gain from their private property.
In some ways, that issue has already been settled through the longstanding practice of zoning and other land use regulations.
Until now, the drilling industry has had plenty of opportunity to get around these obstacles. Whether that continues into the future remains to be seen.
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