The energy industry insiders that didn’t bark

Michael Giberson

Dozens of energy industry insiders have gone missing in recent weeks, in what must be the largest unreported crime wave ever. Or possibly the energy insiders have been silenced by a vast powerful and secret industry cabal, which has compromising photos of the insiders or something like that, which would also be a large unreported crime wave. Somehow many energy insiders have been kept from voicing their opinions by some nefarious means. I don’t know what exactly is going on, but how else do you account for the absolute lack of supporting comments by any of the thousands of experienced geologists, geoscientists, petroleum engineers, and oil and gas analysts who responded to the New York Times article on shale gas skepticism by saying, “I’ve seen some of this data and what the Times reports is true.”

There must be a vast conspiracy. Muckrakers start your engines! I mean, either that or the Times was just wrong.

Maybe I’m taxing your interest by following the story of the New York Times shale gas skepticism into the weeds. I’m fascinated, though, by the way ideas rocket around the public, rebound into politics, and come out in the form of changes in law and regulation. The skeptic articles were pretty weak tea, but because it was the Times they made a big splash.

So where are we now? After the Times public editor posted his analysis critical of the reporting standards exhibited in Urbina’s one-sided stories, the national editors responsible for green lighting the articles issued a harsh reply (which the public editor posted on his blog: “Times Editors Respond to my Shale Gas Column“). A senate committee held a hearing yesterday directed at the EIA’s shale gas estimates; EIA is sticking to it projections.

Meanwhile, shale gas skeptic Art Berman, one of two critics quoted by name in the stories, feels unjustly accused by a few pieces in the backlash to the Times pieces. (See his blog here, specific links below.) One article posted at the Real Clear Science blog speculated without evidence that Berman was scheming to denigrate shale gas to promote coal gasification, and said Berman might have been involved in market manipulation or insider trading surrounding publication of the skeptics article. The RCS post makes a big deal out of some of Berman’s speeches and other public appearances. The allegations directed at Berman are mostly nutty innuendo. Berman complained and the post was revised. (Revised post here; related Berman complaints here and here. HT to Berman, since I wouldn’t have noticed the RCS post but for his vociferous complaint.)

The second critic quoted by name is Deborah Rogers, plumped in the Times story as “a member of the advisory committee of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas” and “former stockbroker with Merrill Lynch” and derided in some of the backlash writers as a mere “goat farmer.” The RCS post reports Rogers has “been fighting the natural gas industry – and Chesapeake Energy in particular – tooth and nail for years.” Environmental group Earthworks summarized Roger’s background with natural gas, suggesting she became interested after Chesapeake began drilling near her property in April 2010. If correct, then hardly “fighting … tooth and nail for years,” but probably a material fact that should have been mentioned in the Times piece which cites her as an expert. (Here is a link to a presentation Rogers gave at the Earthworks 2010 People’s Oil and Gas Industry Summit held in Pittsburgh. I’ll only observe that she hides her financial expertise well.)

The other ‘backlash’ effort worthy of Berman’s complaint was a fascinating analysis presented by Ken Boehm of the National Legal and Policy Center in the form of a letter to the New York Times, subsequently posted on the NLPC website. (Another HT to Berman! See his responses to the NLPC here and here and here.) Boehm, or someone working with him, carefully picked through the email contents and spent a great deal of time staring at the little black boxes used to redact the identities in the email trove posted by the Times. He concludes that many of the emails were either sent or received by Berman. Since Berman is quoted by name in the article and prominently associated with the skeptic point of view, Boehm concludes he cannot really be a confidential source and that the reason reason the Times hid Berman’s name was to mislead readers. Berman could easily clear up this particular issue by indicating which of the emails that the Times has posted were to or from him.

Boehm also complains that the Times article doesn’t explain that Berman has been the most prominent supporter of the shale gas bubble idea and makes some money from speaking and consulting on the idea. But the article does call Berman “one of the most vocal skeptics of shale gas economics,” and, frankly, speaking and consulting on his views about shale gas economics is exactly what an experienced industry consultant like Berman should be doing. Berman may be absolutely wrong about shale gas economics, but he is out there very prominently staking his business and reputation on his beliefs. That he gets paid for his geology and energy industry expertise? – that’s pretty normal for an energy industry consultant.

How should we sort all of this out? The initial Times article was shoddy work. No matter how many background interviews were done, no matter how much well data was examined, the piece was written to convey the false impression that there is a widespread, growing view that the shale gas boom is some sort of Enron-Ponzi scheme-shell game hoax being played by a handful of natural gas developers on the rest of the industry. As a result of this story, I predict that for a year or two we’ll be hearing anti-gas industry activists claiming “it’s just an Enron bubble anyway” as an excuse to stop development. Urbina and his editors ought to go back to journalism school; as a public service the Times should publish a story that allows readers to better understand shale gas skepticism.

Berman can contribute his own bit of public service by claiming the emails sent to or from him among the emails the New York Times relied upon in the piece. I don’t say he as an ethical obligation to do it – it was the Times shoddy journalism practices that presented them publicly in their redacted form – but he could help advance public understanding of shale gas supply by doing so, and that is something he reportedly would like to advance.

Meanwhile, I still don’t see any outpouring of support for the story from like-minded skeptics. After Berman’s years of hard work on the issue, is he still essentially the only person with a credible industry background willing to publicly declare his skepticism? Some anti-gas development activists have lauded the Times, but only because it provided them another bit of ammunition in their local political battles. Has anyone knowledgeable about oil and gas resource development came out in public agreement with the stories published in the Times? Not to my knowledge.

Where are all of these skeptical insiders the Times writes of?

Quote of the day: Hayek on expediency and freedom

Lynne Kiesling

Pace Don Boudreaux for my shamelessly copying his “quote of the day” meme … my quote of the day is this striking one from Hayek’s essay “Principles or Expediency” (1971):

From the insight that the benefits of civilization rest on the use of more knowledge than can be used in any deliberately concerted effort, it follows that it is not in our power to build a desirable society by simply putting together the particular elements that by themselves appear desirable. Though probably all beneficial improvements must be piecemeal, if the separate steps are not guided by a body of coherent principles, the outcome is likely to be a suppression of individual freedom.

The reason for this is very simple though not generally understood. Since the value of freedom rests on the opportunities it provides for unforeseen and unpredictable actions, we will rarely know what we lose through a particular restriction of freedom. Any such restriction, any coercion other than the enforcement of general rules, will aim at the achievement of some foreseeable particular result, but what is prevented by it will usually not be known. The indirect effects of any interference with the market order will be near and clearly visible in most cases, while the more indirect and remote effects will mostly be unknown and will therefore be disregarded. We shall never be aware of all the costs of achieving particular results by such interference.

And so, when we decide each issue solely on what appears to be its individual merits, we always overestimate the advantages of central direction. Our choice will regularly appear to be one between a certain known and tangible gain and the mere probability of the prevention of some unknown beneficial action by unknown persons.

Certainly captures some themes we’ve been exploring around here lately.