The Journal Deserves Worse Than A Flunking Grade for Keystone XL Pipeline Editorial

December 5th, 2014 · 4 Comments · climate change, energy policy, environment, Fact Check, journalism

By Arthur Alpert

I rarely write about the Albuquerque Journal’s editorials because the daily’s owners have a right to express their opinions there. And since the aim of most editorials is to persuade, the authors deserve plenty of room to assemble and tailor evidence for the argument.

That said, editorials ought to live up to the same standards you and I impose on, say, the newspaper’s opinion columns or news stories. Like seriousness of purpose, accuracy, the proper use of evidence, logic and, above all, fairness.

By these yardsticks, I generally grade the Journal’s editorials on local issues as acceptable, some higher, but when it comes to national topics, I flunk a lot. Such is my dismay, however, at the newspaper’s take on the Keystone pipeline published Friday, Nov. 21, that a D or F would not adequately reprove it.

It was that journalistically shameful.

“Pandering to their environmentally activist base,” the editorialist wrote, “59 Senate Democrats, including both Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, have again declared war on American jobs and rejected a boost for the U.S. economy and another step toward energy independence by blocking congressional approval of the $5.3 billion Keystone XL pipeline project.”

The Journal’s stand was no surprise, of course. As my colleague, Denise Tessier and I have noted here, New Mexico’s largest print daily regularly publishes fossil fuel industry views via essays ostensibly from concerned citizens but financed, in fact, by the industry. Also, pro-fossil fuel industry opinions from “think tanks” also financed by the industry or its affluent allies. Nor do the editors bother to identify the real sources of these opinions for readers.

Simultaneously, it omits most stories on alternative energy progress, technically and in market terms.

But again, management has an uncontested right to argue its case. So let’s demonstrate where the editorial crosses the line to violate basic journalistic standards.

  • Senators Udall, Heinrich and other Democrats “have again declared wear on American jobs.” What is the evidence for this is assertion? Well, writes the editorialist, “Proponents say the project …would create some 42,000 “shovel ready” American jobs.”

Yes, and what do opponents say? What do folks with no dog in that fight say?

The editorial never asks.

I don’t care what the answer is. What matters is the failure of the editorialist to question, to get the facts or at least narrow the area of ignorance. It’s called journalism.

(For the record, the State Department says the equivalent of 3,900 full-time construction jobs if the project takes a year, to complete, 1,950 if two years. And once built, there might be 35 full-time jobs plus 15 temporary contractors.

(A Cornell Global Labor Institute study updated in January 2012 said Keystone will not only create fewer jobs than claimed by TransCanada Corporation but may kill more jobs than it creates.

(And Ellen R. Wald, a University of Georgia specialist in the oil industry and a friend of energy resources development, prepared an analysis Forbes published May 10, 2013 that said, “There is no way to accurately predict the number of short-term, ancillary, or spin-off jobs from any energy project.”)

Relying on the industry’s version of reality suggests, of course, that Journal management isn’t interested in what’s true.

  • Next, let’s turn to the editorial’s assertion that our Senators also are “rejecting a boost for the U .S. Economy.”

Well yes, construction of the pipeline would provide a boost, but how big a boost? And what would that boost cost in, say, the health of Americans or their local economies? The editorial gives those questions short shrift or no shrift.

  • Moving right along, the editorialist worries that we’re disrespecting our friend and ally, Canada. As if TransCanada was Canada. Or even Canadian.

TransCanada is incorporated and registered in the U.S., too, so it’s an American company. Its major shareholders include banks and oil companies from all over the globe. China’s oil company is a partner. And it works closely with Koch Industries in Canada and the U.S.

If the editorialist was ignorant of this, he or she might have found it on the Web, as I did, along with those job creation estimates cited above.

But given the Journal’s concern for our friends and allies in Canada, what’s worse is the failure to note that many Canadians hate the pipeline, at least in their backyard. Specifically, British Columbians vetoed a TransCanada pipeline that would carry tar sands to their Pacific coast. They had environmental concerns, as I remember. And right now, other Canadians are fighting another TransCanada pipeline pointed eastward from the tar sands.

Of course, it’s possible the editorial writer didn’t know about British Columbia’s rebuke to TransCanada. For the Albuquerque Journal has never carried that story.

  • Moving on again, note that the Journal editorial called the Keystone XL pipeline another step toward “energy independence.”

“Some of the petroleum products would be for export,” it concedes.

Some? Or all? I don’t know. Nobody does for sure. Probably it would depend on market conditions. Why didn’t the Journal editorial discuss the known unknowns before asserting as fact that energy independence is at stake?

Incidentally, Vox’s Brad Plumer did a complex but readable study of Keystone, “9 Questions about the Keystone XL pipeline”, updated Nov. 18, 2014.

Judging from the Letters the Journal published Tuesday, Dec. 2, on A6, at least five Journal readers do get information from other sources. All found the Keystone editorial wanting, citing concerns like global warming and damage to local environments, while refuting the editorial’s claims on jobs and energy independence.

Once again, Journal readers restored a modicum of fairness to the reporting of a controversial issue! The news biz sure has changed; in my day, editors and reporters were responsible for that.

But I want to highlight what one of the letter writers, Phil Bock of Los Ranchos, said. Full disclosure – Phil and I are friends. That’s how I know he’s a man of great intellect. So when he begins his letter, “I appreciate your editorials even when I disagree,” he’s saying something about how we should converse, not just being polite.

Sadly, I don’t agree. Oh, some Journal editorials deserve respect, but this Keystone opinion fails the tests of accuracy, proper use of evidence, logic and fairness. At times, I thought I was reading an industry handout adapted to condemn our own Senators for “pandering” to “environmental activists.”

Terrible, those “environmental activists.”

And then I reread the editorial and suddenly I saw- no, I heard – the tone.

First came the snarl in that opening clause of the lead paragraph, then general vulgarity throughout. Reading it again, I hear a bare-knuckles assault from a combatant in the ring, not an observer some distance from the fray who has watched and weighed arguments and arrived at some conclusions.

Distance is what permits perspective, of course, allowing journalists (including editorial writers) to see complexity and ponder it and then offer fellow citizens some food for thought. In other words, it’s nothing like what the Journal editorialist did in the Keystone essay. He or she put on the boxing gloves to go the distance for the industry.

I’m not complaining. It’s honest, accurately reflecting the newspaper. It proclaims we are no dispassionate observers here, no sirree. We’re committed advocates of the oligarchy (including the fossil fuel industry) and its causes. We promote these causes in editorials, tilt the opinion pages so the political Right dominates, search for, assign and publish complementary “news” stories and save newsprint by skipping what contradicts our mission.

The Journal does, however, satisfy the first standard I cited above – seriousness of purpose. I’ve not a scintilla of doubt about that. It’s just too bad for the citizenry that it’s serious about advocacy, not journalism.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Laura F. Sanchez

    May not be proper journalism, but here’s part of a letter I sent a couple of weeks ago to our local Valencia County paper. They haven’t printed it yet.

    About that pipeline, the disinformation is still gushing. According to Fox News and the TransCanada CEO, completing the pipeline would create about 42,000 “ongoing, enduring” jobs. Not even close. The State Department estimates the pipeline would create only about 50 permanent jobs and 3,900 temporary construction jobs for one year.
    But the semi-solid bituminous sludge from the Alberta tar sands should make energy cheaper, right? Seems doubtful. You have to “spend” the energy equivalent to one barrel of oil to recover 25 barrels of conventional oil. But for Alberta tar sands, spending 1 barrel recovers only 5 barrels for surface mining and 2.9 barrels for steam-injected recovery according to David Hughes, a Canadian energy expert. State University of New York professor Charles Hull estimates that spending 1 barrel of energy gets you only 1 barrel of tar sands oil in return if the full life-cycle costs are taken into account.
    This heavy, gooey toxic gunk is not sweet light crude. In fact, the Congressional Research Service estimates that tar sands oil results in at least 14 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional crude oils. Then there’s the danger of spills. Alberta is basically a petro-state, so the mainstream media doesn’t publicize pipeline spills. But Canada’s West Coast Native News reports that in October alone “600,000 Litres of toxic crap” were spilled from petroleum operations. The dilute bitumen from the tar sands is considerably harder to clean up than conventional oil spills.
    The Keystone XL pipeline is designed to carry this filthy, high-cost crude to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries so it can be shipped overseas to the highest bidder. We will see no benefit at all—not profits, not lower gasoline prices, not permanent jobs. In fact, we’ll have to make up for the 1 to 1.8 billion dollars in US tax breaks and accelerated write-offs that Keystone XL and three Port Arthur refineries would receive.
    Why are so many fighting for such an insanely lousy business deal? Big oil would make out like gangbusters. According to the Washington Post, oil billionaires Charles and David Koch alone spent $250 to $290 million on the 2014 elections to elect legislators more likely to do their bidding. Last year the International Forum on Globalization released a study showing that the Keystone XL pipeline would generate about $100 billion in profits for the Kochs. Hmm.

  • Susan Clair

    Excellent! I hope many of the Journal’s regular readers, supporters, and apologists read the comprehensive and competently researched analyses that you and Denise write. Thank you for all your hard work!

  • Arthur Alpert

    I tried, Laura Sanchez, to point out the editorial’s slipshod journalism (or intellectual dishonesty) without taking a stand on the pipeline. Now, having read your fuller exploration of the project, I wonder if anybody can make an intellectually honest argument for Keystone XL.
    Susan Clair, thank you.
    Arthur Alpert

  • C Torres

    I had an online subscription to the Journal, which I promptly cancelled when I saw their obvious bias not only related to Keystone but also in endorsements for candidates this past election cycle. Everything significant that is written is slanted to the FAR right. I just hate it that we can’t get the *real* news anymore, either through local or national news. It’s like a machine that just destroys all that is sensible. “Specifically, British Columbians vetoed a TransCanada pipeline that would carry tar sands to their Pacific coast. They had environmental concerns, as I remember. And right now, other Canadians are fighting another TransCanada pipeline pointed eastward from the tar sands.” This is the first time I have heard this, so thanks.

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