New York magazine’s blog reports today that Timespeople are defending the reporting of Ian Urbina’s story of June 27th: “Behind the Veneer: Doubts about Natural Gas.” The Times doesn’t want to be called “anti-Natural Gas,” as some people have done, and journalists are jockeying for position with the new editor-in-chief, according to the estimable media writer Gabe Sherman.
But Mr. Ubina’s story itself — which I had the pleasure of missing while on vacation — might well be completely accurate and still be ridiculous. Here are the 3 points of Mr. Urbina’s big scoop.
1. Internal US Department of Energy emails (leaked to the Times by anti-fracking government employees) show that anti-fracking government employees think that many of the companies trying to jump on the shale gas boom will fail — e.g. “‘It is quite likely that many of these companies will go bankrupt,’ a senior adviser to the Energy Information Administration” wrote.
The fact is that these internal experts are right. Many companies will fail or even go bankrupt. But this fact is news – or anything other than a truism – only to the bureaucrats, Mr. Urbina and his NYTimes editors. Many personal computer companies in the 1980s failed and went bankrupt. Many Internet companies and search engines in the 1990s failed and went bankrupt. Many social media companies in the 2000s failed and went bankrupt. But PCs, the Internet and social media are still with us. The Times wants to suggest — worse, it sincerely believes — that if there is “irrational exuberance” in the air, that must mean that shale gas is an illusion.
Point 2: There is disagreement about – Mr. Urbina doesn’t say quite what, but he suggests that it has something to do with the potential size of reserves or the precise quantity of other energy sources that natural gas has the potential to replace.
Again, this should not be news to anyone. Supplying estimates of the size of any market 10, 20 or 50 years out is a business in itself. No one goes back and checks the estimates from 10 years ago. People understand that estimates are estimates. Whether there is 100 years or 200 years of natural gas supply in shale formations is not what drives immediate investment.
Point 3: A corollary to point 2 – supplying market estimates is a business in itself. There are private vendors of these estimates. These private vendors, if successful, are probably pretty good at what they do. But Mr. Urbina and his sources in the Department of Energy regards the supply of these rather theoretical numbers by commercial sources – sources that are patronized by the energy industry as well as the government – as a shock-horror event, rather as what it is – utterly lacking in interest. Moreover, he regards it as a red flag that a couple of vendors have “major clients in the oil and gas industry” – without stopping to consider that these industry clients have every interest in buying accurate information, and every disincentive to avoid inaccurate information.
In short: while The New York Times may well be anti-natural gas, its reporting and editing is not sufficiently competent actually to present an argument against it.