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When the Good News From Oil and Gas Isn’t So Good

News that focuses only on energy production numbers and not the effects of petroleum gushing from wells is typical of oil and gas reporting.



Newspaper boxes in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo: Erik Pronske / 500px.

In late March, New Mexico’s largest newspaper ran a story about how 2020 set records for oil and gas production in the state: More fossil fuels were pumped out of the ground last year than ever before. The Albuquerque Journal story, published in a weekly stand-alone business section, quoted a pair of company owners and an industry spokesperson. The original story was rewritten and repackaged by other outlets both in and outside of New Mexico. 

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The story proved popular with the industry. On the day it was published, the state’s most prominent oil and gas lobbying group put the story on its website and social media platforms and followed up with posts of how petroleum revenues pay for so much of the state’s budget. 

What was missing from the story’s narrative is the well-documented fact that oil and gas production is directly connected to climate change, and that increased production will have significant environmental consequences, particularly for New Mexico. Those environmental consequences also have economic consequences.

The state already faces record drought, record low rainfall, rising temperatures and a major river that will likely dry up this summer through its middle stretches — all effects of climate change fueled in part by what’s drilled from the ground here. Yet none of that was noted in the initial Journal story or the others.

That’s not unusual for oil and gas reporting, be that in New Mexico or elsewhere.

New Mexico faces record drought, record low rainfall and rising temperatures, all effects of climate change fueled in part by oil and gas drilling.

Stacy Feldman is starting a local news site in her new home in Colorado. Until recently, she lived outside New York City and worked at InsideClimate News, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newsroom that she helped found. She sees a lot of day-to-day reporting that doesn’t help readers understand how the fossil fuel industry and climate change are one and the same story.

“When we think about our responsibility as journalists, it's not necessarily to tell people what to think,” she says. “It's to help them determine and figure out how to think about complex issues

“The traditional approach to climate journalism is … sort of ‘we have a choice,’” she says. “And I think we don’t.”

News stories that focus on production numbers alone don’t reflect the effects of the petroleum gushing from wells in New Mexico. They don’t reflect how the industry’s boom-and-bust economics leave workers unemployed, even as production increases. Production numbers don’t explain how methane leaks increased over the past year. And production numbers alone don’t describe how all of that oil and gas production fully affects New Mexico, and the rest of the world, beyond its pocketbook.

“The poor framing from traditional media on climate change runs deep,” says Feldman. She thinks that creates a false objectivity that silos different parts of the story in different reporting beats. 

The lack of contextual reporting on climate change — not putting the production numbers together in the same story with the environmental damage — is an institutional problem and an industry problem, Feldman says. Readers get bits of information on a topic. But they don’t get context.

“What does it mean that New Mexico is producing more oil and gas than ever before in the context of global warming?” she asks. “Just adding that changes the story, right?”

*   *   *

The same day the Albuquerque Journal published its story about record production in 2020, state labor numbers showed that unemployment had actually increased in Lea, Eddy and San Juan counties, the state’s three main oil and gas producing counties.

Not only that, but in March, a peer reviewed report from the Environmental Defense Fund showed that greenhouse gas emissions had returned to pre-pandemic levels in the Permian Basin. This happened with fewer workers in the field to monitor wells for leaks. 

Production numbers alone don’t make the connection with climate change and aridification — how the state’s overall precipitation rates are dropping, precipitously. New Mexico just finished its driest 12-month period on record, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And the New Mexico state engineer closed water basins in the southernmost region of the Permian Basin to new drilling in an attempt to protect the water supply of the people who live there. 

And the problem is much bigger than just New Mexico. According to another new report from NOAA, the level of atmospheric methane (the prime component of natural gas) saw “the largest annual increase recorded since systematic measurements began in 1983.” This happened as oil and gas use across the planet dropped in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By relying on oil and gas revenues to prop up New Mexico's economy, residents are actively sustaining the very industry that is broiling their state and the planet.

The science connecting oil and gas production and climate change is unequivocal. In a statement released with the NOAA methane report, Colm Sweeney, assistant deputy director of the Global Monitoring Lab at NOAA, said that human activity — extracting and burning fossil fuels — drives climate change

“If we want to mitigate the worst impacts,” Sweeney said, “it’s going to take a deliberate focus on reducing fossil fuels emissions to near zero.”

Even as scientists continue to point out that reducing fossil fuel emissions is the clear path to reducing the worst impacts of climate change, in New Mexico, that’s a hard ask. The oil and gas industry remains the cornerstone of state government funding, even though many state leaders say they’re committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. But by relying on oil and gas revenues to prop up the state's economy, New Mexicans are also actively sustaining the very industry that is broiling their state and the planet. 

“It’s not left versus right. It’s not economy versus the environment,” Feldman says. “This just is. This is happening; let’s understand it.” And helping people understand complex problems is what reporters do.

*   *   *

A large part of the contextual reporting problem lies in disinformation campaigns started by the oil and gas industry decades ago to discredit climate science. Those campaigns created false equivalencies between scientific research and climate-denial opinions and created a conflict where none previously existed. 

John Fleck reported on science and the environment for more than 20 years at the Albuquerque Journal before leaving to become the director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico six years ago. He sees conflict as a primary driver of news coverage and of how newspapers choose stories. “It’s a way to get on the front page,” he says. “It’s a way to meet that conflict desire on the part of readers.”

The illusion of scientific controversy where none exists complicates reporting about petroleum production and climate change in the same story — even though the two are inextricably linked.

Industry used that desire to its advantage. The podcast “Drilled” documents how the fossil fuel industry worked for decades to create uncertainty about a scientific process it well understood. The show begins in 1978 with a scientific advisor for Exxon laying out the basics of climate change to the corporation heads, who then dissolve the research program where the advisor worked.

In another example, a utility trade group created a new group to create a special project, the 1991 “Test Market Proposal.” That campaign, funded by the Edison Electric Institute, outlined a plan to spend $510,000 on radio and print advertising to refute climate change science. One angle was a “comparison of global warming to historical or mythical instances of gloom and doom.” 

And, generally, the tactics of arguing and scare-mongering worked, polarizing and politicizing people’s understanding of a basic natural process. They created the appearance of a scientific controversy where none existed. That appearance still complicates reporting about petroleum production and climate change in the same story — even though the two are inextricably linked.

Not only that, reporters often lack the time and resources to put everything together for every story.

Kevin Robinson-Avila is a business and technology reporter at the Albuquerque Journal with more than 30 years’ experience. He wrote that story about New Mexico’s 2020 production numbers. In many ways he agrees with Feldman’s ideas, even though the two don’t know each other. 

Robinson-Avila says his thoughts on industry and climate reporting are his alone, and do not represent those of the Albuquerque Journal in any official capacity. 

He says that fossil fuel and climate change stories are “joined at the hip.” But getting all of the pieces together is complicated and time consuming and therefore hard to wedge into his daily newspaper work, he says. “It’s something I’ve been struggling with for years and years.” He writes as many as five stories a week for the paper — a prodigious number.

“It’s all about logistics,” he says. “I’m under an immense amount of time pressure and stress.” 

His strategy is to cover issues incrementally over time. And he hopes readers see them and put the larger narrative together. “I’ve tried over the years to balance it as much as I can,” he says.

Former Albuquerque Journal reporter John Fleck says that he regularly wrote climate change stories without using those particular words. “A politically significant minority have a cultural identity bound up in denying climate science.”

The shrinking newspaper industry makes the job all that much harder. He says that the Journal newsroom has lost dozens of reporters in the nine years he’s been there. It’s a trend across the industry. Newsroom employment fell by nearly half between 2008 and 2018. Newspaper revenue fell by more than 60%.

Looking back on his newspaper career at the Journal, Fleck says that he regularly wrote climate change stories without using those particular words. 

“A politically significant minority have a cultural identity bound up in denying climate science,” he says. So when it came to the phrase itself, he regularly left it out.

“I was being devious in the service of knowledge,” he says. “And I was criticized, maybe fairly, for not being more explicit.”

That said, Fleck tells how his friend and occasional collaborator Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, always adds discussion of climate change to his talks about the Colorado River. “Brad has sort of shamed me into abandoning that old way of thinking,” he says. Now, Fleck adds climate change into all of his talks about water.

Robinson-Avila himself hopes that all of the angles around climate and oil and gas are caught by the full reporting of his paper’s newsroom — maybe not all at once, but over time. However, that requires readers to read the paper closely, daily, to catch all of the nuance. Many of the environmental stories about methane and drought that came out in the days after his production story did eventually run in the paper, though often briefly and without a section cover.

The state’s record oil and gas production is joined at the hip with climate change, and Robinson-Avila hopes that readers can put the pieces together, though he is not sure they always can.

“That’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality,” he says.

*   *   *

Scientists read newspapers and websites, too, and they want their stories told accurately. They notice when that doesn’t happen.

Dr. Diana Six is a professor of forest entomology and pathology at the University of Montana. She is best known for her work studying bark beetles, the notorious insects that have laid waste to large swathes of forest in the western United States. She is also a Fellow at Britain's Royal Entomological Society. 

Six has noticed how stories on climate change triggers, such as burning fossil fuels, are reported separately from stories about the results of climate change on the ground, like fire and the beetle-killed forests she studies. “I think that’s part of why maybe the public doesn’t make the connection,” she says.

That siloed reporting made her want to tell her own stories. So she is now working toward a master’s degree in natural resource and environmental journalism — that is in addition to her four previous degrees, culminating in a Ph.D. in entomology. “I felt that quite often, journalists were not aware of missing some of the bigger stories, the connections with climate change,” she says. “In order to get some of the information out, I needed to learn to tell the stories as well.”

In her own work, she’s seen how the bark beetles she studies have thrived in recent years because of fewer -40ºF winter days to kill them off in Montana. In New Mexico, drought encourages their spread. But those beetles are just single symptoms of the larger climate story. Forests across the west are suffering from a complete change of seasons. The springs, summers and winters are all different from what they were decades ago. “All of that is leading to a lot more stress on our forests,” she says.

Too often Six sees reporting focused on “little simplistic things that everybody feels are fixable or can go away really easily when, in reality, that's not the case,” she says. “Our continued pumping of fossil fuels into the atmosphere is driving these huge changes.”

In the face of climate change, the natural systems she studies are declining faster than they are recovering, “and that's a bad sign,” Six says. “We’re way further along than people have a clue.”

She hopes that better reporting can give people that clue, because the outlook for a world that doesn’t stop belching CO2 is not just different: “I think it's very grim.”

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