Greasing and Oiling the Journal Narrative

November 22nd, 2011 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

I’d like to borrow a phrase aptly coined by my colleague, Arthur Alpert, when he wrote that the Journal has engaged in a “narrative” against solar energy (through its overkill running of Solyndra stories, casting a “guilt by association” pall on otherwise noncontroversial solar stories that pop up on business and news pages here and there).

Defining the “narrative” as Arthur does – as “the line that runs most prominently, boldly and colorfully through the daily’s editorials, Op Ed columns and so-called news columns” – one can find a consistent narrative in the Journal positing that the oil and gas industry in New Mexico is hurting financially and unable to expand and operate at its full potential because it is unnecessarily regulated.

This is the mantra repeated over and over in lengthy opinion pieces on the Editorial and Op-Ed pages.

The latest appeared Sunday in the form of “Delaying Pipeline Makes No Sense,” a piece by San Juan County Commissioner James Henderson criticizing the U.S. State Department decision (after significant public outcry) to delay approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline that would traverse the United States from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast.

After two paragraphs expressing bewilderment at the delay, Henderson tosses in, without offering supportive evidence, these claims:

New Mexico has experienced firsthand how an economy can suffer when strict regulatory guidelines are imposed on the oil and gas industry. The cap-and-trade program and pit rule caused detrimental effects to oil and gas producers in the state.

It is a shame to see this happen on a nationwide basis as well.

This mantra has become a boilerplate paragraph in columns about oil and gas. Furthermore, Henderson extends the suffering beyond the industry to suffering “New Mexico has experienced firsthand,” allegedly because of oil and gas regulations. For good measure, he tosses in the industry’s buzz issues – cap-and-trade and pit rule – in tossing out to the reader this so-called fact.

The Journal comes across as sympathizing with the oil and gas industry because it runs columns like this as quickly as the numerous pro-industry think tanks crank them out. That impression is buttressed when the paper endorses pro-industry candidates like Steve Pearce at election time, when it pushes for oil exploration and when it runs a headline like the one it ran April 17: “A Year Later, Gulf Still Healing From Spill”.  (I think “Reeling” would have been more accurate than “Healing” in describing the situation the story described one year after the BP oil spill.)

What’s interesting, however, is that this pity-the-oil-and-gas-industry meme is actually contradicted time after time on the Journal’s own pages.

On Sunday, for example, just three pages after Henderson’s column on B3, the entire Dimension section front on B6 was dedicated to a Washington Post story with a headline that almost says it all: “Matters of Fact: Do Federal Regulations Really Kill Jobs? The Overall Impact on Employment Is Minimal, Economists Say.” The think tank “researchers” no doubt began cranking out a rebuttal as soon as this one hit their desks.

But wait. There’s more.

On Saturday (Nov. 19), the Journal carried the State Land Office report that more than $5 million had been received from oil and natural gas leases just for the month of November. This money goes to support public school and universities and state hospitals. Total received from leases so far this year, the story says, is more than $91 million. A story like this appears on the Journal’s Business page pretty much every month.

In July, Dan Boyd of the Journal’s Capitol Bureau got the A1 slot for his story, “Oil Drilling Surges in N.M.’s Potash Areas,” with the sub-headline, “State Rakes In Record Bids.” That story said:

New Mexico is benefiting financially from a surge in oil drilling interest in the southeastern part of the state.

Improved drilling techniques and the consent of potash miners persuaded the State Land Office this year to open previously off-limits tracts of land in southeastern counties to oil companies. Now, the state is pulling in record amounts of money in lease agreements – much of it earmarked for public schools – at a time when oil prices are surging.

The surge wasn’t expected to last – State Land Commissioner Ray Powell told Boyd most leases would be let by August – but the story added:

. . .it’s the latest sign of an uptick in New Mexico oil production despite ongoing debate over the state’s environmental regulations.

Similarly, the Journal has carried stories by reporters at the Farmington Daily Times predicting the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico could see “an uptick” in Mancos Shale drilling in 2012. From an Aug. 12 story:

“We think we’ll see a critical mass by next year,” said Steve Dunn, drilling and production manager at Merrion Oil and Gas. “We’ll see some drilling.”

The story explained that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have made it possible for drillers to reach previously unavailable oil and gas deposits deep within shale rock, and that drilling in the Mancos Shale would require 10 to 20 stages of fracturing per well. The Mancos Shale is mostly south of Farmington, spanning 3,400 square miles in San Juan, Rio Arriba and Sandoval counties, according to the story.

{Side note: So far, Journal news stories about potential problems with fracking have been limited. An August story got a brief follow-up Nov. 18 when the state Oil Conservation Division decided to go along with the N.M. Oil and Gas Association’s offer to disclose the make-up of the fluids the industry uses in fracturing. A story also ran on the Business page about an Albuquerque company treating frac water in Pennsylvania, which said “some 215,000 jobs could be created by fracking in Pennsylvania by 2015 if the industry thrives.” Readers should expect much more on this subject, as stories emerge about the potential deadliness, at least in Pennsylvania, of the chemicals that are not introduced by fracking but released naturally as fracking takes place. The disturbing New York Times Magazine story on the suffering of residents in Pennsylvania also brings up the federal take on “disclosure:”

In 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney spearheaded an amendment to the energy bill, which critics call the Halliburton Loophole. This legislation exempts hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act and protects companies like Halliburton, of which Cheney was once the C.E.O., from disclosing what chemicals are going into the ground.}

But back to the Journal stories that contradict the pro-oil and gas meme: The Journal has run brief national-in-scope business stories on oil profits throughout the year, like the one on April 29 announcing that Exxon made almost $11 billion – that’s with a B – in its first 2011 quarter. The story said this was Exxon’s highest profit since the nearly $15 billion it made in profits in the third quarter of 2008.

It ran a substantial story (May 15) on whether Big Oil pays its fair share in taxes and a column by former N.M. Taxation and Revenue Secretary Rick Homans on whether New Mexico was shorted on its oil and gas taxes. It countered a pro-industry (anti-clean energy) column by economist Dr. Micha Gisser with a column by another retired economist, Verne W. Loose , who convincingly argued that fossil-fuel industries have a skewed advantage among industries receiving subsidies, without consideration of the industry’s “hidden costs.” (Gisser then got to respond with a letter to the editor.)

And while initially ignoring the protests, the Journal did run in its A-section Nov. 11 a story announcing President Obama’s postponement of approval of the Keystone XL pipeline that would run through the Ogallala, the aquifer supplying water to eight states. That same day, it ran Amy Goodman’s nationally syndicated column on the pipeline, which was the only piece to appear in the Journal at that point to mention that more than 10,000 people had gathered in Washington, D.C. a week before to encircle the White House in protest of the project.

The Journal even ran (Oct. 30) what could be construed as an anti-industry story about the increase in carousing, drunken-driving arrests, bar fights, domestic disturbance calls and prostitution associated with drilling in newly discovered oil and gas fields around the nation.

So, the Journal is running matter-of-fact stories about oil and gas industry profits and subsidies, tax breaks and record numbers of new drilling leases – all of which contradict the down-and-out poor industry meme. Then, why does the industry line have traction?

The reason is because the industry line is given prominence by the newspaper in the form of columns from Marita Noon and industry reps and “ordinary” Albuquerque residents who work in the industry and write in the industry’s defense.

The latter column, headlined, “Quit Demonizing Big Oil,” ran at the very top of the Op-Ed page. This prominence gives the columns weight. And there’s the added danger that not every reader realizes that headlines on columns merely summarize the opinion of the writer, and are not the opinion of the paper or necessarily the truth. This is standard practice on opinion pieces, but inherently problematic for readers who scan headlines without reading further or who don’t understand that opinion pieces are just that: opinions that, it is hoped, are based in fact.

Deck Stacked Against Oil Industry” is what ran above a simplistic and loosely-based-on-fact essay that ran in the Journal’s sister publication, the Mountain View Telegraph, on May 12. The headline is an accurate summary of Noon’s position, but is the deck really stacked?

Noon, who is billed as executive director of Energy Makes America Great Inc., advocated in the column against cutting subsidies for oil companies, claiming:

The so-called “big oil companies” don’t get subsidies. They do get the same type of tax deductions on their expenses and some of their up-front costs that every industry gets. Their dramatic wins are in the headlines now. Loses (sic) are huge too (sic) – though usually not front page news. . . . But who is the real loser? The American citizen who wants lower gas prices. If the cost of doing business is lower, and the resource development is encouraged, the savings is passed on at the pump.

Really?  They don’t get subsidies? And, according to news stories, including those in the Journal, OPEC controls the prices that show up at the pump.

Columnists in the main Journal also get away with making statements without supporting evidence. In addition to Henderson’s line, mentioned at the beginning of this post, Robert J. Samuelson, in a column touting Canada’s oil sands as the answer to America’s energy problems, got away with saying that while conventional oil fields are declining in production:

Only oil sands can fill the gap.

Really? That’s quite a statement: Only oil sands can fill the gap.

Notice, we’re talking solely editorial copy here. Not included in this equation are the full-page Journal ads directly paid for by industry. Full-pagers appeared May 18 and 31, June 8, Aug. 11 and 23 and Oct. 6, and that’s a partial list. The one May 18 version featured a photo of a retired teacher, paid for by “The People of America’s Oil and Natural Gas Industry.” (Their emphasis added.)

But this is not to criticize the Journal for taking these ads – that’s incoming revenue from what are obviously paid advertisements.

What’s more insidious is the proliferation of industry-paid lobbying done through columns and op-ed pieces.

Through frequency, placement and headlines they tend to give the industry’s talking points equal weight with actual news stories about the industry.

The result is far from “fair and balanced” coverage.

Rather, this is “false equivalency” at work.

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