FARMINGTON, N.M. -- Oil and gas industry officials are waging a public opinion battle against critical voices coming from Hollywood.
"Promised Land," a Focus Features movie starring Matt Damon, was released Friday. Oil and gas industry officials say its negative portrayal of natural gas drilling misses the mark.
In the film, Damon plays a landman for a fictional oil and gas corporation that moves into an idyllic Pennsylvania farm town. Damon goes door-to-door selling innocent residents on the benefits of leasing their land for drilling.
Along the way, Damon offers a bribe to a local politician, shares beers with the locals and flirts with a high school teacher.
It all comes down to a vote at the high school gym.
The vote scene isn't too far off from reality: Communities from Pittsburgh to Longmont, Colo., have voted to ban hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a controversial industry practice. And development holds out the possibility of higher tax revenues to pay for schools, and millions for individual landowners -- not unlike the pitches heard in oil and gas patches across the country.
For local industry officials, "Promised Land" threatens to have an oversized influence on the debate over fracking, a drilling process they say is critical to producing oil and gas.
"I've never seen Hollywood depict the oil and gas business in a positive light," said Steve Dunn, drilling and production manager at Merrion Oil and Gas Co., a Farmington company.
Dunn said he had never heard of an instance of fracking-related water contamination -- a concern commonly raised by fracking opponents -- in his 40 years in the business.
"The environmental movement has done an excellent job of spreading suspicion and fear in an unwarranted way," he said. "It's an effective tool."
Industry officials say fracking is safe and effective, and concerns raised in Hollywood and elsewhere are overblown. The procedure involves pumping high volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground to break apart rock.
"This is a fictional movie that doesn't factually portray the industry," said Doug Hock, a spokesman for Encana Corp., a Canada-based driller.
Encana has drilled several wells seeking oil in the Mancos Shale, a geologic layer in the San Juan Basin. Like nearly all wells in the basin, Encana's wells are drilled with fracking to increase production.
"Shale has to be fracked," said John Byrom, president and chief executive at D.J. Simmons Inc., a Farmington oil and gas firm. "Without fracking, very few wells could be drilled in the San Juan Basin and in the United States."
In Farmington, which has dozens of wells within city limits, many drilled decades ago, fracking is old news.
"We've been drilling and fracking wells here since the early 1960s," Byrom said. "It just hasn't been an issue here at all."
Mayor Tommy Roberts, an oil and gas attorney, said he had never received a complaint regarding fracking in city limits. He noted many of Farmington's wells were drilled years ago.
Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico energy coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, stopped short of condemning fracking but said more public information is needed.
"There's probably some valid concerns with fracking over the chemicals used, the long-term effects and the fact that the industry doesn't have to comply with some basic environmental regulations" including the Safe Water Drinking Act and portions of the Clean Water Act, Eisenfeld said.
He added, "The claim that it's done safely, that needs to be supported with more data."
"Promised Land" follows on "Gasland," a 2010 HBO documentary that helped spark the fracking debate. An industry-backed documentary, "Spoiled," was in large part a reply to "Gasland."
The Damon film makes few factual claims about fracking, instead weaving a tale of a rapacious company using a small town for profit.
In the end, the film's box office performance may help determine how influential it becomes. On that score, "Promised Land" is off to a slow start, finishing 10th among films last weekend.
"Promised Land" made $4.3 million, averaging a slim $2,573 a theater. It finished far behind the weekend's top film, "Texas Chainsaw 3-D."