The New York Times blunders into advocacy role on the fracking debate - children are the victims

Over the past two years, The New York Times has stumbled badly in its coverage of the natural gas revolution and fracking debate. Jon Entine, senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University, reports.

Displaying little of the contextualized reporting that the paper, at its best, is renowned for, the Times has run numerous articles in its “Drilling Down” series and elsewhere, simplistically framing shale gas extraction as an environmental disaster-in-progress.

Newly-minted natural gas beat reporter Ian Urbina has focused exclusively on the negative — “the risks of natural-gas drilling” the descriptor on the series page notes — rather than examining both the risks and benefits of the shale gas bonanza.

The questionable reporting kicked off in spring 2011 when the Times hyped the research of once obscure Cornell University professor Robert Howarth whose anti-shale gas activism and out-of-the-mainstream findings have been sharply contested by independent researchers, including at environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Fund and the Environmental Defense Council; a research team at MIT; the National Energy Technology Lab, and independent energy commentators such as Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Times coverage was so widely recognized as biased that the Times’ public editor at that time, Arthur Brisbane, raked the paper and the reporter over the coals in two searing commentaries.

The Times still hasn’t rebalanced its coverage. Just last month, it ignored a new report for the European Union examining the potential climate impact from shale gas development that further marginalizes Howarth’s thesis, concluding that shale gas has “significantly” lower emissions than coal when burned for electricity.

Spreading anti-shale gas bias at the Times?

Now, these institutionalized bias concerns appear to be spreading to other parts of the Times, which should otherwise be insulated from an ideological framing focus. The Times’ “Learning Network,” which is a blog set up to provide teachers and students with news-based supplemental information on challenging issues, recently released what it called a “Fuel for Debate” lesson plan.

In theory, the Learning Network is an admirable public outreach effort — when it fulfills its mission. But when it falls short, it can actually do more harm than good mostly because the Times’ name confers an aura of objectivity and fairness. In this case, the Times falls far short of that standard in its discussion of the controversy over shale gas and the extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The authors — Alison Fromme, Jennifer Cutraro and Katherine Schulten (who have no expertise in this area and little combined science reporting experience) — make the prejudicial choice of focusing almost exclusively on the controversy rather than on the broad issue in all its glory and warts — adopting, as did Ian Urbina, the narrative of the shale gas critics.

By all measure, the discovery of deep reservoirs of shale gas in the United States and around the world is economically and politically transformative — for better and possibly for worse. It’s a geo-political game changer with the most democratic countries of the world, including the United States, poised to be the big economic winners. Natural gas flooding into domestic pipelines has dramatically cut energy bills for homeowners and businesses alike, while redrawing global energy relationships. The US now imports only 40% of its oil, down from roughly 60% seven years ago — the direct consequence of the natural gas boom and the shift from oil to natural gas usage. With the emergence of China and India as world economic powers, gas exports will likely provide the US with a major bargaining chip in trade talks. The shale gas boom has already resulted in the construction of dozens of new extraction and production facilities in energy and chemicals, creating tens of thousands of jobs, with potentially hundreds of thousands of more to come in energy and related industries.

Who are the big losers? Coal companies; often-unpredictable oil suppliers in the Middle East, African and Venezuela; and Russia’s Gazprom, which has had an energy stranglehold on much of Europe and Asia. Previously energy-starved Europe, particularly in the east, may yet become energy independent. Israel, which had no natural energy production of its own 15 years ago, is on the verge of becoming a net energy exporter on the way to emerging as the next great Middle East energy superpower, eclipsing the desert oil empires by mid-century.

The US is particularly well positioned to take advantage of the shale gas revolution. The nation can move swiftly with the least environmental consequences. Because of heavy investments by the energy industry in recent decades, we know a lot more about the country’s actual geology than most countries know about their potential production sites. The US, Canada, Australia and the UK also have open markets and independent, non-state run energy corporations willing to take risks, and the capital markets willing to finance them. That’s an innovation advantage that will act as a long-term pump to the US economy — and indeed throughout the world — for decades to come.

Times reporters uncritically adopt activists’ anti-shale gas narrative

None of these potential benefits is discussed in the learning packet produced by the Times. Instead, it myopically focuses on fracking and its potential environmental hazards. There is no question that the extraction technique — which has been around in comparable form for decades (which goes unmentioned) — is an appropriate dimension of the debate. But it is not the only or even the primary issue. Clearly, a comprehensive look at shale gas, especially in a learning plan, should address the range of trade-offs that a “disruptive” new technology might bring. But focus only on environmental problem, and doing so using the language of activists? That’s bias.

The Times strips the issue of context. It ignores the widespread economic (macro, regional and local) and geo-political implications of shale gas, instead focusing almost exclusively on NIMBY — not in my back yard — issues. The reporters ask the kids to “think small,” literally and figuratively. The primary activity they recommend is to have students obtain a map of a local rural town, highlight its pristine features and then ask the children “how hydraulic fracturing might change different aspects of the community.”

Is the Times promoting modern Ludditism on shale gas?

If that was one of a half dozen exercises suggested, that might be reasonable, but that’s the central organizing activity of its lesson plan. The reporters willfully ignore the opportunity to challenge the children to parse out the issue on their own. There is no discussion of risk/risk factors. They ignore a central question: What would be the consequences, economically, politically and socially, of not extracting shale gas, and instead relying on coal, which will remain the dominant energy source absent a economically feasible and scalable replacement (no, “green” energy won’t be that for decades or even into the next century)? There is no attempt to weigh the benefits against the costs of shale gas by examining the range of environmental and economic trade-offs. Instead they focus on sophomoric framing of the controversy as an environmental problem but ignore the larger picture.

History has taught us that countries can’t sustain growth without confronting the limitations of entrenched, aging technologies. Two hundred years ago, the budding industrial revolution looked both promising and scary. Rural life was threatened. Landscapes were altered. Traditional family bonds were modified. These were challenging and in some cases wrenching times. But few would argue we are not better off for working through those disruptions. As in the case of the industrial revolution of the early 1800s, disruptions lie ahead. All “revolutions” have collateral consequences.

The Times’ framing of this issue also highlights its inconsistencies when it comes to the delicate challenge of how to handle children’s learning materials. In May of 2011, the paper got on a high horse in its news coverage and editorial page, taking Scholastic to task for distributing educational material that provided mostly one side of the story of coal.

Scholastic had produced a fourth-grade lesson packet called “The United States of Energy,” which had been paid for the nonprofit American Coal Foundation. As a reporter for the Times noted in her article, the lessons talked about the benefits of coal and the pervasiveness of power plants fueled by it, but omitted mention of the environmental and economic trade-offs, such as toxic waste and greenhouse gases. In its editorial, “Scholastic’s Big Coal Mistake,” the Times harshly concluded that the plan was misleading, and particularly heinous because the lessons carried the Scholastic’s imprimatur. Fair enough.

Maybe we should have headlined this article “The New York Times’ Anti-Shale Gas Mistake.” Eighteen months after it took Scholastic to the woodshed, the Times leveraged its own imprimatur in posting a facile and manipulative lesson plan which ignores the complex environmental and economic trade-offs of another key energy source, natural gas.

There are always voices trying to restrain change in the name of preserving “nature” in its romantically constructed form. Protestors, who opposed the industrial revolution 200 years ago, blocking plant construction in the name of preserving “pristine” rural communities, fashioned themselves as the progressives of their time and on the cutting edge of science. History calls them Luddites — those who cannot look beyond their limited self interests and therefore oppose on precautionary grounds technical or technological change that can have transformative benefits. Is the Times, at least in its coverage of shale gas, throwing its lot with 21st century Luddites?

We have in our grasp game-changing technologies not unlike those that drove prior revolutions. None comes without trade-offs. That’s an enormously rich subject for students and the general public to debate. The Times, in its news pages and its lesson plans, has repeatedly pledged not to take advocacy positions. This “lesson plan” does them a disservice by focusing on the trees instead of on the forest.

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Jon
Entine

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