One of the difficulties of reporting on climate change is its incremental nature: It’s hard to expect every media mention of someone driving a car or running an air conditioner to include a note about its effects on the environment. Yet even when the climate impacts of an action are unambiguous and central to a story, reporters all too often avoid the subject.
Take the natural-gas extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing (Extra!, 2/12). Better known as “fracking,” the process involves cracking open underground rock layers containing oil and gas deposits by blasting them with a high-pressure chemical slurry. Of the many troubling side effects of fracking—which run from groundwater contamination to increased earthquake activity—one of the most worrisome is its impact on climate change.
Any drilling for fossil fuels means more carbon will eventually be released into the atmosphere, but fracking’s effect on climate is compounded by the fact that the drilling process can create huge methane leaks: A study by Cornell scientists Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea estimated that fracked wells leak 40 to 60 percent more methane than conventional wells (Scientific American, 1/20/12). Because methane is 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, the National Center for Atmospheric Research has estimated that at these levels of leakage, switching from oil to natural gas consumption would significantly worsen global warming over the next several decades (Climate Progress, 9/9/11).
Outside of scientific and environmental media, however, you’d be hard-pressed to find any discussion of the climate change risk in fracking coverage, much of which has instead followed the fossil fuel industry’s line that the technique is the first step to a future of cheap energy.
In an article on the spread of fracking to Europe and China, for example, Time magazine (5/21/12) cited the International Energy Agency as predicting that “the world could be entering a golden age of gas, in which inexpensive natural gas replaces coal as the electricity source of choice.” Aside from a brief mention of concerns over groundwater contamination by the chemicals used in fracking—listed as one of the “obstacles” to more widespread adoption of the technology—no downsides were noted, while increased mining of natural gas was discussed as a way for smaller countries to become energy-independent of oil-rich nations. “Fracking,” concluded Time’s Bryan Walsh, “is here to stay.”
USA Today (5/15/12) was even more optimistic about a fracked future, running a front-page story headlined “U.S. Energy Independence Is No Longer Just a Pipe Dream,” that raved about the glorious future that will result from fracked natural gas. The advent of fracking in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the paper reported, has transformed a “once-sleepy chunk of north-central Pennsylvania” into the star of “an emerging national energy rush,” with companies rushing to move to town and new hotels in the works. The paper went on to list what it called “an improbable-sounding litany of good things” that could result from fracked wells—from falling gas prices to independence from foreign oil to an economic boom that would (according to one report) create 3.6 million new jobs—but failed to mention a single environmental concern.
Meanwhile, an enthusiastic ABC World News report (5/10/12) on “new drilling techniques [that] find oil in your backyard” avoided even saying the name hydraulic fracturing (though a longer Web report did). Instead, correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi interviewed Kansas farmers whose oil royalties “could be” as much as $500,000 a month. At the end of the segment, Alfonsi displayed a map of frackable sites, gushing that there could be “2 trillion barrels of oil in our backyards.” To which Diane Sawyer replied: “Hope it’s in your backyard!”—and then urged viewers to consult a map on the ABC News website to see if fracking riches could be theirs, too.
Reports like these faithfully echo the talking points of the fossil fuel industry: The American Petroleum Institute’s fracking page states confidently, “Shale energy is the answer. It creates jobs, stimulates the economy and provides a secure energy future for America.”
Other media outlets have been more cautious about proclaiming a glorious fracking future: The Associated Press (5/20/12) noted that while some New York farmers look longingly at the lucrative drilling leases that have gone to their neighbors in fracking-friendly Pennsylvania, others worry about well-water contamination and the destruction of farmland for mining roads and pipelines. But even lengthy series on the fracking controversy, such as the New York Times’ ongoing “Drilling Down” (starting 2/26/11) and NPR’s “The Fracking Boom: Missing Answers” (5/14-17/12), have focused solely on the problems of groundwater and air pollution without touching on climate questions.
One rare exception was an NPR Morning Edition story (5/17/12) by Elizabeth Shogren that followed a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist who discovered a huge plume of methane north of Denver, ultimately tracing it to new fracking wells in northeastern Colorado. “We need to know a lot about methane itself, which is natural gas, if we’re worried about climate change,” energy consultant Sue Tierney told Shogren. “Fifty years from now, are we really going to be wondering if we really screwed up because we went on this big gas boom?” It’s a question that the media should be asking now, not half a century on.
Neil deMause (@neildemause on Twitter) is contributing editor for economics for City Limits magazine.