The April edition of Public Radio International’s monthly program America Abroad Media, “Global Energy and Innovations,” was essentially an infomercial for the natural gas industry and fracking, under the guise of news.
Host Madeleine Brand concluded that fracking—the extraction of natural gas and other natural resources by injecting liquid underground—can be a “bridge to the future,” producing a “clean” fossil fuel to exploit until renewables are finally ready to be used widely. What Brand didn’t fully disclose was that the show was bankrolled by parties who have a financial stake in the public accepting that argument. Numerous guests and studies featured in the broadcast were also funded by the industry whose position was promoted.
The program itself was funded by Qatar Foundation International and the Stuart Family Foundation. The funders for AAM as a whole also include ExxonMobil and Chevron.
The Qatar Foundation International is a project of the oil-rich nation’s ruling family, which also controls Qatar Petroleum Inter-national (QPI), a state-owned corporation. In 2010, Qatar was the world’s leader in exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) (Bloomberg, 12/13/10).
QPI and Chevron are partners in “export-oriented LNG facilities,” according to Bloomberg. ExxonMobil recently signed a major deal with QPI “to move forward with construction of a $10 billion natural gas export terminal in Texas” (Bloomberg, 5/9/13).
The Stuart Family Foundation, created by the Quaker Oats heirs, funds conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It’s been a supporter of the Heartland Institute, best known for its strident denial of climate science.
The AAM advisory board includes Spencer Abraham, Secretary of Energy under George W. Bush and the head of an advisory board for a uranium-fracking company, and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, whose AAM board biography states that he “served as an advisor to a major energy company on large-scale projects in the Middle East.” Khalilzad also is a counselor for the CSIS, while Abraham is a distinguished visiting fellow at Hoover—both institutions funded by Stuart.
Given its funders’ financial connection to the topic, the show’s content had a predictable spin. “Supporters argue that the new technology not only brings new jobs, but also provides cleaner energy than coal,” Brand began. As for anti-fracking arguments, who knows? The only counterpoint to fracking’s boosters—“natural gas will do everything we want it to do,” as one soundbite put it—is the observation that “some experts” think that cheap gas means “there’s less incentive to develop clean, renewable energy.”
First up was MIT professor Henry Jacoby, the co-chair of an MIT Energy Initiative study called “The Future of Natural Gas” (6/6/11). The program didn’t mention that the MIT Energy Initiative is funded by major oil and gas companies, including AAM funder Chevron, or that its board includes executives from major energy corporations such as Chevron, BP, Shell and Saudi Aramco, or that several of its researchers have lucrative ties to the natural gas industry.
In line with industry talking points, Jacoby heralded fracking as a clean technology, discounted renewable energies as currently unrealistic, and supported the U.S. market switch to exporting liquefied natural gas.
Another source was former Shell CEO John Hofmeister, who now runs a group called Citizens for Affordable Energy advocating for energy “pragmatism” over “perfection.” Sure, clean energy would be great, he said, “but in the meantime, the most affordable are clearly the traditional hydrocarbons, as well as nuclear, as well as hydropower. I’m talking about oil, natural gas and coal.”
Brand alluded to the political controversies over fracking by saying that former Vice President Al Gore “politicized the issue of climate change and, by extension, the renewable energy industry to the point where it harmed that industry’s ability to connect with Republicans in certain states.” The Hoover Institution’s Jeremy Carl weighed in to underline this point.
How did AAM discuss the issue without “politicizing” it? MIT’s Jacoby told PRI: “Gas is a much cleaner technology than coal, used mainly in electric power, both in terms of what you think of as normal pollutants in urban areas and also in terms of greenhouse gas emission. So yes, it is cleaner.”
Brand, the host, asked, “It’s cleaner for the environment?” to which Jacoby replied, “All these technologies have their environmental cost in the production and so there are issues in the production of this gas, just like there are in the production of all other energy sources we use”—essentially shrugging off the question, and the issue.
Brand responded: “Right. There has been a lot of controversy in terms of its effect on groundwater, streams and rivers.” Jacoby simply answered, “Yes.” And Brand left it at that.
If the program had included climate scientists or environmental advocates, their evaluation of natural gas’s potential as a “bridge fuel” would likely have been very different. As Climate Progress’s Joe Romm (3/1/12) wrote, reporting on a peer-reviewed study in Environmental Research Letters (1–3/12): “If you want to have a serious chance at averting catastrophic global warming, then we need to start phasing out all fossil fuels as soon as possible. Natural gas isn’t a bridge fuel from a climate perspective.”
Or as the Guardian (6/6/11) summarized a report from the International Energy Agency:
Natural gas is not the “panacea” to solve climate change that fossil fuel industry lobbyists have been claiming.... Reliance on gas would lead the world to a 3.5C [6.3F] temperature rise, according to the IEA. At such a level, global warming could run out of control, deserts would take over in southern Africa, Australia and the western U.S., and sea level rises could engulf small island states.
That’s not the sort of scenario that Public Radio International’s funders want you to hear.
Sidebar: NPR’s Natural Gas Connection
Public Radio International’s presentation of a pro-fracking program funded by Qatar is not the first time that public radio’s energy conflicts of interest have been called into question. National Public Radio receives money from the American Natural Gas Alliance, the main corporate lobby for fracking, as well as from fossil fuel companies like CITGO and Constellation Energy.
And NPR’s reporting has at times echoed its funders’ PR claims. A report by Tom Gjelten (Morning Edition, 10/25/12) promoted “new techniques for extracting oil and gas from hard-to-reach deposits,” like fracking and mining tar sands, in the name of “energy security”: “If a country produces as much oil as it uses, it is less vulnerable to some foreign country shutting the tap,” Gjelten said—even though he had already pointed out that oil is a global commodity, so any major oil producer can affect the price by restricting the supply.
Gjelten’s two sources for his nonsensical argument: A researcher from an oil industry–funded think tank and former Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, now with an energy-linked investment bank (FAIR Blog, 10/25/12).
In another segment on fracking, Morning Edition (3/20/13; FAIR Blog, 3/28/13) presented the issue as a conflict that pits “artists and celebrities who have embraced the anti-fracking fight” against hard-working farmers who wish the “meddling outsiders” would “stay in Hollywood.” The same day NPR was reporting that the “Fracking Rule Delays Rile New Yorkers,” a Quinnipiac poll (3/20/13) found that actual New Yorkers opposed tracking by a 46-39 percent ratio.