What happens when the media becomes vested in a certain perspective in an issue? Over the last few years, just as natural gas became plentiful because of massive discoveries of shale gas, the narrative from some of the most radical environmentalists, and journalists who echo the hard-left line, has shifted from “natural gas is a great bridge to alternative energy sources” to “natural gas is dirtier than coal.”
So earlier this year when researchers Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea at Cornell University released a letter based on their unpublished research—not peer reviewed—suggesting that shale gas might be worse for global warming than coal, it was hyped by the New York Times and widely picked up. Many analysts, from experts from energy firms and even unlikely places such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Natural Resources Defense Council poked holes in the study, but their comments got little play.
This deafening silence was repeated again earlier this month when scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, in a study partly funded by the Sierra Club, concluded just the opposite, in concert with the mainstream scientific view: shale gas, in this case derived from the huge Marcellus Formation which lies under New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, has significantly less impact on global warming than coal.
“Marcellus shale gas emits 50 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than any US coal-fired plant,” said study co-author Chris Hendrickson. John Hanger, the former head of Pennsylvania’s environmental agency during the prior Democratic administration, wrote on his blog that the study “debunks and decimates professor Howarth’s hit piece study that the NYT gas reporter and other media gave so much attention.”
Hanger is referring to the much-maligned series of reports attacking natural gas fracking (the process used to extract gas from shale) by embattled New York Times reporter, Ian Urbina, whose work has been rebuked on two separate occasions by the Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane.
But Urbina is at it again. In an article published earlier this month, he dredged up a 27-year old incident, claiming that hydraulic fracturing fluids contaminated a well in West Virginia. That would seem to conflict with comments from the industry, and even EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who said in May, “I am not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.”
Even if Urbina is correct, that’s one known incident out of more than one million wells hydraulically fractured in the history of the industry. But as Forbes’s contributor and University of Houston professor Michael Economides wrote yesterday, the cause of that one instance remains unclear, which is why organizations that track fracking, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, still maintain there have been no contamination incidents.
Even worse, Economides writes, Urbina falsely accuses industry representatives of trying to prevent a 1987 EPA report that cited this West Virginia case from circulating, when in fact the case was sealed, as is common in legal settlements. All in all, he says, more questionable reporting, particularly by the Times, and more misleading fodder for anti-fracking environmental activists and policy-makers.
Jon Entine is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University and STATS, and is a visiting fellow at AEI.