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*UPDATE II* NYT’s “Drive” to Deprive Readers of Facts

UPDATE II (6:18pm ET, 5/16/2012): Though it’s still unclear if this presentation was the source for Mr. Urbina’s claim about oil field worker fatalities, there’s another important detail that should be called to attention: the data referenced in the presentation comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and includes both onshore and offshore fatalities. Yet the “Drilling Down” series — of which Mr. Urbina’s latest story is a part — is about shale development, which of course is not inclusive of offshore development. Assuming this presentation is the source (and there’s plenty of reason to think that it is) then it appears Mr. Urbina either (a) was a bit careless in his fact checking and data collection, or (b) combined statistics from two separate forms of production in order to inflate the apparent risk associated with shale development.

UPDATE (5:27pm ET, 5/16/2012): In Mr. Urbina’s story, he notes: “Nearly a third of the 648 deaths of oil field workers from 2003 through 2008 were in highway crashes…” He goes on to say those numbers were “analyzed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” But it looks as if the numbers for this claim — as well as the one about oil and gas having a fatality rate “seven times” the national average — may have come from this presentation. The numbers and date ranges are nearly identical to what appears in Mr. Urbina’s story. The only problem: the document says up front (emphasis added): “The information in this presentation has not been reviewed by NIOSH or CDC and does not represent any federal government position or policy.” If Mr. Urbina did in fact use this presentation — which was, to be fair, given by employees at CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — then why did he say it had been reviewed by the CDC when it clearly had not? Was it to make it seem like the data was officially issued by the government, and thus give more credibility to his story? Or was it a simple error on his part?

Original post, May 16, 2012

In the latest installment of the New York Times‘ “Drilling Down” series, reporter Ian Urbina doubles down on his pre-conceived narrative that oil and natural gas development (particularly from shale) is inherently dangerous.

Facts and data points do appear in print, but their spatiality and lack of context lead readers down a dangerous – and completely disproven – line of thinking: namely, that oil and gas workers and truck drivers who play such a vital role in the process all have an abnormally high risk of being injured, even fatally. At the very least, readers of Mr. Urbina’s most recent attack would be forgiven for thinking – despite evidence showing otherwise – that the industry is dangerous and poorly regulated.

What follows is a summary of the more egregious errors that Mr. Urbina cleverly slipped past his editor in his latest piece:

NYT: “But the jobs are also hazardous, with fatality rates that are seven times the national average across all industries. Nearly a third of the 648 deaths of oil field workers from 2003 through 2008 were in highway crashes, according to the most recent data analyzed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By contrast, highway crashes caused roughly a fifth of workplace fatalities across all industries in 2010.”

FACT: The source of Mr. Urbina’s “seven times the national average” claim regarding fatality rates is unclear, a detail that is itself unsurprising given his problematic history with sources. Nonetheless, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the oil and gas industry is not even ranked in the top 25 for highest rates of injuries and illnesses across all industries. In fact, the average national injury incidence rate is three times higher than the rate for oil and gas extraction. For fatalities specifically, BLS data show that the fatality rate for oil and gas extraction is lower than that for aircraft pilots, chauffeurs, fishing, and farming, among many others.

And, according to the Centers for Disease Control – the same source Urbina cites in his story – the highway transportation fatality rate for oil and gas extraction is lower than general truck transportation, logging, and waste management. Even limousine services have higher highway fatality rates than those for oil and gas.

It’s also worth noting that the industry has been and still is making incredible progress in reducing truck traffic. For example, a single 18-mile-long water pipeline in Pennsylvania has removed more than 2,000 truck trips from local roadways. And thanks to advancements in recycling – including on-site technologies – the amount of water needed to be hauled to and from the well site has been reduced considerably, which of course translates to substantially less truck traffic.

If the industry were unsafe, the data would surely reflect it. Unless, of course, you’re not using data, in which case you can claim whatever you want.

NYT: “Few workers are unionized, meaning they are less able to complain about safety problems without fear of being fired.”

FACT: Once again, there’s no data to support Mr. Urbina’s claim. Instead, this appears to be a specious talking point that was added merely to advance a pre-conceived narrative about the industry – specifically, that it’s somehow hostile to organized labor (don’t tell that to these guys). And as mentioned: BLS tracks workplace injury statistics. So if the alleged “safety problems” that Mr. Urbina references were real, then it would be reflected in those stats. Unfortunately for The Times, the data simply do not support Mr. Urbina’s opinions.

NYT: “An analysis by The New York Times of more than 50,000 inspection reports indicates that as the number of drilling rigs rose by more than 22 percent in 2011 from the prior year, the number of inspections at such work sites fell by 12 percent.”

FACT: The only way this information would be relevant is if the number of incidents at drilling sites rose by roughly the same rate (12 percent) as the decline in inspections. Having both sets of data would allow the reader to put this information into the proper perspective. But Urbina doesn’t provide it. Instead, he cites two pieces of data that seem to suggest a problem – more rigs and fewer inspections – without providing even basic context to let the reader know if the information is (a) valid, (b) connected in any way, or (c) indicative of an actual issue.

What Mr. Urbina is suggesting is that all drilling sites are exactly the same, and thus there should be a one-to-one connection between drilling rigs and inspections. If the number of rigs increases while inspections decrease, Urbina reasons, then that gap represents some sort of danger quotient that will facilitate higher than normal injuries.

This is laughably absurd.

For example: vertical and horizontal wells typically have different permitting requirements, and thus different types and levels of inspections. In addition, there are different techniques and requirements for each target formation in different states. In Louisiana, for example, there are different fee structures based upon well depth and production levels. In Pennsylvania, there are different fees for vertical and horizontal wells, and New York’s Environmental Assessment Form – which is required for all well owners – requests information about each well’s proximity to other regulated areas, such as wetlands or other bodies of water. This information is not just taken down for fun; it’s used as part of the regulatory process, which includes permitting and inspections.

Needless to say, inspections and compliance can vary considerably between two wells in the same state, not to mention the differences between wells operating in different parts of the country. What Mr. Urbina is suggesting, however, is that these differences are not merely unimportant, but that they don’t even exist.

The irony here is that all of this information could have been gathered by simply navigating a search engine. Of course, knowing what to type into the search box would have required at least a basic understanding of the industry and the regulatory structure under which it falls, something one would think would be a prerequisite for reporting on it.

But on that, specific to this, one would be thinking incorrectly.

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