By Denise Tessier
The “To Our readers” note on A-2 of Saturday’s Albuquerque Journal wasn’t kidding when it brightly announced that the Entertainer TV schedule in the day’s paper was sporting a “new look.”
For the first time in its history, the Entertainer cover carried advertising. Three ads bordering two sides made up nearly 45 percent of the cover page.
It was a surprise, but made perfect sense: The Entertainer, after all, isn’t a news tab – its cover ads don’t seem as out of place as those at the bottom of the “sacrosanct” front page – and for advertisers, it’s a promising outlet, as people tend to keep the television guide around the house for week. I was actually thinking how much unsold ad space had been wasted on Entertainer covers of the past.
But I’ve also been wondering this past week: How far will the Journal venture in its search for lifesaving infusions of cash to support its news side?
The impetus for this thought was the appearance of what can only be described as a “life is better with electricity” ad that appeared on the Op-Ed page in the form of a column by renewable-energy critic Marita K. Noon, coupled with the previous week’s appearance of a news story about a drop in oil and gas production and the Journal’s editorial reaction on Dec. 1. Disturbingly, the editorial dovetails with what Noon has advocated in her unenlightened promotions of the extractive industries – that the state and counties should just get rid of those pesky regulations designed to protect citizen health and the environment, water supplies, wildlife and archeology of New Mexico.
I was out of the country when Noon’s “Energy Use Makes Holidays Go ‘Round” appeared, but it was emailed to me and I reacted exactly as my colleague Tracy Dingmann did. Noon’s simplistic essay extolling overuse of electricity as a basic American right was, as Tracy pointed out, a hopelessly outdated throwback. (It took me back: Before I even read Tracy’s post it triggered memories of attending a Reddy Kilowatt cooking class in the summer of 1963. We soon-to-be fifth graders were told – I kid you not – that electric stoves were better than gas because electric heat comes on immediately and quits as soon as the knob is turned off. I knew better, and was appalled that adults could get away with saying such things.)
I won’t say I’m appalled, but I’m disappointed that the Journal’s editorial board would shrug off health and environment protections for the potential royalties increased oil and gas production might bring to New Mexico.
I say “might” because the major Sunday story by Winthrop Quigley on which the editorial was based acknowledges that part of the reason oil and gas royalties are down is the fact that many New Mexico wells are “mature” and not producing as much. The story (“New Mexico’s Oil, Gas Revenues Shrinking Due To Tougher Regulations, Supply Glut,” Nov. 29), says the San Juan and Permian Basins still have reserves, according to geologists. But there are no guarantees.
In its editorial entitled “State Needs Revenue From Oil and Gas”, the Journal notes that oil production has dropped and says:
Not surprisingly, state regulators and the industry disagree on what’s causing the drop.
Producers say an unfriendly business climate in New Mexico has helped drive them to other states. New state environmental regulations on drilling-site waste disposal and the intrusion of county governments into the permit process have made it easy for them to take their money — and jobs — elsewhere.
What’s interesting is that the editorial writer follows this by lifting a line from the news story, then changing its attribution, apparently to further widen the he said/she said gap between producers vs. regulators. The editorial version of the line is:
Regulators say (emphasis added) the more likely reasons for the decline are a global glut of natural gas, a decline in oil and gas prices and fields in New Mexico that have less oil and gas to recover than in other places.
But the news story attributed those reasons to “experts” on both sides of the aisle, an important distinction the editorial chose to ignore. Here’s the line from the news story:
Experts agree New Mexico’s oil and gas industry is also suffering from a global glut of natural gas, weaker prices and oil and gas fields that are less productive than some other places.
Ignoring weaker prices and tapped-out fields, the editorial’s simplistic conclusion is that:
Not much can be done about a worldwide glut, but a reputation as a bad place to do business will only drive investors away.
State leaders and the industry need to work to implement reasonable regulations that take cost of business into account. That’s just dealing with reality.
Trouble is, the Journal is ignoring another reality, the ones regulators address when they come up with rules to protect the rich archeological resources of Galisteo Basin, as Santa Fe County did, and when they (in this case, the state) introduce “pit rules,” the main culprit cited in Quigley’s article as driving producers to other states.
As he is a Journal Business Writer, Quigley approached his story from a business angle and did not get into the intricacies of the “pit rules”, other than to say they regulate the disposal of drilling waste.
But as a former Journal Environment Writer who covered this issue, I’ve seen first-hand the reality regulators face in dealing with drilling waste. Past regulatory laxity has left New Mexico a legacy of contamination one could characterize as the equivalent of a massive oil spill – one that’s on land instead of the sea. Nearly every pump jack in New Mexico is situated next to a brine pit that routinely draws unwitting migratory birds to their deaths (they think it’s potable water). Expanses of rangeland grasses contaminated by brine look scorched, as if by a fire. Ask any rancher who shares a land lease with a driller; it’s rarely a copacetic relationship. The threat to the state’s underground aquifers is always a concern. (To read the 14 pages of pit rules, visit the Oil Conservation Division Web site and click on “Current Rules, PDF format,” then scroll down the pdf file to Part 17 PITS, CLOSED-LOOP SYSTEMS, BELOW-GRADE TANKS AND SUMPS under Chapter 15 Oil and Gas.)
The oil and gas industry is using a budget crisis as an excuse to gut regulation. And the Journal is buying into it.
Which takes me back to Noon’s latest column on the joys of energy consumption. The column was an ad – pure and simple. If a public relations agency had had such luck in having a piece like that printed, it would consider it a coup – the kind of advertising money can’t buy. Or can it?
In my experience, a newspaper normally would be embarrassed to run an advertorial on an opinion page and allow itself to be so used, even if it has decided to cheerlead the industry editorially.
Considering this, and considering the Journal’s financial straits, one might be led to wonder whether the Journal was paid by Noon’s pro-extractive industries organization, CARE, to run the brightly titled “Energy Use Makes Holidays Go ‘Round.” Or to wonder if the paper might have promised (wink, wink) to run Noon’s columns with the understanding the oil and gas producers would take out full-page Journal ads. (Have you noticed those full-page ads?)
Several years ago, a now-defunct New Mexico periodical operated that way – it would run a story about a business if the owners would take out an ad – and this was looked upon with disfavor by traditional journalists.
I’m not saying this is what the Journal has done. But sadly, it has opened the door to that impression.