The Business of Boosting Fracking

December 4th, 2012 · No Comments · energy policy, environment, journalism

By Denise Tessier

People can’t live without water. It’s that basic.

That’s the lead sentence of an Albuquerque Journal editorial (April 6) about the City of Albuquerque´s water infrastructure. Because it’s an editorial, it’s the official position of the Journal as a paper. (And one could add, it’s a no-brainer.)

Yet, the Journal seems to forget its own statement — that ¨people can’t live without water¨ — when it comes to its boosterism of oil production in New Mexico. And now, despite its reputation for polluting water sources, the Journal seems willing to carry over that boosterism into the controversial practice known as “fracking.”

Fracking has been blamed for widespread water pollution in the state of Pennsylvania.  In fact, it was with the help of a Pennsylvania nonprofit that the New Mexico city of Las Vegas crafted an ordinance targeting fracking, banning drilling for oil or gas within the city limits or the Las Vegas watershed. That ordinance was passed by the Las Vegas City Council and reported by the Journal April 6, the same day the above-mentioned water editorial appeared.

But in September, the Journal advanced an upcoming in-depth look at the prospects for an oil and gas production revival in the San Juan basin — including the use of fracking — with a ¨teaser¨ on the Sunday Journal’s Money page, stating:

The good times may soon return to the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico, thanks to oil deposits buried in shale beds alongside the region´s abundant natural gas fields.

The Business Outlook cover story that ran as promised the next day carried that same sentence as its opening paragraph, with a headline proclaiming:

Exploratory drilling in basin’s Mancos Shale in northwest N.M. sparks upbeat Outlook

In solely economic terms — in terms of money and potential jobs — this could be viewed as ¨good times¨ sparking an ¨upbeat¨ outlook, and, yes, one could posit that this kind of boosterism is understood in terms of financial reporting, and thus the focus of Business Outlook.

Similarly, a story that ran on the Journal Business section front on June 16 about the oil boom in the Permian Basin carried the headline:

Very Good Times in Oil Patch in N.M., West Texas

Again, “good times¨ is used as shorthand for ¨what´s good financially, is just plain good.¨

The San Juan Basin story in Business Outlook was thorough in its reportage of the oil production potential (possibly 30 billion barrels) and the vast extent of the basin, and included  a map that showed the potential production area covering 3,400 square miles, overlapping San Juan, Rio Arriba, McKinley and Sandoval counties, and southern Colorado.

Downside reporting was limited to the potential cost of drilling, without addressing environmental concerns, leading one letter writer to question justifiably whether this “good times” production could endanger Chaco Canyon, seeing as the exploration map pretty much covered the National Historical Park.

Interestingly, a month before, Outlook devoted its cover to a profile of an Albuquerque company that plans to ¨reduce toxity and improve the efficiency of fluids that oil and gas companies use for hydraulic fracturing to crack open deep underground reservoirs. It also will purify the dirty water that comes back up during fracking operations.¨

The ¨Tapping Into New Sectors” article (Aug. 20) included a subhead that borrowed from a quote by the president and CEO of this company, who called the endeavor ¨green technology for fracking.¨  Add ¨green fracking” to the spin glossary that also brings us ¨clean coal.¨

To his credit, reporter Kevin Robinson-Avila coupled this story  with a sidebar: ¨As fracking expands, so do calls for oversight.¨

We’ve written at ABQJournalWatch on numerous occasions before about the Journal’s generous attitude toward the oil and gas industry, such as in its reluctance to support regulations the industry claims would cut into its bottom line. This trend continued when the Journal endorsed Heather (¨Oil, Gas Still Priority for N.M.¨) Wilson over Martin (¨Invest in Clean Initiatives¨) Heinrich for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Jeff Bingaman. The quotes in parentheses are the headlines that accompanied interviews with the two candidates on Sept. 7, making clear the candidates’ positions.

Granted, revenues from oil and gas leases help fund New Mexico schools and its royalty checks have saved the state’s coffers from deficit more than once. Oil and gas production are important to New Mexico, and obviously should continue. But production should be done with a critical eye toward protecting the state´s scarce and most precious resource, water.

Lest one postulate that it’s natural for the business section to be a booster of business, consider this:

When Business Outlook took an in-depth look at going solar (Oct. 15), both the Sunday ¨teaser¨and the Monday cover story carried headlines about the ¨cost,¨asking:

Price decline, tax breaks and subsidies spur photovoltaic installations, but can industry sustain momentum without those props?

It’s a legitimate question, and the package of stories that came with it were thorough.

But it wasn’t boosterism. And I can’t remember a similar headline questioning oil subsidies as ¨props.¨

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