More Controversy Engulfs NY Times Shale Gas Reporting

NY Times building photoThis week the New York Times again ran a story calling into question the credibility of reporter Ian Urbina’s June 27th article, “Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush,” which claims the quickly emerging shale gas industry is similar to a Ponzi scheme.

It appears Urbina crossed the line into sensational journalism with his baseless claims by failing to conduct proper background checks, and his tendency to overstate the credentials of anonymous sources. This problems with his reporting apparently have driven a wedge between Times editors trying to justify the story, and those concerned over the long-term repercussions for the paper.

Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane has published two articles criticizing Urbina’s work; first calling into question his cited sources for their biases on the topic, and next pointing out the liberties taken with anonymous sources.  National editor Richard L. Berke and Adam Bryant, a deputy national editor, have stood behind Urbina, but they seem to be in the minority.

Urbina’s seven-article “Drilling Down” series has raised eyebrows and drawn scrutiny from government officials, scholars, industry participants, fellow members of the media, and even those cited in the stories for its skewed perspective. Despite the wide breadth of skepticism on his often outrageous claims, the repercussions of his reporting on this topic have been extensive and costly. Former Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection secretary John Hanger summed up the fallout of Urbina’s articles in a recent blog post:

He has triggered massive testing of Pennsylvania’s waters for radiation; made EPA Region 3 to make a show of policing the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection within a week of his February 27th story; caused the Energy Information Administration to explain itself to members of the US House of Representatives and to testify to the US Senate at a hearing on whether it was cooking the books on shale gas supply; and now the SEC has reportedly issued subpoenas and is apparently investigating whether one or some gas companies have broken any laws governing representations to investors.

The broad attention received by this journalistic blunder obviously has some at the Times more than a little concerned. Printing a highly publicized yet baseless story could deal a blow to the esteem of the paper at a time they can ill afford it.

Similar to other print newspapers, the New York Times has seen its value drop dramatically in the past decade. Stocks for publication owner The New York Times Co., which were trading above $50 in 2002, are now fetching prices just below $9. The newspaper’s status as the number one online news source and number three print paper has not generated enough revenue for the Times to forgo a pay wall blocking online content. The latest blunders make one wonder whether the paper still has the resources, staff, and oversight to maintain its credibility.

The New York Times has established itself as the gold standard in reporting, receiving 106 Pulitzer prizes and setting a high bar for journalists to strive toward. Ian Urbina won part of a 2009 Pulitzer for covering breaking news surrounding the Eliot Spitzer scandal, and whispers of a possible nomination for his recent natural gas work abounds. But as the drumbeat of criticism grows against the Times‘ misleading reporting resulting from Urbina’s reliance on cherry-picked sourcing, the author himself has become the story, which is never a good thing for a journalist. Talk of a Pulitzer for Urbina has been displaced by renewed questions over what exactly constitutes acceptable journalistic standards. Below are some of the concerns his natural gas work has generated.

A Question of Sources

The recent “shale gas boom” article’s heavy reliance on anonymous sourcing has now come under fire by New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane. In a recent article investigating Urbina, Brisbane states that these anonymous sources’ credentials were often overstated, and varying descriptions of one unnamed individual creates the impression that the conspiracy against shale gas is more widespread than reality would indicate. The blunders pointed out in the follow-up Times piece include the revelation that one of Urbina’s often cited “officials” was in fact, just an intern.

Deborah Rogers was featured throughout the article as a credible source and a member of the advisory committee of the federal bank of Dallas. A deeper dive revealed that Rogers’ current occupation is a goat farmer and artisanal cheese vendor. She is also a member of her local small business and agriculture advisory committee, not the Dallas Federal Bank advisory committee. Additionally, Rogers has been active in opposing natural gas drilling as a professional activist and lecturer for environmental group Earthworks.

Despite her seemingly extreme views on the issue and a lack of qualifications for discussing natural gas resources in the U.S., Urbina’s article landed Rogers on CNBC as a natural gas expert. To his journalistic credit, the Times reporter did include several credible sources in his article.

Penn State geologist Terry Engelder was cited saying “(T)he debate over long-term well performance was far from solved” and “The Haynesville Shale has not lived up to expectations.”

When contacted regarding these comments, Engelder revealed “(t)he reporter didn’t talk to me” and added that his referenced email had “a lot of nuance in it.”

In an earlier piece in the “Drilling Down” series claiming hydraulic fracturing was putting radiation in the water supply, former Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection secretary John Hanger was quoted extensively. Following the article, Hanger blogged, “The words that I find myself saying in this piece were said by me somewhere at some time and in some context but they were not said in the context of an interview for this piece.” He continues that Urbina “never called me after January 18th for any purpose including to confirm the quotation that he put together for me.”

Hanger went further saying, “(T)he radiation levels were not a threat to truck drivers, workers at sewage treatment facilities or the public.” This is a direct rebuke of the information he was portrayed to have supported in the article. The deception continues.

David Pendrey of IHS Drilling Data was cited in the June 26 New York Times article saying “gas prospects had previously been debated by analysts.”

He described his interaction with Urbina in a recent follow up article explaining, “I got a bizarre call from the New York Times reporter, who wanted me to respond to sections of an email that he read to me, but he wouldn’t supply us with the actual email so we could read it in context.” He continued, “He wasn’t very professional.” Those mentioned in the article are not the only ones alarmed at its content.

Professors Puzzled by Bizarre Claims

Kenneth P. Medlock III is a Ph.D. Professor at Rice University in Texas who has studied the Barnett Shale extensively. In his capacity as a local expert in the Dallas area, he has encountered Deborah Rogers and even received mention in Ian Urbina’s recent article. Rogers hit Medlock with inciting questions at a Dallas conference looking for juicy sound bytes, and was able to get what she wanted. Medlock conceded that if prices remained low, the Barnett shale would remain flat and possibly decline. Though this reference was deemed newsworthy, Medlock’s view is quite different.

In a new Houston Chronicle Fuel Fix blog, Medlock explains “(R)ecent work indicates that as demand for natural gas continues to increase, particularly in Texas, the Barnett shale will remain an important contributor to the overall natural gas market balance.” This remark seems to be the exact opposite of the claim so creatively extrapolated by the New York Times‘ Urbina. Medlock is one of many actively involved in the study and production of shale natural gas who are completely dumbfounded by Urbina’s claims.

Dr. Michael Economides, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Houston, came out even more strongly against allegations in the Drilling Down series. In a Forbes blog directed at the New York Times, Economides chides:

Your recent article’s out-of-context quotes and glaring half truths suggests that the reporter Ian Urbina had reached his conclusion on the safety of natural gas production long before compiling research or conducting interviews.

Like a true professor, he continues to lecture the publication on the falsity of the claims, saying, “Sensationalism and scare tactics are dangerous when dealing with such complicated and technical matters.”

In a slightly less dramatic but equally indicative remark, MIT Energy Initiative executive director Melanie Kenderline remarks, “Even with uncertainty, there is a substantial amount of shale gas in the U.S. at relatively affordable costs.”

The New York Times immediately followed the June 26 article with a follow-up on Monday the 27th reiterating the argument against shale gas as having the potential to be the future of American energy. While any academic would agree that healthy discussion is necessary and desired to reach solutions, inserting false information into the discussion only distracts attention from progress.

Michael Levi, a Ph.D. on the Council on Foreign Relations, makes this point in a recent blog post in which he tries to identify and eliminate the misinformation Urbina appears intent on spreading. In the post, he concedes, “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.”

It’s not just academics who have condemned the work as a trifling piece of fiction, but government officials and even members of the media have passed similar judgments. This round the table consensus adds credibility to the argument against the journalistic integrity of this work.

Claims of the Poor Reporting an Epidemic

EnviroPolitics describes Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Chief Michael Krancer as a guy who “likes to dig in and get the facts on both sides of a controversial issue.” The description continues, “He doesn’t shy away from tough decisions and, in the past, he’s sided both with and against the agency he now heads.”

Krancer sat on the state’s Environmental Hearing Board under Republican Governor Tom Ridge and Democrat Governor Ed Rendell. He has a reputation for going the extra mile to understand the issues he is confronting, even going so far as to wade through thigh-high water a mile underground before making a decision on a mining issue. With natural gas drilling a huge issue in his state, Krancer didn’t miss the New York Times concocted article arguing that radiation from drilling waste is “a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania.”

Ever the straight shooter, Krancer addressed the issue head on saying, “We deal in facts based on sound science. Here are the facts: all samples were at or below background levels of radioactivity; and all samples showed levels below the federal drinking water standard for Radium 226 and 228.”

This rebuff from a government official is by no means atypical for Urbina or the New York Times on the issue of natural gas.

Michael Schaal, the director of the Office of Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels Analysis at EIA’s office of Energy Analysis was contacted prior to the article running, and provided information to the reporter. Far from indicating any concern over shale natural gas supply, Schaal replies to Urbina:

Prior to 2005 shale gas constituted only 4%of natural gas production and had grown to become 23% of production for 2010. EIA’s continued monitoring of the situation indicates that growth in shale gas production continues and that shale gas has exceeded 30% of total marketed natural gas production through May of this year.

Yet, despite this clearly worded email sent directly to the journalist, he comes to a much different conclusion, writing “energy executives, industry lawyers, state geologists and market analysts voice skepticism about lofty forecasts”.

Douglas McLinko, a county commissioner in Pennsylvania heavily involved in the natural gas drilling debate, feels that wild claims made in Urbina’s series of articles is a story in itself. He told the Williamsport Sun-Gazette, “The greatest danger exposed by the New York Times coverage is the danger of misinformation and careless fact checking.”

Hanger appears to agree with this assessment, writing, “Could anyone imagine more sensationalistic narratives than Radiation, Ponzi, and Enron?” He goes on to question the impartiality of the coverage, saying Urbina “leaves out or underplays critical information that is inconvenient to establishing the credibility of the dominant anti-gas narrative.”

Even the media has questioned the narrative being presented by New York Times. Jim Cramer commented on the absurdity of the report? Saying that shale gas was a bubble due to scarcity of the resource. He states “The article purports to show that “we” have been duped by these companies, but if that’s the case, those who have been duped include Exxon, Chevron, Statoil and Total.”

Respected Forbes energy reporter Christopher Helman also took to the pen (or keyboard) to reflect on the misleading narrative on natural gas. He wrote, “Today gas shale production represents 25% of US natural gas production, if it were underperforming, how come gas prices are so low when US gas demand is at a record high?” He concludes, “Most of this argument is absurd on its face.”

So Now What

The New York Times is a credible paper with millions of dedicated readers and a certain lure as the mighty “Grey Lady.” When one news outlet underperforms and allows poor reporting, it reflects poorly on the entire media community and discredits the work and the millions of man hours contributed to collecting the news. This stigma is less of a force when it comes from news agencies which have established themselves firmly in the American psyche as a politically biased organization.

Bill O’Reilly on FOX News or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, for example, can opine on anything from the President’s legal status in this nation to the merits of gay marriage, and viewers are well aware that it is not news but, rather, one opinionated reporter’s perspective. This qualifier allows these personalities to take active stances and make arguments for or against any number of issues without putting it across as fact in the mind of viewers. The Times is an American staple newspaper, and despite research indicating the publication has a significant left leaning bias, readers take facts from this publication at face value.

It is this trust which lead to Monday’s decline in natural gas stock prices in response to what many believed was a serious, well cited, and factually based analysis of the future of shale natural gas in the U.S. Although the dive was short-lived as credible sources quickly countered the claim, this is similar to yelling fire in a movie theater.

The national economy is in a vulnerable position. Consumer confidence is low, families and businesses are saving instead of spending, and our country’s slow economic recovery reflects this tentativeness. The last thing we need right now to promote economic rejuvenation is members in the media bent on inciting concerns, spreading mistruths, and scaring the “spend” out of the public. Exaggerated stories based on activist viewpoints, misquotes, and a potential short sellers financial opportunism, printed to intentionally raise doubts about whether America should utilize a surging shale natural gas supply might qualify as detrimental to our nation’s economic health.

If nothing else, it is poor reporting.

Times reporter Jayson Blair was fired in 2003 over falsified sources, plagiarism, and fictional reporting. When individuals are incapable or unwilling to put the time in and lay out a factual argument, it is in the interest of the news community to shed that dead weight. Thousands of opportunities exist in the wide world of blogging, partisan writing, and fictional storytelling. Judging from Urbina’s creativity and resourcefulness in continually crafting imaginary narratives to trash the natural gas industry, his blind pursuit of a Pulitzer may be more successful as a writer of fiction.


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