More internal review of the NYT shale gas skepticism articles, more dishonest journalism discovered

Michael Giberson

While I was vacationing in New Mexico and Arizona, New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane continued his analysis of the pair of late June articles in the newspaper that suggested widespread insider skepticism over the size and significance of recent shale gas developments. A June 26 story suggested the presence of significant skepticism within the gas industry and a June 27 story suggested an active internal debate among officials at the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Both stories relied heavily on highly-selective anonymous comments taken from emails that had names and much other identifying information redacted. Both stories have been discredited by subsequent revelations.

See Brisbane’s review of the June 26 story here, and my comments on the episode here: “The energy industry insiders that didn’t bark.”

Brisbane’s article on the June 27 story begins with a disclosure by the EIA that the emails quoted in the story were “largely to and from a person who was hired by E.I.A. in 2009 as an intern and later developed into an entry-level position.” Nowhere in the June 27 story does it mention that some of the quotes presented as examples of EIA skepticism were by an intern or newly-hired college graduate. Instead, in the article the intern/entry-level employee was referred to variously as “one official” at the EIA, as an “energy analyst,” and finally as “one federal analyst.” Brisbane finds the presentation to be sloppy and misleading.

If the emails to and from the intern/new employee are eliminated, what remains in the story is some concern over the lack of independent EIA expertise on some petroleum geology topics and some probably healthy skepticism of early industry claims of a vast and newly-accessible gas resource.

In my view, by using multiple descriptors to mask the identity of a single emailer, then redacting any mention of internship or entry-level employment status in the original supporting documents presented with the story, the reporter of the June 27 article intentionally sought to mislead Times readers concerning the nature of internal debate at the EIA. It is just more dishonest journalism by reporter Ian Urbina. (Brisbane somewhat-more-mildly concluded that the story exhibited “some of the classic problems associated with anonymous sourcing” in journalism.)

RELATED:

The Times posted the unredacted emails, once they had been released publicly by the EIA, so readers are now in a better position to judge for themselves whether or not the emails constitute serious internal dissension at the agency.

Gas-industry website Energy In Depth – which has been quite critical of the Times natural gas reporting – seized upon the revelations with unsurprising glee. Their commentary noted that a key EIA official cited in the June 27 story was just an intern, and then drills deeper into the unredacted email to discover that the intern exchanged a number of emails on shale with the Natural Resources Defense Council and attempted to feature the NRDC’s shale gas criticisms on an EIA website on shale gas.

 

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?

NYT editor on shale gas skeptic article: we should have done better

Michael Giberson

As mentioned here a few weeks ago, links below, the pair of New York Times articles giving voice to shale gas skeptics were badly done. (I called them no more than “an impressive collection of shale skeptic sound bites.”) I was far from the only critic, and the paper itself received a lot of complaints. The Times‘s reader ombudsman investigated and has published an assessment: “Clashing Views on the Future of Natural Gas.”

The report included a somewhat amusing interchange between the ombudsman, the reporter and the editor for the story (links are in the original, bolding added for emphasis):

I also asked why The Times didn’t include input from the energy giants, like Exxon Mobil,that have invested billions in natural gas recently. If shale gas is a Ponzi scheme, I wondered, why would the nation’s energy leader jump in?

Mr. Urbina and Adam Bryant, a deputy national editor, said the focus was not on the major companies but on the “independents” that focus on shale gas, because these firms have been the most vocal boosters of shale gas, have benefited most from federal rules changes regarding reserves and are most vulnerable to sharp financial swings. The independents, in industry parlance, are a diverse group that are smaller than major companies like Exxon Mobil and don’t operate major-brand gas stations.

This was lost on many readers, including meMichael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that the article “repeatedly confuses the fortunes of various risk-hungry independents with the fortunes of the industry as a whole.”

He told me he hadn’t realized that the report was focused on independents and read it more broadly, adding, “If I didn’t know they were talking about certain independents, then Times readers — who don’t know what an independent is — they aren’t going to know what they are talking about either.”

This confusion stems from the language in the article, which near the top referred to “natural gas companies” and “energy companies.” The term “independent” appeared only once, inside a quoted e-mail.

LINKS

The stories: “Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush,” the focus of the discussion above, and from the next day, “Behind Veneer, Doubt on Future of Natural Gas.”

Notable among objectors to the NYT’s articles was the panel that put together the MIT study on The Future of Natural Gas, released about two weeks before the newspaper stories.

The Council on Foreign Relation’s Michael Levi, quoted in the excerpt above, has an article in The New Republic on the natural gas fracking industry’s public perception problems.

My posts in response to the articles, which include links to some of the other reactions:

 

New York regulators take steps toward allowing fracking for natural gas production

Michael Giberson

Today the New York Department of Environmental Conservation took a few steps toward permitting fracking of natural gas wells, a process necessary to produce natural gas from underground shale formations. Regulatory processes being as they are, it likely means fracking will remain off-limits in the state for some time.

News reports include favorable reactions from both industry-group Energy in Depth and an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which seems like a sure indication that something is wrong. ;-)

Additional reactions to the New York Times articles documenting shale gas skepticism; More on fracking

Michael Giberson

As a follow-on to my post on the recent New York Times articles on shale gas skepticism, here’s a collection of other reactions:

  1. The most thoughtful response appears to come from Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations, Is Shale Gas a Ponzi Scheme?: “The New York Times’ war on shale gas continues with two more big stories by Ian Urbina. … Both articles are based primarily on piles of emails, the first from industry sources and the second from EIA staff. I hate to say it, but on the whole, both pieces are of pretty poor quality. That’s a shame, because both – particularly the first one – had the potential to raise some important issues for debate.” Levi continues, “I’m going to focus on the Sunday story here, because it’s much more interesting, and because some of its sources raise some genuinely important issues…. In contrast, today’s story is mostly a mix of some frustrated EIA analysts’ complaints and some healthy internal EIA debate taken wildly out of context.”  Levi’s commentary continues with a cogent and somewhat damning analysis of the Times article. Worth reading the whole thing.
  2. Also thoughtful is Michael Lynch posting at MasterResource: “Two specific issues raised in the article are important: the profitability of shale gas wells and their long-term production profiles.” But also, “A careful reading of the articles, however, suggests that it is more smoke than fire.” The post includes addition examination of the relevant issues. The remaining items are not as good as these first two, but for more reactions read on!
  3. Dallas Morning News editorial: “This newspaper isn’t ready to give up on the enormous promise of ‘abundant, clean and cheap’ that natural gas may hold for America’s energy future. Still, a disturbing pattern of unfulfilled claims justifies the public’s increased skepticism.”
  4. Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s Barnett Shale Blog: “Chesapeake Energy and its high-profile CEO Aubrey McClendon issued a blistering response to a Sunday New York Times article …. Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., citing a related Times article published Monday, said he wants the U.S. Energy Information Administration to justify ‘optimistic estimates’ for shale-gas production. The Star-Telegram published versions of both articles.”
  5. Chesapeake Energy’s statement: the aforementioned “blistering response.”
  6. Grist writer David Roberts: “If the WSJ editorial board says it, it’s probably wrong.” Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon’s response to the NYT stories, “… is chock full of logically flawed arguments and right-wing talking points. Indeed, it sounds like it could have been written by the WSJ editorial board!” (HT to Roberts for mentioning the great Levi commentary noted above.)
  7. MarketNewsVideo.com reported that some of the companies mentioned in the articles were trading lower on Monday, but the effect appears small. Not mentioned by MarketNewsVideo.com was that some companies mentioned in the articles outperformed the market on Monday. I’d say no real market effect.
  8. The blogger at Early Warning speculates on the two-headed editorial sensibilities at the New York Times, sometimes publishing cheery resource reports that seem to reflect oil company PR claimes and other times publishing highly critical analyses.
  9. At FuturePundit, Randall Parker wonders whether the electric power industry and transportation policies may get burned by big investments predicated on the shale gas boom story, if it turns out the skeptics are right.

[ADDED: At FuelFix, Tom Fowler collects other reactions to the NYT articles, including a sharp blast from John Hanger, a former Pennsylvania regulator.]

While I’m at it, there have been a spate of other fracking related pieces lately, including:

  1. Wall Street Journal, The Facts About Fracking: “The U.S. is in the midst of an energy revolution, and we don’t mean solar panels or wind turbines. A new gusher of natural gas from shale has the potential to transform U.S. energy production—that is, unless politicians, greens and the industry mess it up.”
  2. Kathleen White in the National Review, The Fracus About Fracking (link goes to a summary, full article req. subscription at NR, NR link here): “Human ingenuity, catalyzed by market dynamics, has foiled predictions of irreversible decline in domestic oil and natural-gas resources. Official estimates of the amount of recoverable oil and natural gas have soared.”
  3. The Economist, Fracking Heaven: Other Europeans fear fracking, Poland is steaming ahead: “The rewards could be vast. Shale gas could free the country from its dependence on coal, a dirtier fuel, which currently accounts for 95% of Polish power generation. It could also mean that Poland no longer has to rely on Russia, the neighbourhood bully, for most of its natural gas.”
  4. At the Huffington Post, Kevis Begos reports Sportsmen Alliance for Marcellus Conservation: Fisherman, Hunters Take on Fracking: “A new coalition of outdoors groups is emerging as a potent force in the debate over natural gas drilling. The Sportsmen Alliance for Marcellus Conservation isn’t against the process of fracking for gas, but its members want to make sure the rush to cash in on the valuable resource doesn’t damage streams, forests, and the various creatures that call those places home.”
  5. And for something different, at Cycles, Trends, & Vibrations Mike Aucott offers a preliminary but well documented estimate of the shale gas energy return on energy invested (EROEI) along with a discussion of related issues. The EROEI he comes up with, in the range of 70 – 100, seems shockingly high.

Recommended in the comments: Ten Fracking Things Everyone Should Know

Michael Giberson

Commenter “Fat Man” recommends Peter C. Glover’s essay in the Energy Tribune: “Ten Fracking Things Everyone Should Know.”  Number one on the list of things to know is “Hydraulic fracking has been around for 60 years. Developments made by U.S. engineers around 2008-9 have simply made the process much more commercially viable.”

Relatedly, Greg Rehmke considers some implications of the oil production boom from the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas at Master Resource.

Science, law, and regulation of fracking for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale

Michael Giberson

The current issue of the Energy Law Journal includes an article examining the public policy history surrounding the use of hydraulic fracturing to develop natural gas in Pennsylvania and New York. The article, “Science and the Reasonable Development of Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Resources in Pennsylvania and New York,” is by attorneys Lynn Kerr McKay, Ralph H. Johnson and Laurie Alberts Salita.

SYNOPSIS: A fair amount of controversy concerning the development of natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale formation has accompanied the return of significant oil and gas exploration and production to Pennsylvania. One need only look at the news headlines and legislative and regulatory dockets to appreciate the diversity of issues and positions on those issues related to the Marcellus Shale region. A growing number of lawsuits and media reports give the impression that Marcellus Shale drilling and production operations – especially the process known as hydraulic fracturing – are indisputably harmful to both the environment and to those who live in the vicinity of the wells. Lawmakers and regulators have introduced myriad measures imposing additional oversight and operational requirements on Marcellus Shale producers. The economic, environmental, and human impact of such measures will be significant – which is exactly why unbiased and informed scientific evaluation of the potential link between Marcellus Shale production activities and environmental and health concerns is essential to appropriate judicial and regulatory decisions. The success of efforts to explore and develop Marcellus Shale natural gas resources requires continued critical and scientific evaluation of information concerning all aspects of the enterprise.

Also in the current ELJ, “Shale Gas in Poland – The Legal Framework for Granting Concessions for Prospecting and Exploration of Hydrocarbons, by Wojciech Bagiński.