Hydraulic Spinning: Oil Industry Favored in Fracking Story? : NPR Public Editor In gas-volume estimates, a glimpse inside the hyper-charged debate around fracking.
NPR logo Hydraulic Spinning: Oil Industry Favored in Fracking Story?

Hydraulic Spinning: Oil Industry Favored in Fracking Story?

People in Pennsylvania protest fracking in the Marcellus Shale. Marcellus Protest/Flickr hide caption

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Marcellus Protest/Flickr

People in Pennsylvania protest fracking in the Marcellus Shale.

Marcellus Protest/Flickr

Can something as large as 84 trillion cubic feet be too big or too small? In the hyper-charged debate surrounding fracking, it can be either. A fracking story last week on All Things Considered wrongly omitted a nuance, but some of the criticism and reports elsewhere are missing proportion.

The issue arises from a report by correspondent Jeff Brady that focused mostly on how the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission may require companies involved in hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from underground shale to publicly file the cost from potential environmental accidents, such as polluting drinking water. In his report, Brady included a new update from the United States Geological Survey on just how much gas is estimated to be economically recoverable in one of the areas under development, the Marcellus Shale, that runs from New York to Tennessee.

That is the 84 trillion cubic feet number, which a survey official interviewed by Brady noted is 40 times what the survey estimated in 2002, and four times what the entire country consumes in a year. In other words: a lot.

The U.S. Geological Survey does actual on-the-ground research by geologists and is considered the authoritative source on these matters. The problem, however, is that another federal office, the Energy Information Agency in the Department of Energy, puts out numbers, too, that it aggregates from a number of sources, including industry ones. The EIA had reported that Marcellus Shale contained an estimated 410 trillion cubic feet of gas. Compared to that, the 84 trillion estimate, which was released just last week, would be a dramatic reduction.

But Brady did not mention the energy agency estimate. He chose instead to frame the geological survey's new number as an increase over its old one, rather than a decrease from the EIA's often cited but less reliable estimate.

For advocates and opponents of fracking, the framing is important because whether you say "more" or "less" colors the attractiveness of the underground bonanza, and supports or challenges the reliability of industry claims.

As Lisa Wright, an NPR listener from Brooktondale, NY, wrote: "It is extremely disturbing to read that the Marcellus estimates have been slashed by 80% by the USGS ... and yet NPR, like the gas industry, spins this news in completely the opposite direction."

She noted that The New York Times and Bloomberg that week did stories that focused directly on the geological survey's new estimate, and used different framing. They called it a "slash" or "slashing" from the energy agency number—by the "administration" in the Times and by "the U.S." in Bloomberg.

So is NPR's Brady an industry shill?

No. He should have noted the EIA number only because it has been bandied publically, but it was never the official government number, as the Times implied and Bloomberg said. EIA officials were quick last week to cede to the geological survey's authority.

If there is a real dispute to be had, it is whether the EIA should be giving out any numbers on oil and gas reserves, especially when they are based at least in part on industry sources. The EIA is only adding confusion.

The estimates themselves, meanwhile, are far from hard and subject to constant change. One reason is because they are based on how much is economically recoverable, which has been increasing due to technology as well as finds. For ordinary citizens, an increase in one field's gas reserves of forty-fold in 10 years is substantial, whatever the environmental implications might be. And 84 trillion is such a big number for most of us that it holds plenty of temptation as is to go after it. Each of us will decide for ourselves whether the temptation is environmentally worth it, no matter what the number was cut from or raised to.

Opponents to fracking, however, might take some comfort in the possibility that the bigger threat to the industry may be the proposed SEC reporting requirement, which would lay bare the financial risk and possibly scare off investors. That, by the way, is what Brady reported on.

Below are his own explanations.

The USGS assessment of the Marcellus Shale recently released shows there is more than 40 times the amount of technically-recoverable gas in the formation than the USGS estimated in 2002. Since the USGS is widely considered the most authoritative source for such things (so much that when it released the 84 trillion cubic feet number, the EIA accepted that number for its own), I concluded it was more constructive to compare previous USGS data to current USGS data.

I certainly understand that drilling and frac'ing opponents were casting these new numbers as a huge decline, compared to previous EIA estimates. But I felt like comparing those numbers from two different agencies (with different kinds of expertise) clouded an issue that already is confusing for a lot of people who are not directly involved in it.

I concluded that what is most important for our listeners to know is that hydraulic fracturing has made it possible to tap into huge reservoirs of natural gas that were unavailable with previous technology. And that the new technology—hydraulic fracturing—comes with a lot of questions because some people think it may be harming the environment. I made sure both points were addressed in my story.

Brady later added:

This was a relatively short story that wrapped up a few bits of news from the week—the SEC inquiries to gas companies and the new assessment by the USGS. Perhaps if I'd had more time to focus on this one issue, I would have addressed how frac'ing/drilling critics were framing the USGS assessment versus the EIA estimate. But I decided the main point of the story was more important: that frac'ing has dramatically increased the amount of gas that is technically recoverable, but there are some who have serious questions about the technology being used to do that.

From my reporting, I don't have the sense that the EIA number changing from 410 trillion cubic feet down to the USGS's 84 trillion cubic feet is going to change the plans the natural gas industry or regulators have for this play. 84 trillion is still a lot of gas (about four times what the U.S. uses in a year) and there remains significant interest in exploiting it.

Andrew Maddocks contributed to this report.