by Karen Boman, Senior Editor
The Bakken oil boom – which turned North Dakota into an energy powerhouse and helped stir up plenty of drama between the United States and OPEC member companies over oil production – is now being given the Hollywood soap opera treatment on television this fall.
From TV shows such as Dallas to movies such as The Promised Land, the oil and gas industry has either been portrayed through over-the-top soap opera antics or films filled with what the industry says are inaccuracies that show it in a negative light. While the reboot of the soap opera Dallas failed to find a large audience, the original show enjoyed a run of over a decade. The show featured typical soap opera story lines – including people returning from the dead like Bobby Ewing – and the famous shooting in 1980 of J.R. Ewing.
The oil and gas industry has been the subject of movies for a number of years, but the controversy triggered by the hydraulic fracturing boom caught the attention of Hollywood. The result: the 2012 Gus Van Sant film The Promised Land. The film, in which Matt Damon played a landman seeking drilling rights from private land owners in Pennsylvania – was criticized not only by the oil and gas industry for its portrayal of hydraulic fracturing, but opponents of hydraulic fracturing for failing to scare American audiences off hydraulic fracturing for good. The 2013 documentaries Gasland and FrackNation also explored both sides of the hydraulic fracturing issue.
Some attempts have or are being made to either show the oil and gas industry in a more positive or a more accurate light. Last month, Hollywood trade journal Variety reported that William Divine, a veteran oil industry executive, has launched a production company with the aim of portraying the oil and gas industry in a positive light. The production company, a subsidiary of Divine Discoveries International, is working on a documentary in which William Divine travels to several Third World countries to try and provide them with low-cost energy. Divine has 30 years of experience in oil and gas, including his role assisting in studies on the commercial potential of upstream projects.
In recent years, other documentaries highlighting the benefits of the industry’s work have been released. In 2012, The Grand Energy Transition: Natural Gas – The Bridge Fuel to Our Sustainable Future, was released. Based on a book by the same name by Robert A. Hefner III, CEO of The GHK Companies, the documentary outlines Hefner’s vision for U.S. energy policy, one in which natural gas is the only realistic and scalable alternative for energy to grow the U.S. economy and reduce U.S. independence on foreign oil.
Another documentary, spOILed, highlighted how oil impacts every aspect of daily life today, and the deception of the general public by various interest groups about the reality of oil. Filmmaker Mark Mathis told Rigzone in a 2012 interview that the distribution process for a documentary film is difficult to begin with, but films that don’t tout a liberal ideology face limited opportunities at film festivals. Not finding funding on the film circuit, Mathis decided to promote the film by taking it directly to the public, playing the film in one U.S. city at a time.
I have to admit, I’ve only seen the previews for Blood and Oil (and given that it looks too soapy for my taste, I doubt I’ll watch). But from what I’ve seen, it’s safe to say that we won’t see any new ground broken with the series in terms of accuracy of industry operations or perception. I don’t know if we’ll see a character as memorable as J.R. Ewing emerge on Blood and Oil, but I suspect we’ll see characters reflecting some of the stereotypical plots we’ve seen in both oil and gas and in soap operas, such as sex, murder, love triangles, and long-lost twins that suddenly arrive in town (and look suspiciously similar to a character that was just killed off).
Being a veteran energy journalist, I am well aware of and understand the point of view of the oil and gas industry wanting the environmental effects of activities like hydraulic fracturing accurately reported. I definitely think there is a need for documentaries that accurately reflect the realities of how oil and gas industry operates, and not only documentaries that eschew liberal ideologies, as filmmaker Mathis said. Whether we like it or not, the media has a huge influence on society, shaping our thoughts. Social media in particular can fan the flames behind an inaccurate story, such as the hack of the New York Post and United Press International’s Twitter accounts in January. After these accounts were hacked, they were used to disseminate false reports that the Chinese military had fired on a Navy aircraft carrier in the Pacific.
This doesn’t mean the industry should be sugar-coated or its shortcomings and failings be swept under the rug. Safety definitely is a valid concern, and the negative impact of industry on the environment and local communities, a growing concern since the 1960s, cannot be ignored. For better or for worse, the industry is associated with incidents such as Deepwater Horizon and characters such as J.R. Ewing, or what could be considered the stereotypical Texas oilman. In 2010, former Royal Dutch Shell plc CEO John Hofmeister noted that oil companies are a target of hate by the U.S. public because the U.S. government has taught its public to do so. But he also said oil companies aren’t blameless, saying their choosing of sides and maintaining a wall of silence has hurt them.
At the same time, I understand that Hollywood is in the business of telling stories, and oil and gas is not the only industry that the entertainment industry has taken liberties with to make a movie. I get it – accurate doesn’t necessarily translate into excitement. People go to the movies and watch TV to escape for a little while. To paraphrase my late grandmother, people don’t watch TV to watch common people (and even reality TV today isn’t really reality – it’s scripted to spice things up as needed). They want to be entertained, and to see people do and say things that you couldn’t get away with in real life. That’s the appeal of characters like J.R. Ewing and his wealthy oil family. And films are full of stunts and other things that are impossible in real life, yet we’re willing to suspend our knowledge of real life for two hours of thrills.
The oil and gas industry has and will likely remain the setting for films, including There Will Be Blood, The Abyss, Syriana, Giant, Armageddon and the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough. The portrayal of the oil and gas industry and the people in it range from ruthless (such as in There Will Be Blood) to heroic (as in Armageddon, in which a team of offshore oil and gas drillers travels to space to destroy a meteor before the meteor destroys Earth).
To sum up, it’s a definite possibility that we might see more shows like Blood and Oil in the future. Even the current downturn in oil prices could provide great story material, Reuters reported. I do think that documentaries and other efforts by industry to show the benefits of the industry’s work – and efforts to reduce its environmental footprint and enhance safety – can help change public opinion. Who knows, maybe in time we’ll see more movies where the protagonist is someone from the oil and gas industry (but maybe I’m being too much of an optimist).
In short, there’s nothing wrong with escaping from reality for a couple of hours at the movies or an evening soap drama. But it’s important to be able to distinguish what’s real and what’s not. Continuing to show the oil and gas industry in an accurate light can help us distinguish between fiction and reality.