On Ethics

Covering an Oil Boom: Techno, Tone and Impact

An oil drilling rig near Stanley, North Dakota. The well is being drilled into the Bakken Formation, one of the largest contiguous deposits of oil and natural gas in the United States. i i

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An oil drilling rig near Stanley, North Dakota. The well is being drilled into the Bakken Formation, one of the largest contiguous deposits of oil and natural gas in the United States.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
An oil drilling rig near Stanley, North Dakota. The well is being drilled into the Bakken Formation, one of the largest contiguous deposits of oil and natural gas in the United States.

An oil drilling rig near Stanley, North Dakota. The well is being drilled into the Bakken Formation, one of the largest contiguous deposits of oil and natural gas in the United States.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Emotions grow along with the estimates for the amount of shale gas and oil underneath the United States. Some of the emotions have to do with genuine environmental concerns. Others are more akin to "not in my backyard."

And more and more backyards are being touched. As a story by host Guy Raz on Weekend All Things Considered made clear, the US appears to be on the verge of a shale oil and gas boom. It's already starting in places like North Dakota.

Yet, at the heart of the boom is a drilling technique called "fracking" that is probably impossible to guarantee as 100 percent environmentally safe, if anything can be. To get at the oil, pressurized water and chemicals are pumped deep underground break up the shale.

"Last night's story on North Dakota gave barely a mention of the problems that have caused hundreds of people to lose their drinking water and in some cases, their health and livelihood, and thousands to lose the value of their homes," wrote Paul Mendelsohn from Cherry Valley, NY, where shale oil also has been found. "The premise of the story was: we will have this oil, at any cost.

Others were perturbed by the techno-sounding music in the segment. Keith McHenry from Taos, NM, wrote, "The background music gave the story an air of a long ad for the oil industry."

Still others questioned the oil estimates themselves, suggesting that they are exaggerated so as to drive the drilling.

Listeners and readers will decide for themselves if the risks seem sufficiently controlled and are worth the benefits. But as for the NPR story itself, I felt that it was fair in introducing us to the gold-rush feel in North Dakota and to the larger energy and environmental trade-offs. There also was consideration of how the shale oil might be used as a transitional step toward developing the alternative energy that we all know is going to be needed sooner or later. This latter wasn't strictly necessary, but it gave long term context and was smart.

As for the muted background music, I didn't find it out of place or "triumphalist," like some Mao march for the greater glory of the Republic. But I can understand how opponents to the drilling might disagree.

Here is the response to the letters (posted below) from Supervising Senior Editor Rick Holter, who edited the piece:

We built this segment of the show on the anecdote of what's happening to Williston, ND. The sources we talked to there — the mayor, the oil worker and several other people we talked to who didn't make it on the air — universally told us a story of boom times.

In our "cover story" segments at the top of the show, we routinely use music to illustrate the mood of the story — it's not an effort to editorially sway the listener; it's an effort to undergird what people are telling us in that segment.

In terms of estimates of oil reserves, they're all over the board — we tried to use appropriate language, such as "the estimates range as high as..." A few days before this story aired, Goldman Sachs issued a report predicting the US would soon pass Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world's top oil producer.

This was not a story designed to dive into the nuts and bolts of "fracking," or the environmental impact of that — both of those issues have been explored at length on NPR. But we did talk about them with our expert sources — the best response was from Charles Groat of the University of Texas, which we used on the air. And whatever you think of Amy Myers Jaffe's estimates, the Rice University researcher is considered an expert on the topic.

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