Debunking DeSmog

If your goal is to shut down oil and gas development, but your arguments have been consistently debunked and rebutted by scientific facts and empirical evidence, there are two paths you can take: The first is to acknowledge that your goals are unsupported by the facts, and move on to another issue about which you feel passionate. The second, more aggressive path is to pretend that science and facts actually don’t matter (as activists in Michigan recently admitted), and that evidence contradicting what you desperately want to believe is somehow a personal attack.

Unfortunately for their credibility, opponents all too often take the latter path. This was on full display in a recent piece for the Huffington Post by Brendan DeMelle, managing editor of DeSmogBlog. Mr. DeMelle’s thesis is that news reports attacking the responsible development of oil and natural gas from shale are not only 100 percent grounded in fact, but that suggesting any flaws in that reporting is nothing more than ad hominem. In other words, critical thinking and questioning the accuracy of what’s printed in the news are simply unacceptable.

Most folks would strongly disagree with that notion. But we also have to remember that virtually every accusation made against hydraulic fracturing – from water contamination claims to air emissions to public health – has been swatted down by the facts. Waking up every day and having your talking points debunked would no doubt be exhausting, and the only way to deny the truth is to establish a different set of rules by which your claims can be judged – something other than science and verifiable evidence.

Here is a sampling of just some of Mr. DeMelle’s claims, but this time with a little more context:

DeMelle: “Reporters who write for publications ranging from Rolling Stone to Reuters to the New York Times have had their professional bona fides called into question after unearthing documents and facts that challenge claims that fracked shale gas is cheap, abundant, and clean.”

EID: Notice the rhetorical skill here. Mr. DeMelle is suggesting that folks at the New York Times and Rolling Stone are only guilty of reporting facts, and thus any criticism of these publications must by extension be a rejection of those facts.

In any event, let’s take a look at some of the “facts” that Mr. DeMelle is blindly defending.

The New York Times series (“Drilling Down”) was actually riddled with factual errors. Among them was the erroneous claim that coal mine operators disposing their wastewater into injection wells are bound by federal rules, but waste water from natural gas development is not. The reality is that both processes are regulated by the U.S. EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Times also claimed drillers in Pennsylvania were allowed to dump “mystery liquids” into public waterways, which is also false. Under the Clean Water Act (by which producers are bound, contrary to what the New York Times suggested) operators aren’t allowed to dump a single drop of wastewater into surface waters. As for the water that is treated and released, here’s what former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection secretary John Hanger said: “Every drop of tap water that was publicly treated is required to meet the safe drinking water standard.”

Criticism of the New York Times for its reporting on this issue is actually far and wide, including most notably from the Times’ own public editor, Arthur Brisbane, on multiple occasions. Among the reasons for the paper’s flawed reporting (as pointed out by Mr. Brisbane) was its use of an intern at the Energy Information Administration (EIA) as both an “energy analyst” and an “official” in the same article.

Recall also that Rolling Stone cited the infamous study from Robert Howarth at Cornell University suggesting shale gas is worse than coal for global warming – a claim that’s been rebutted by the U.S. Department of Energy, universities across the country, Howarth’s own colleagues, and even a study funded by the Sierra Club. Rolling Stone also stated as fact that hydraulic fracturing caused the infamous flaming faucet in Gasland, a claim so divorced from reality that even Colorado regulators stated publicly that it was “not related to oil and gas activity.” And Rolling Stone also claimed last year’s study from researchers at Duke University represented the “first clear evidence that [hydraulic fracturing] was contaminating water” – even though the study says explicitly the opposite: “Based on our data (Table 2), we found no evidence for contamination of the shallow wells near active drilling sites from deep brines and/or fracturing fluids” (emphasis added).

This all begs a question: does Mr. DeMelle believe reporters have sole possession of the truth by virtue of their being reporters, or does the public have a responsibility to do its own critical thinking about what reporters may try to present as the truth?

DeMelle: “Quite often, rather than responding to the issues raised in a responsible fashion, industry PR shops have questioned the motives and qualifications of journalists who investigate the problems with shale gas development, and especially those who delve into the industry’s economic prospects. The attacks against reporters are noteworthy in part because they are so personal.”

EID: The term “glass houses” comes to mind here; how many times have activist groups and other anti-development organizations attacked the qualifications of University professors, state regulators, or even White House appointed councils for supposedly being in the pocket of “Big Oil”? Whenever research does not align with what opponents want to believe, they simply dismiss it as “industry funded” or “inadequate” – even when those facts are presented by none other than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Opponents even smeared New York’s state geologist after he told the truth about Marcellus Shale development.

Moreover, opponents of natural gas development have no problem attacking journalists with whom they disagree. For example, a recent Associated Press article exposing the shoddy science used by anti-shale groups was received with predictable anger by those same groups. Josh Fox said of the story: “From the outset, the premise of this article was biased.” Sharon Wilson, a well-known activist in north Texas who also works for Earthworks, wrote: “I’m just going to say this out loud: Whose water is this AP reporter carrying?”

Somehow, those comments (which represent only a small sample of a broader response) didn’t make it into Mr. DeMelle’s scientific analysis. How convenient.

As for accusations of personal attacks, Mr. DeMelle’s website DeSmogBlog is not exactly fit to cast the first stone. Consider just this small sample of items written by folks at that blog:

  • In April 2009, DeSmogBlog claimed the oil and gas industry was guilty of spreading “propaganda” about the costs of new energy taxes.
  • On July 13, 2010, current DeSmogBlog research fellow Steve Horn said EID was creating a “disinformation freakshow” about the movie Gasland, calling us “industry spinmeisters” and “spin doctors” throughout the piece.
  • In May of this year, DeSmogBlog accused university professors of being biased, referring to their product as a “Shill Gas Study,” among other things.
  • And on July 29, 2012, DeSmogBlog accused folks who work for the oil and gas industry of “squealing with delight” as consumers paid more and more to fill up their cars and trucks with gasoline.

DeMelle: “One of the first people to raise questions about shale gas’s potential was Arthur Berman, a former Amoco geologist who, at the time, was a long-time contributing editor for an industry magazine called World Oil.”

EID: Those who follow EID know that we’ve talked about Mr. Berman quite a bit. We often disagree with him, but we’ve also noted the collegiality and professionalism he exhibits. That said, what Mr. DeMelle failed to mention about Mr. Berman is that he also sits on the board of directors for the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas. For those unfamiliar, that organization bills itself as “a network of scientists, affiliated with institutions and universities, having an interest in determining the date and impact of the peak and decline of the world’s production of oil and gas, due to resource constraints.” (emphasis added)

Is anyone surprised that someone who sits on the board of an organization committed to finding declining rates of oil and natural gas production is suggesting that – drum roll, please – natural gas will soon be in decline?

DeMelle: “Jim Cramer, the show’s host, also questioned Berman’s and the Times’ credibility, saying: ‘If we’re being duped by the nat gas industry, as this article suggests, then how come Exxon Mobil spent 31 billion to buy nat gas giant XTO? Were they fooled, too?’”

EID: Mr. DeMelle apparently doesn’t understand the difference between “questioning a person’s credibility” and “disagreeing with a person.” Anyone who isn’t working backward from the conclusion that journalists and other experts are victims of a grand conspiracy could recognize that Jim Cramer – though always outspoken – was not challenging Berman’s intellectual capacity. He was merely presenting an example of why Berman’s thesis was probably wrong.

If it’s convenient for Mr. DeMelle to pretend that this is a verbal assault on a journalist, then so be it. But offering an opinion in the public space also means you’re engaging in a public debate – that is, a discussion of differing viewpoints. Inherent in that is the presence of disagreement (it’s a debate, after all).

DeMelle: “It’s worth noting that Art Berman’s analysis is looking highly prescient these days. Official government estimates for shale gas have been slashed significantly.” (DeMelle, 8/2/2012)

EID: Irony of ironies: On the same day that Mr. DeMelle’s post appeared in Huffington Post, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its latest summary of America’s proved reserves of oil and natural gas for 2010. Here’s what EIA concluded: “Proved reserves of both oil and natural gas in 2010 rose by the highest amounts ever recorded in the 35 years EIA has been publishing proved reserves estimates.” EIA went on to say that natural gas proved reserves increased for the twelfth consecutive year.

Moreover, since Mr. DeMelle clearly believes Art Berman is a credible source, then why didn’t he include Mr. Berman’s outing of Rolling Stone author Jeff Goodell for falsely attributing statements to Mr. Berman? Is that also an “ad hominem” response, since it points out a critical flaw in reporting?

In any event, folks from DeSmogBlog might want to be wary about discussing energy markets and investments. Here’s an excerpt from a DeSmogBlog post dated April 2009:

Like carbon reduction plans, ramping up to renewable energy costs a lot in the beginning, but the costs decline as technology advances. In the U.S. this threshold effect is already beginning to reduce the costs of solar and wind. In fact, thin-film solar company Solyndra, which recently won a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy under the 2005 Energy Policy Act (but only after a nearly four-year hiatus, and with the help of a $6-billion allocation from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), expects to hit grid parity with coal in 2-3 years.

DeMelle: “Ultimately, industry proponents may find that these sorts of unsubstantiated allegations of animus are subject to the law of diminishing returns. The field is increasingly crowded with reporters and columnists who have had their professional credentials questioned, had their coverage labeled a ‘hit piece,’ or been accused of waging a ‘war’ against shale gas. And the investigative reporting that prompts howls from the shale gas industry increasingly earns respect and accolades from fellow journalists.”

EID: Does winning awards automatically establish accuracy? Josh Fox’s movie Gasland was riddled with errors, yet it won awards and was even nominated for an Oscar. The Society of Environmental Journalists, meanwhile, is giving a reporter who is suing the same industry that she’s covering an award for “outstanding in-depth reporting.”

The point here is that an award is less important than the accuracy of the news itself, and when the news frequently misstates the facts or omits important information (either deliberately or carelessly), the fact that it may earn “respect” from like-minded colleagues doesn’t change the facts – or lack thereof.

What Mr. DeMelle wants is an admission of guilt by the oil and gas industry about everything ever alleged against it, even if the problems don’t actually exist or the claims are more nuanced than what opponents like Mr. DeMelle want us to believe. And if the industry dare use novel things like “facts” and “science” to reveal the truth, then they’re apparently guilty of using personal attacks to advance an agenda. It’s an attempt to create a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose public debate that would establish credibility for opponents and guilt for the industry, both by arbitrary decree.

In short, Mr. DeMelle’s post is not a call for an informed public debate about complex issues; it’s an attempt to insulate opponents’ claims about oil and gas development from any scrutiny, and to stop publishing evidence that contradicts established dogmas. Ironically, that’s also a prescription for ending investigative journalism – exactly what Mr. DeMelle thought he was defending.

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