*UPDATE* EIA Calls Out Nature’s ‘Inaccurate and Distorted’ Reporting on U.S. Shale

UPDATE (12/16/2014; 12:12 pm ET): Just after the Energy Information Administration (EIA) sent a letter to Nature pushing back on its “inaccurate and distorted reporting,” Scott Tinker, who is one of the lead authors of the study from the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas (BEG/UT) that was also cited, wrote a letter to Nature explaining that its article “contains misrepresentative speculation and apparent bias.”

Among the problems Tinker had with Nature’s article:

  • “The ‘Battle of the Forecasts: Big Four Sources’ figure attributes a graph to UT that we did not create. We provided the author with results from our peer-reviewed, published Barnett and Fayetteville studies…To attempt to re-create our work without permission is unacceptable.” (emphasis added)
  • “In our conversations with the author, we emphasized that we work collaboratively with the EIA and that we both consider future scenarios and perform sensitivity analyses to show how variations in input parameters affect production outlooks. The EIA result is, in fact, one possible outcome of our model. The author misleads readers by suggesting faults in the EIA results without providing discussion on the importance of input assumptions and output scenarios.”’

Tinker summarizes the problems this way: “the feature includes no original scientific data or work, misrepresents the BEG study results, ignores the treatment of uncertainties and scenarios, and editorializes a very important global issue.”

Looks like Nature has some explaining to do.

Original post, December 15, 2014

When Nature published an article a few weeks ago suggesting that the abundance of U.S. natural gas is “wishful thinking” and “overly optimistic,” EID pointed out some of the shortcomings of this reporting, including the fact that many of the “experts” consulted in the piece were actually well-known peak oil enthusiasts, which Nature failed to disclose.

Turns out that was just the beginning.  This week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) wrote a letter to Richard Monastersky, the News Features Editor of Nature, explaining that the publication “badly misconstrues” EIA’s data and that the article is “filled with inaccurate and distorted reporting.”

Some of the problems include Nature’s contention that there is a “battle of forecasts” between EIA data and a report conducted by researchers at Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas (BEG/UT), with EIA showing large production growth and the BEG/UT data showing major declines. As EIA explains in the letter, Nature did not accurately present the agency’s data:

“EIA’s recognition of uncertainty is one of our key motivations for providing a variety of scenarios for shale gas production (Reference, Low Resource, and High Resource cases) in its Annual Energy Outlook.  Contrary to the presentation in the Nature article, EIA does not characterize any of its long run projection scenarios as a forecast.”

Nature doesn’t adequately present BEG/UT’s research either, according to EIA:

In addition to repeatedly misconstruing EIA’s Reference case projection as a forecast, the article is filled with inaccurate and distorted reporting.  For example, the figure in the ‘Battle of the Forecasts’ box shows a year 2030 value for EIA about 130 to 140 billion cubic meters above the value shown for “UT total 4 plays” and about the same amount below the two industry analyst estimates shown.  It is unclear how the same gap represents a battle between BEG/UT and EIA projections while industry forecasts are characterized as ‘generally failing in the neighborhood of the EIA assessment.’  It is also unlikely that readers will understand that the line for the BEG/UT scenario that is presented in the same figure is not actually derived from the published papers cited in the article, but reflects the work of the reporter based on his interpretation of ongoing work-in-progress.” (emphasis added)

EIA makes the crucial point that Nature oversimplifies the data and doesn’t account for many important factors that contribute to production and supply:

“The article radically oversimplifies the matter at hand through its exclusive focus on the use of larger or smaller areas (county vs. square mile) in the EIA and BEG/UT studies.  In fact, many other actors, including well-spacing, rates of technology improvement, drilling costs, price scenarios and shared infrastructure across plays (for example, the key Marcellus play overlaps the Utica play, which was not part of the BEG/UT model but is accounted for in EIA modeling) that can significantly affect future production.”

Finally, EIA acknowledges what EID explained when the article came out: it leans on the opinions of folks in the Peak Oil community.  According to EIA, the article “relies heavily on Professor Patzek in describing the work of the BEG/UT team and its implications,” even though he actually “has a relatively small role in the BEG/UT project.”  Further, even though Professor Scott Tinker and Dr. Svetlana Ikonnikova are the two co-Principal Investigators of the BEG/UT study, Tinker is only briefly mentioned and Dr. Ikonikova isn’t mentioned at all.  As EIA rightly states,

“…it might also be appropriate for the article to inform readers that Patzek is a leading figure in the peak oil community, which emphasizes concerns related to limitations on the availability of hydrocarbon resources.  Patzek’s personal website ( notes that he currently serves as President of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time this kind of irresponsible reporting has occurred on the issue of shale supplies.  As EIA reminds us in the letter:

“In June 2011, the New York Times (NYT), published two articles ‘Insiders Sound Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush’ (June 26) and ‘Behind Veneer, Doubt on the Future of Natural Gas’ (June 27).  The NYT’s public editor, who acts as an ombudsman on behalf of the readers, responded to these articles with two columns (July 16 and July 30, 2011) that found both the content of the articles and the reporting methods to be deeply flawed, in many instances for the same reasons that motivated this response to Nature’s December 4 article.”

One thing all these articles have in common is that they’ve had to use dubious methods and, indeed, “inaccurate and distorted reporting” in order to come to the conclusion that the shale boom is quickly going bust.  While any projection contains uncertainty, the myth of Peak Oil has been countered not only by EIA, but also by the International Energy Agency, the leadership of the International Energy Forum, as well as other notable scholars and experts.

Now, as EIA states in the letter, it’s up to Nature to “recognize the shortcomings” of its article and “provide its readers more insightful and scientific coverage of this important topic.” It is, after all, the right thing to do.

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