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New York Times natural-gas reporter Ian Urbina last week launched another salvo in his crusade against the shale-gas industry and the “fracking” method that’s opened up new vistas of gas exploitation. And, yet again, he screwed up.
In a March 18 article, Urbina reported that the Agriculture Department was about to require expensive and extensive home-by-home environmental reviews before issuing mortgages to aspiring rural homeowners who may want to lease out the natural-gas rights on their property.
But his main evidence was a few internal e-mails from lower-level regional administrators. For example, Jennifer Jackson, a junior program director for rural loans in the Ag Department’s New York office, had written: “We will no longer be financing homes with gas leases.”
We don’t know how Urbina got access to those internal e-mails — but it’s a good bet he was leaked them by sources who wanted this to be the policy.
He also cited an Agriculture congressional liaison’s e-mails to a few anti-fracking Democrats, which said the agency would consider revising current policies, but lacked the money for such a review.
His story notes that he couldn’t get comment from top Agriculture officials; I’m told there’s little trust in the department for the mistake-prone reporter.
More important: A bit more reporting — or, perhaps, more honesty about the biases of his sources — would have revealed that what was really going on was a campaign by activists pushing to use obscure environmental rules to scuttle shale-gas extraction.
A bit more reporting — or, perhaps, more honesty about the biases of his sources — would have revealed that what was really going on was a campaign by activists pushing to use obscure environmental rules to scuttle shale-gas extraction.The Agriculture Department has provided more than $165 billion in loans and guarantees under the Rural Housing Service Program, which helps the poor and small businesses almost exclusively. Activists hoped to see the National Environmental Policy Act applied to the program, further slowing (and stigmatizing) natural-gas exploitation.
But Urbina failed to note that NEPA, a vague 42-year-old statute that in limited cases requires environmental reviews before federal money is spent, had never covered any aspect of the rural aid —and that, were it applied, it would bring the whole program to a halt.
For that reason, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack sent out an e-mail rebuke just hours after Urbina’s tale was published: “As indicated in previous statements, USDA will not make any policy changes related to rural housing.”
Even Mother Jones, no friend to fracking, called out Urbina the day after Vilsack’s e-mail. “According to sources who have been following the issue in Washington,” the magazine wrote, “the possible change to require NEPA reviews was only a discussion draft and had not been approved by senior officials.” Indeed, the policy reversal “would have made it more difficult — if not impossible — to obtain these rural loans.”
In other words, what Urbina reported as a fait accompli was really the unlikely agenda of his sources.
And not for the first time. Last summer, the Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, wrote two columns sharply rebuking the reporter’s attacks on fracking. “My view is that such a pointed article needed more convincing substantiation, more space for a reasoned explanation of the other side and more clarity about its focus,” Brisbane wrote.
Undeterred, and apparently unrestrained by the Times’ news editors, Urbina subsequently dredged up a 27-year-old incident to claim that hydraulic fracturing fluids contaminated a well in West Virginia. That turned out to be false, too. With more than 1 million gas wells having been fracked in this country, there is still not a single documented example that the drilling has polluted groundwater.
What’s the take away? To anti-gas campaigners, and apparently Urbina, truth and the fate of poor rural Americans trying to buy homes or keep businesses afloat are acceptable casualties in the drive against shale-gas development.
Jon Entine is a senior fellow at STATS and the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University.
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