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Ag Dept. Rebuffs NYT on Shale. Again.

This past weekend, the New York Times continued its ongoing attack on shale development with a story suggesting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was considering a plan to deny mortgages to folks who had signed oil and gas leases. The story, which was based on “internal emails” (where have we heard that before?), sought to advance a narrative (previously laid out by the Times) that lending and leasing don’t go together – notwithstanding a 100-year history of compatibility to the contrary.

The Times’ story reached all the way to Oklahoma, where U.S. Rep. Dan Boren (D) responded with a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stating that such a requirement “will discourage economic development in small communities like those in my district in eastern Oklahoma.” The NPR affiliate in Oklahoma similarly reported on the potential rule change.

The problem? According to the Agriculture Department itself, none of it is true.

In a statement issued earlier this week – one day after the Times’ story hit – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated clearly: “As indicated in previous statements, USDA will not make any policy changes related to rural housing loans.” EID obtained Vilsack’s emailed statement (below, emphasis added):

“As indicated in previous statements, USDA will not make any policy changes related to rural housing loans. The information provided to Congressional offices on March 8, 2012 was premature and does not reflect past, current or future practices of the department.

“Later today, I will authorize an Administrative Notice reaffirming that rural housing loans are categorically excluded under the National Environmental Policy Act.”

What does this mean? In its haste to report something – anything – that would paint shale development in a negative light, the Times once again relied on bad (and in this case “premature”) information. It’s also interesting that, although the Times’ story says it sought comment from USDA about the proposed rule, Secretary Vilsack was able to say definitively within 24 hours that the basis of the Times’ story “does not reflect past, current or future practices” of USDA. He also referenced “previous statements” that indicated no such policy changes would occur.

So the question now is: Were those “previous statements” unavailable, or did the New York Times simply choose to ignore them?

Meanwhile, for his trouble, Secretary Vilsack now finds himself on Josh Fox’s enemies list. That’s because Fox, the New York filmmaker and Gasland producer, seems to think disagreeing with him is an unlawful act:

“A full NEPA review, like the type the agency was talking about affirming, would have been more transparent, more rigorous and comprehensive… This 180-degree turn by Secretary Vilsack contradicts both science and law.”

In his attack on Secretary Vilsack, Fox neglects to mention that subjecting farm mortgages to a “full NEPA review” would be treating them the same as major infrastructure projects, such as highway construction. Those reviews take a very long time to complete — about 79 months, according to the latest information from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration. Apparently, Fox wants hard-working farmers to wait an additional six and a half years before being approved for a mortgage.

It’s little wonder, then, that Secretary Vilsack moved so quickly to debunk the Times report.

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