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‘Promised Land’ fuels fracking controversy

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 07: Anti Fracking protesters demonstrate in front of the Waldorf Astoria as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo visits the hotel for a function on January 7, 2013 in New York City. Fracking, a process that injects millions of gallons of chemical mixed water into a well in order to release gas, has become a contentious issue in New York as critics of the process believe it contaminates drinking water among other hazards. New York City gets much of its drinking water from upstate reservoirs. If the regulations are approved by Governor Cuomo, drilling in the upstate New York Marcellus Shale could later this year. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

"We're a $9 billion company. Do you know what we're capable of?" asks Matt Damon's character in the trailer of his latest Hollywood flick Promised Land. His nemesis replies, "Do you?" in an exchange that nicely captures the essence of the controversy over hydraulic fracturing.

Whether you've seen it or not, the movie keeps the debate about the practice, also known as fracking, firmly in the spotlight.

"It's always good to have Hollywood movies raise issues for public debate," says Emma Lui, water campaigner for the Council of Canadians, which is calling for a country-wide ban on fracking.

Like Josh Fox's 2010 Gasland, which was critical about the natural gas industry and stirred emotions with scenes of citizens lighting tap water on fire, Promised Land uses similar imagery to stoke emotions. In this case, a character lights a miniature model of a farm on fire.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times said the movie "admirably tries to represent both sides of the fracking debate, even though its allegiance is clearly to the antifracking position."

The energy industry has responded. The Marcellus Shale Coalition bought ads to run ahead of the film in theatres across Pennsylvania pointing viewers to a website where they can find facts and conversation about natural gas development.

Energy in Depth, a resource portal launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of American, has launched a website titled “The Real Promised Land."

"People being concerned about their water and air and anything else under environmental issues is important," said Aaron Miller, manager of natural gas, at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. But he stressed Promised Land is a Hollywood movie.

"It's fictional and it's entertainment," he said. "It's like any entertainment form. You take it with a grain of salt."

What is fracking anyway?

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a way of harvesting natural gas that's trapped in shale rock or other rock formations. The practice involves drilling down into the ground vertically and horizontally and using sand, water and chemicals at very high pressures to fracture the rock. When it is fractured the natural gas is released and flows up the well.

Why is fracking so controversial?

The debate remains heated over the safety of fracking. On one hand, industry argues hydraulic fracturing is safe and the practice has been used for decades. "We've been doing it in western Canada for over 60 years. We've safely, hydraulically fractured about 175,000 wells here in B.C. and Alberta without any incidence of impact to drinking water. That's coming straight from the provincial regulators," says CAPP's Miller.

On the other, some groups are concerned that the old practice being used on so-called "unconventional" sources such shale gas, coal bed methane and tight gas, is relatively new. In this respect, there are unknowns around the long-term impacts of the practice, centering on water and air quality, says Lui, who also notes companies are not required by law to disclose the chemicals they use in the fracking process.

Why is water a hot topic with fracking?

A lot of water is used in fracking: surface water used during drilling; water pumped into tight and shale gas formations for reservoir stimulation; water produced from reservoirs where it is naturally occurring but not drinkable; and the penetration of ground water aquifers by wells drilled for natural gas production, says CAPP. In every case, drinking water is protected and water is recycled for use again wherever possible, it adds. Still, there are concerns about the high usage of water, the potential contamination of water, as well as the recycling of waste water.