Fracking, InsideClimate, and Public Integrity

Over the past several months, researchers at InsideClimate News (ICN) and the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) have increasingly focused their attention on issues related to hydraulic fracturing. From a lengthy report on air quality in the Eagle Ford region of south Texas to a largely uncritical write-up of an environmental group’s research on shale development, the stories have been decidedly negative, with accusations of health and environmental impacts forming the bulk of the coverage.

But the omission of research demonstrating safety or benign environmental impacts, including major governmental reports and peer-reviewed studies, suggests that the ICN/CPI team is actively pursuing a narrative of harm, leaving aside other facts and realities about a significant yet complicated issue.

Questions have also emerged about the methods that ICN and CPI have employed to obtain information for their stories, including the frequent use of opinions from activist groups with whom ICN and CPI share, but do not adequately disclose, funding sources. Emails obtained by Energy In Depth show a willingness on the part of the ICN/CPI team to present false information as part of its interviews, or to deliberately withhold information about their affiliations from interviewees. There is also evidence that the ICN/CPI team has mischaracterized the interviews it has conducted with industry-affiliated sources.

What follows is a deeper dive into the financial connections and questionable techniques of InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity, whose joint interest in “fracking” appears to blur the line between objective reporting and environmental advocacy.

‘Fracking’ Coverage Lacks Balance

A quick scan of InsideClimate News’ website – specifically its reports under the heading “Natural Gas and Fracking” – suggests that ICN has chosen to focus on the potential risks of development, going so far as to describe hydraulic fracturing as being “largely unregulated.” (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has credited individual states with doing a “good job” regulating hydraulic fracturing.)

Additionally, in recent years, the states with the most hydraulic fracturing activity – including Texas, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Wyoming – have strengthened their rules several times, on aspects ranging from well construction standards to air emissions and chemical disclosure. In many if not most cases, the industry has worked alongside environmental groups to update these standards.

Aside from factual inaccuracies with ICN’s description (the website also calls hydraulic fracturing a “drilling process,” which it is not), the tone of coverage is also tilted toward the sensational.

“Toxic Emissions Spikes at Fracking Sites Are Rarely Monitored, Study Finds” reads one of their headlines. The study at the core of the ICN/CPI story was released by a group that receives funding from anti-fracking sources, which was omitted in the coverage.

“Fracking Boom Spews Toxic Air Emissions on Texas Residents” reads another headline. The team’s lengthy examination of the North Dakota oil boom decried the “clout and swagger of the oil companies in politics,” arguing that the industry had “unsettled” the state (buried deeper in the story, the writers admitted: “Residents are largely supportive of the oil industry” in North Dakota).

A story from March 10 attempted to link recent propane shortages during an abnormally cold winter to consumer harm from oil or natural gas exports:

“Industry practices that boost profit at the expense of consumers can already be seen in the nation’s gasoline and diesel markets. In the case of those fuels, record levels of exports have helped keep U.S. fuel prices aloft even though there’s a glut of discounted crude oil in Texas, where refiners have been churning out products at high rates. Meanwhile, the nation’s fuel inventories remain relatively lean, so problems with pipelines or refineries often produce price spikes.” (emphasis added)

The assumption built into this narrative – that “industry practices” and exports are harming consumers because they are about “boosting profits” – is not only an opinionated one; it’s also factually suspect.

For example, the head of the U.S. Energy Information Administration – the chief statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy – has credited petroleum product exports (gasoline, diesel, etc.) with reducing prices for consumers, not coming “at the expense” of them.

“I would say preliminary evidence is that the ability to export excess product has actually allowed refiners to operate at higher utilization rates,” EIA administrator Adam Sieminski said last summer at a Bipartisan Policy Center event. “The net result of that is to keep product prices to consumers actually lower than they otherwise would be.” Analysts quoted in the Financial Times said U.S. exports of crude oil could actually reduce global oil prices by as much as $30 per barrel. A major study by IHS-CERA also found that lifting the U.S. ban on oil exports would likely reduce gasoline prices by an average of about eight cents per gallon.

The ICN/CPI team’s coverage has also overlooked a variety of well-respected analyses and reports that do not advance a narrative of harm from development. For example:

  • Earlier this year, Pennsylvania air quality regulators released their latest data on emissions associated with natural gas development, which found that “across-the-board emission reductions” in the Commonwealth “can be attributed to the steady rise in the production and development of natural gas.” The regulators also noted that since 2008, when Marcellus Shale development began in earnest, emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter have decreased by 73 percent, 23 percent, and 46 percent, respectively. The data were widely reported.
  • A peer-reviewed report – coauthored by a U.S. Geological Survey official – examined more than 2,300 gas and water samples in northeastern Pennsylvania, finding that large quantities of methane in groundwater “predate Marcellus Formation drilling activity,” including the presence of thermogenic methane. Researchers often point to thermogenic methane as the “fingerprint” to suggest shale development is the cause of methane in groundwater, but this report challenged that theory, making its findings both new and significant.
  • EPA’s latest draft Greenhouse Gas Inventory showed that methane emissions from natural gas field production fell 40 percent since 2006, a reduction that dropped natural gas out of the top spot for biggest methane emitters in the United States. Methane “leaks” have played a major role in the debate over the environmental advantage of natural gas, with critics frequently claiming such leaks cancel any benefits that natural gas would otherwise have. InsideClimate News has referenced methane leakage multiple times as a potential negative element of shale gas development. News outlets such as Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, and many others covered the release of EPA’s Inventory.
  • In April, a researcher from California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, Calif., revealed that his analysis of 40 ground water samples in the middle of northeast Colorado’s oil and gas fields showed “no evidence” that methane related to drilling was polluting water wells. This is the same part of the country where the film Gasland depicted its infamous flaming faucet, which the movie suggested was caused by oil and gas development.
  • In April 2014, the American Lung Association released its air quality findings for North Dakota. Although the ALA — which has pushed for a moratorium on fracking — stressed that many factors can impact local air pollution, including wind direction, the group gave “A” grades to several of the largest oil producing counties in the state, including McKenzie County, the largest oil producer overall. The ICN/CPI team did not cover the report — not even in its lengthy write-up of shale development in North Dakota, in which air quality concerns are referenced multiple times.
  • A peer-reviewed paper published on July 21, 2014, by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas development are essentially the same as those from so-called “conventional” gas drilling, and are thus about half of what is emitted from coal. Some activists have questioned whether shale gas has a distinct climate advantage, due to the presence of methane leaks throughout the supply chain, and this latest PNAS paper appeared to challenge that claim. It also received national and international coverage. ICN did not cover it, although ICN did report on a separate, earlier paper published in the same journal that suggested methane leaks were significantly larger than previously thought. That paper was authored by an anti-fracking researcher whose work is funded by the same entities that fund ICN.

This list is not exhaustive, but it is illustrative: research challenging allegations of harm from development does not receive the same attention (if any) from the ICN/CPI team as do allegations of harm.

One could suggest, however, that other news coverage of the preceding stories makes them less “fresh” as news. The hallmark of investigative journalism – in which ICN and CPI claim to be engaging – is originality, meaning if a topic is already covered, then journalists will be less interested in writing their own story.

But that hasn’t been a barrier for ICN and CPI. For example, the ICN/CPI team reported on a jury verdict related to a north Texas family’s accusations against nearby oil and gas activity – a story that had already been reported by CNN, MSNBC, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, the Dallas Morning News, and many others. ICN later filed several followup stories on the same subject.

Two days before the ICN/CPI coverage of an environmentalist-funded report on emission “spikes,” ProPublica covered the same report in an extensive write-up. NPR’s StateImpact blog republished ProPublica’s piece, as did the Philadelphia Inquirer and Scientific American, among many others across the country. By the time the ICN/CPI story ran, residents from Pennsylvania to Alaska had already heard about the study.

That report on emissions “spikes” was released by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP), a group that receives funding from the Heinz Endowments and the Claneil Foundation. Both Heinz and Claneil are known for funding environmentalist causes, giving tens of thousands of dollars to anti-fracking groups like PennEnvironment and Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSEHE). David Brown, the study’s lead author, sits on the advisory council for PSEHE. The link to anti-fracking advocacy was not disclosed in the ICN/CPI coverage.

A more recent story from ICN — which asserted that families are “sick from fracking” — painted a sympathetic portrait of EHP, which also quoted Brown and claimed the group is neither for or against fracking. Brown’s role with PSEHE was not disclosed, although the funding sources for EHP were included in that later story.

Working with Anti-Fracking Groups?

It has become increasingly common for large foundations that fund environmental groups to finance environmental reporting as well. Given the potential for conflicts of interest, most news outlets will disclose that information in their stories.

For example, Allegheny Front (a radio program in western Pennsylvania) receives funding from the Heinz Endowments, so when AF covered news of Heinz’s leader stepping down from her position, the story was preceded by a disclaimer: “The Allegheny Front is a beneficiary of Heinz Endowments funding.” When AF reported on Heinz pulling the plug on a research project with the University of Pittsburgh, the reporter noted that Heinz was the “major source of long term funding” for Allegheny Front.

Midwest Energy News follows a similar dynamic. In its stories that reference the Natural Resources Defense Council, MWEN notes in the body of the stories that the NRDC is also a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News (see here and here for two examples).

Even news outlets that are not dedicated solely to environmental issues will post disclaimers about funding sources. The Texas Tribune, for example, recently covered a series of questions about air quality in Texas, citing researchers who work at institutions that also fund the Tribune. That link was established explicitly on the story’s page.

Disclosures of common links with quoted environmental groups, however, do not appear in the ICN/CPI team’s coverage of hydraulic fracturing.

An extensive investigation by the Washington Free Beacon highlighted the funding sources for the groups cited in the ICN/CPI team’s Eagle Ford report in February, as well as the organizations who shared that report on their websites or social media. At least four of those groups “are financed by the same environmentalist foundations that support ICN,” according to the Free Beacon.

One of those foundations is the Park Foundation, which has become one of the most recognizable sources of funding for anti-fracking causes across the country. Inside Philanthropy calls Park “a hero for fracking opponents,” whose grantees range from other anti-fracking foundations to universities that produce research critical of shale development. “Park has become one of the more dedicated and staunch opponents of fracking,” according to Inside Philanthropy. “They’re after a straight-up ban.”

“In our work to oppose fracking, the Park Foundation has simply helped to fuel an army of courageous individuals and NGOs,” Park president Adelaide Gomer said in 2011. According to research by Gannett’s Albany bureau, as of April 2012 the Park Foundation “has spread around more than $3 million to dozens of advocacy groups and other institutions that oppose hydrofracking or to those that have produced research on the technique.” Park has also provided significant funding for both Gasland movies.

InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity both receive funding from the Park Foundation, although ICN’s publisher, David Sassoon, told the Free Beacon that their donors “have zero access to our editorial discussions or decisions.” Last year, the Park Foundation gave $25,000 to InsideClimate News, earmarked explicitly for news coverage on “air and water pollution related to hydraulic fracturing.”

Sassoon did not respond to questions about whether donor overlap warrants disclosure in its articles, according to the Free Beacon.

In a lengthy report for Philanthropy Roundtable, Jon Entine also recently explored the donor overlap in ICN’s reporting:

Park-supported groups like the NRDC weigh in on many Park-supported projects. In February of this year, the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News (ICN) teamed up with the Weather Channel to produce a series of reports on the Texan Eagle Ford shale formation.

“Their reporting now shows clearly that Texans in the area of Eagle Ford are having trouble breathing, and regulators are having trouble noticing,” said NRDC attorney Kate Sinding.

“People who suffer the effects of oil and gas emissions have few places to turn for help other than to the politicians and regulatory agencies that are often cheerleaders for, and financially beholden to, the industry,” said one ICN story.

The series was supported by a $25,000 Park grant “to report and publish articles on…air and water pollution related to hydraulic fracturing.” Many of the sources in the series, as well as the outlets promoting it (the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthworks, Public Citizen, the NDRC) also received Park funding.

David Sassoon with ICN previously worked for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, another funding source for InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity. RBF also supports Bill McKibben’s group 350.org, which has increasingly focused on “fracking” as part of its opposition to oil and gas development. McKibben called the Rockefeller Brothers Fund a “great ally” in a 2011 interview.

The connections go beyond common funding, however.

The ICN/CPI team wrote that operators in the Eagle Ford “that violate state regulations face few, if any, repercussions.” An Earthworks report issued five months earlier, which also examined air emissions in the Eagle Ford region, was premised on the exact same thing. Earthworks wrote: “by failing to consistently apply rule and statute, and to penalize violators, regulators essentially condone reckless operator behavior…” The ICN/CPI report referenced Earthworks’ research on several occasions, and even cited documents that Earthworks had previously obtained through open records requests with the state.

Meanwhile, the U.S. EPA has defended the efficacy of current regulations. “I have no information that states aren’t doing a good job already,” said Steve Heare, the director of EPA’s Drinking Water Protection Division, when asked about state regulation of hydraulic fracturing.

“We have no data right now that lead us to believe one way or the other that there needs to be specific federal regulation of the fracking process,” said former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson in 2011. “States are stepping up and doing a good job,” she added later.

Despite such affirmation from the nation’s top environmental regulator, InsideClimate News still alleges that hydraulic fracturing is “largely unregulated,” putting it in line with other major anti-fracking groups who use a similar talking point to push for new regulations or even outright bans. The Sierra Club, for example, argues that hydraulic fracturing “occurs with little or outdated regulation.” Earthjustice uses the term “unregulated fracking,” while the Natural Resources Defense Council says the process is “poorly regulated.”

Telling the Story They Want

As the ICN/CPI team wrapped up its investigation of the Eagle Ford earlier this year, Greg Gilderman, a producer from the Weather Channel, contacted Energy In Depth via email to request an on-camera interview. Gilderman did not mention that ICN or CPI were a part of the story on which he was working.

EID inquired about the subject, to which Gilderman replied:

“Hydraulic fracturing in South Texas. We’re looking for a take on the big picture of benefits and costs, as well as the specific issue of pollution some claim is happening.”

After several emails and phone calls to coordinate timing, the interview took place on January 17. Gilderman called ahead that day to mention that someone named “Jim” would be conducting the interview. There was no reference to InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity, or any other organization besides the Weather Channel in any of the communication prior to the interview.

In the middle of the interview, however, Jim mentioned InsideClimate News for the first time, and told EID that they were working with ICN on the report. It was not until the interview had ended that Jim provided EID with a business card indicating he was with the Center for Public Integrity.

Others have also complained that the team fails to disclose its affiliations before interviews.

In the video that accompanied the ICN/CPI team’s report on Eagle Ford air emissions, an email is shown on screen from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in response to the ICN/CPI team’s questions. The camera quickly zooms in on an excerpt about air pollutant levels in the Eagle Ford area.

But a few paragraphs above those highlighted sentences, in a section of the email that is shaded and partially cut off after the camera zooms, the TCEQ made a startling accusation:

“We respectfully decline your requests for further interviews, since your team has already done a number of interviews with TCEQ staff without identifying themselves as employees of the various organizations they represent. You have also called staff members at home.” (9:58; emphasis added)

The Society of Professional Journalists advises reporters against concealing the identity of themselves or the organizations for which they work.

“Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public,” reads the SPJ’s Code of Ethics, listed above even its advice against plagiarizing. “Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.”

When it published the Eagle Ford report, ICN and CPI included a lengthy explainer on “what we did to get this story.” There was no explanation for why the researchers had refused to identify themselves before conducting interviews.

In a followup communication shortly after the interview, EID inquired if Jim Morris from CPI and his other researchers would be using a report that Earthworks released in September 2013, which also looked at air emissions in the Eagle Ford. EID specifically mentioned Earthworks’ “misreading of short-term sampling results by comparing them against long-term exposure values,” a reference to benzene measurements described on page 22 of that report.  TCEQ has criticized this technique as “not scientifically appropriate.”

Morris responded via email on February 12th: “we’re not using the Earthworks numbers you describe.”

But on page five of the report, published less than a week later, the ICN/CPI team references those exact benzene measurements, and even cites Earthworks specifically.

In a separate email, obtained by EID and dated February 8, Greg Gilderman with the Weather Channel contacted the ICN/CPI team asking for “Key portions of Subra’s study” (Wilma Subra was a co-author of the September 2013 Earthworks study). InsideClimate News’ Lisa Song responded that same day – four days before Morris informed EID that they were “not using” the Earthworks numbers – with a link to the Earthworks report. Song noted: “p. 22 has the results with the 14 VOCs near the Cernys mentioned in the main story.”

Others interviewed by ICN and CPI say that the groups have mischaracterized the nature of those interviews.

“Omar Garcia, who heads the San Antonio-based communications arm of the 11 biggest Eagle Ford operators, answered questions over the phone and by email,” the ICN/CPI team wrote in its February report.

Energy In Depth reached out to Mr. Garcia, who is the President and CEO of the South Texas Energy & Economic Roundtable (STEER), which is actually a regional oil and gas trade association. Contrary to the ICN/CPI characterization, Garcia said he flew to Washington, DC, and sat down with the researchers for over an hour, in addition to answering numerous questions over the phone and via email.

In a later story on emissions projections from Eagle Ford Shale development, ICN reached out to STEER once again. According to Garcia, David Hasemyer with InsideClimate News called him in the morning the day the story was filed (April 11) and asked for comment. Garcia said he was speaking to them on his cell phone from Houston and was just walking into a meeting, but offered to go over the emissions report with them at length at a later time. Hasemyer refused.

The ICN/CPI team characterized Garcia’s response as dismissive, writing that “he couldn’t spare even a few minutes” to discuss the report.

Award-Winning Reporting?

Earlier this year, the Center for Public Integrity received a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting related to the coal industry. One of CPI’s major funders is the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which since 2011 has given the Sierra Club at least $2.6 million for its Beyond Coal campaign to advocate against coal. Hewlett’s website argues that “reducing the use of coal is crucial to tackling global warming,” adding that “making grants to organizations whose work involves reducing dependence on coal and other high-carbon fuels is essential.”

In his official entry letter to the Pulitzer judges, Bill Buzenberg, the executive director of CPI, never mentioned the Hewlett Foundation or the other CPI funders who give money to anti-coal campaigns.

CPI’s prize did not come without its own public controversy, though. After the award was issued, a senior vice president for ABC News wrote that CPI “misled the Pulitzer board with its submission,” claiming CPI “diminished” the work ABC News did as a part of the reporting. CPI defended itself, saying ABC News’ contribution was only “sporadic and almost entirely geared toward the needs of television.”

Last year, InsideClimate News was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on an oil sands spill in the Kalamazoo River in 2010. In submitting the package of reports to the judges in January 2013, InsideClimate News’ executive editor Susan White referenced “the national debate over the Keystone XL oil pipeline” to describe the significance of ICN’s reporting.

What was not listed in Ms. White’s letter was a disclaimer that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is a core funder of InsideClimate News. RBF also funds the activist group 350.org’s efforts to stop oil sands development and block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The fact that ICN’s publisher, David Sassoon, is a former employee of RBF was also omitted.

A 2008 presentation from RBF described its efforts to help create a “network of leading US and Canadian NGOs” to oppose oil sands development and related infrastructure, including Keystone XL.

Two of the lead InsideClimate News reporters for that Pulitzer-winning investigation were Lisa Song and David Hasemyer, both of whom are now contributing to the ICN/CPI team’s reports about hydraulic fracturing.

Conclusion

To their credit, both InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity list their major funders on their “About” pages. But when their reports are reprinted by blogs or even national wire services – which then appear in newspapers all across the country – those facts are not disclosed. The casual reader has no reason to think there is any sort of potential conflict, because it’s simply a story appearing in his or her local newspaper. This is one reason, among many, why other non-profit news sources make such connections clear in the bodies of their stories.

Worse still, the fact that the ICN/CPI team has deceived interviewees raises questions about their commitment to objective and fair reporting, even as respected outlets such as McClatchyBloomberg News, and many others reprint their stories as news.

Ironically, these two organizations have written extensively on how money can shape recipients’ perceptions and even impact decision making, as they alleged in February with Texas officials who benefit from the economic growth associated with shale development. That report accused the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the state legislature of being “intertwined with the industry.” A later report suggested a “flood of oil money” from the industry has “transformed” politics in North Dakota.

Looking at the evidence, it’s difficult to see how ICN and CPI are not themselves “intertwined” with a different type of industry: the anti-fracking movement, to which various foundations have committed tens of millions of dollars in recent years – the same foundations that also fund InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity.

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