NPR's Useful, But Flawed, Series on Natural Gas

New technology has made natural gas a promising alternative in reducing the United States' dependence on other countries for energy sources. Natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels, and some experts say there's enough untapped natural gas in the U.S. to last 100 years.

So it made sense in late July for NPR to develop a series of reports on natural gas — especially since the potential of natural gas was a surprise to NPR editors and to reporter Tom Gjelten, who was assigned to the project.

"For me the relevant context were the concerns about energy independence and climate change," said Gjelten, who covers national and energy security. "The intriguing question I set out to explore was whether the potential of gas from shale rock could be a 'game changer' as far as the overall energy picture."

The three-part series, which aired Sept. 22-24 on Morning Edition, gave an overview of how technology has dramatically altered the natural gas industry, explained the industry's structure, and described how unsuccessful it had been in getting breaks from Congress in the current climate change legislation.

But the series had a flaw.

The reports did not thoroughly address environmental and public health concerns about extracting natural gas using a technique called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking." This involves drilling down a mile below the surface, then shooting a million gallons of water, sand and chemicals to break up the shale and release the gas.

I was inundated with phone calls and emails about the series. Many from people in Pennsylvania and New York state, who live atop the Marcellus Shale Formation, which is rich in natural gas and stretches from western New York state through Pennsylvania to Ohio and West Virginia.

Before new technologies were developed for fracking and horizontal drilling, it was uneconomical to extract gas from this area. In recent years, however, small energy companies have opened hundreds of drilling sites in this region.

None of those who contacted me complained about natural gas as an energy source. Nor did listeners object to the basic reporting in the series. They did insist, however, that NPR left out an essential part of the story.

Via email, phone and commenting online, they said NPR should have included at least one piece about the negative side effects of natural gas drilling, such as accidents, broken pipes, leaking containment wells and toxic water spills from containment ponds. Listeners also said NPR should have mentioned that state and federal laws do not require companies disclose the chemical formulas used in fracking because they are protected as trade secrets.

"You can't have a major three-part series on natural gas and never mention in more than a few lines the environmental hazards," said Judy Abrams, of Ithaca, NY. "All of us kept waiting for the other side of the story. The extraction process is extremely dirty. Fracturing is done with water laced with chemicals."

In fact, while the series was running, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered one natural gas company to stop all well fracking in Susquehanna County after three separate spills in less than one week. The company was told to address safety concerns after spilling 8,000 gallons of a toxic mixture into a wetlands area and a creek causing a fish kill.

After a lengthy rule-making process, on Sept. 30 New York State environmental officials issued regulations on gas drilling to address concerns about the impact on New York City's drinking water.

Some NPR listeners were quick to accuse NPR of shilling for the natural gas industry. These listeners drew a connection — a false one in my view — between the series and a sponsorship campaign that began on Sept. 17 by an industry lobbying group, America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA). The perceived connection was reinforced by ANGA sponsorship banner ads appearing on the series' web presentation. (More on the sponsorship issue in my next piece.)

Much of the intense criticism came after Gjelten's first piece on Sept. 22, which garnered 255 comments, mostly negative. "If one went to a public hearing and listened to the natural gas representatives, they would sound like that first piece," said architect Buck Moorhead, of NYH20, an anti-drilling group in Manhattan."No acknowledgement of cumulative negative impacts of toxic chemicals on our drinking water, air quality and public health."

But NPR editors said the intent behind the series was not to provide a one-sided report. Gjelten, the lead reporter, said he set out to do an overview of the shale gas industry and its potential impact on America's access to energy.

"Our stories focused on the prospect that recoverable natural gas reserves are far greater than imagined even a few years ago due to the potential of shale gas," said Bruce Auster, NPR's national security editor, who worked on the gas series. "This is a big development, with implications both for U.S. energy security and climate change. So this was the focus of our stories."

Yet, he said NPR recognizes that there are downsides to extracting natural gas from shale. "That is why we raised the water contamination issue on the air in the final segment of the series," said Auster. "We also offered a detailed examination of the issue in a separate web piece. And NPR aired — in May — a separate piece on precisely this issue. We feel that the level of coverage was appropriate."

After the reaction to the first day's story, Gjelten did a web piece on environmental concerns about fracking. It was posted Sept. 23. On the last day of the radio series, Sept. 24, Gjelten gave a brief description to Morning Edition listeners of some of the environmental concerns about how fluids are used to fracture the shale. (This was recorded before the series aired.)

"The concern is that that might cause some contamination of drinking water supplies," Gjelten said. "There are chemicals that are used in that water. Now, the natural gas people say that that can be dealt with by tight regulation, very close monitoring of the pipe itself and the dispose of the wastewater. But that is a concern."

That mention covered two minutes out of 24 devoted to the series on-air. (Gjelten also briefly mentioned environmental concerns in the Sept. 23 piece.)

His more detailed online piece about environmental issues was commendable, but it highlights the limitations of NPR's online content. While about 7 million listen to Morning Edition each day, Gjelten's online piece received only 5,432 page views after three full weeks, according to NPR's audience research department. (It would have helped if on-air hosts had alerted listeners to Gjelten's online piece.) Research shows there were 69,782 page views for the entire series.

The initial goal of the series was ambitious. Brian Duffy, then NPR's project editor, said NPR wanted to explore how new technology was opening up once cost-prohibitive energy reserves; environmental fears, and the geo-political implications in Europe, where the new technology could reduce its near-total dependence on Russia for natural gas.

But once the series reached the air, listeners heard almost nothing about the last two elements.

During the planning process, Duffy asked the Science Desk to assign a reporter for the environmental piece, but was told no one was available. Duffy said he reached out to ProPublica, a non-profit online investigative news outfit, which has reported extensively on water contamination in drilling areas. But nothing came of it. Nor could he find a Europe-based reporter free to cover the geo-political angle.

UPDATE: ProPublica's managing editor, Steve Engelberg, called to say that while nothing came of talk about partnering with NPR on the natural gas series, it wasn't because of any lack of interest on ProPublica's part in pursuing the story or working with NPR. "We'd love to work with NPR," he said.

ProPublica has published 41 stories and worked with WNYC exploring the environmental concerns surrounding natural gas.

What drew many listener complaints was that the topic was billed as a series. NPR's listeners then had a reasonable expectation that they would learn about all important aspects of the issue in a multi-part report.

"It made it worse that there were three parts," said Ken Campbell, radio manager for public radio station WSKG, in Binghamton, NY, which sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation. Campbell fielded complaints from local listeners who are personally concerned about the impact of gas drilling. "That rubbed it into our listeners that their concerns were ignored because it was covered so extensively but with a limited point of view. With that much time you'd think they would cover all aspects."

The ultimate question is: Did this series give a reasonably complete and balanced view of issues concerning domestic drilling for natural gas?

The answer is no. While it did draw attention to an energy source that is not widely known, NPR failed to provide a full picture of the implications of the latest natural gas drilling technology — and that would include failing to cover the geo-political aspects.

The environmental concerns are real. According to ProPublica, courts and state and local governments have documented more than 1,000 cases of water contamination associated with natural gas drilling. Someone who heard only the radio stories, however, would have learned little about this aspect. Moreover, the fact that NPR ran a story about the environmental concerns in late May does not excuse leaving this aspect out of the series.

"Should we have covered the issue more thoroughly? Certainly," said Duffy, who left NPR's news department in late August. "This was a situation where we couldn't get all the bases covered because we had furloughs [caused by NPR's budget cuts] and vacation issues and changes in personnel. The story absolutely did need an environmental component. I won't disagree with that. It's a shame we just couldn't provide it."

But it's not too late. C Hagstrom made a good suggestion in a Sept. 23 comment. He lives in the ground zero area of Pennsylvania gas development.

"I can tell you first hand that there are real problems with the current approach to development," wrote Hagstrom. "NPR has the chance to do the right thing by running a piece that covers the downside to a very invasive and potentially harmful environmental process."

NPR has vast resources within the 800-member public radio stations. Some stations in areas with shale gas are already diligently covering the environmental and economic aspects of the story. WSKG producer Crystal Sarakas, for example, has done several programs on the topic and follows it closely. WNYC has covered this extensively and so has WDUQ in Pittsburgh.

Since NPR could not devote one of its own reporters to this aspect of the story, NPR should have reached out to one of its station partners to work together on this series. This approach also would have dovetailed with NPR CEO Vivian Schiller's intention to create a stronger and more connected network, by tapping into the knowledge and talent at public radio stations.

Here's a U.S. Department of Energy primer on modern shale gas.

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