Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Media Myopia - A Tale of Two 'Alleys'

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced the creation of the “Eyes on Drilling” tipline for citizens to report non-emergency suspicious activity related to oil and natural gas development.

The agency is asking citizens to call 1-877-919-4EPA (toll free) if they observe what appears to be illegal disposal of wastes or other suspicious activity. Anyone may also send reports by email to Citizens may provide tips anonymously if they don’t want to identify themselves.

In the event of an emergency, such as a spill or release of hazardous material, including oil, to the environment, citizens are advised to call the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802.
- EPA Press Release, January 27, 2010 - Full text available here.

I finally got to read the Daily Sentinel's "Energy Alley" series that was published over several days at the end of this past year. It's a rather comprehensive and well-written overview of all of the possibilities surrounding energy development in western Colorado and east
ern Utah.

In recent weeks, the focus of industry, activism, government, and media appear to be directed toward another 'Energy Alley' that has vast amounts of natural gas, and issues related to its extraction that are similar to our area of the country.

The Marcellus Shale Region, which encompasses southern New York, northeast, central, and western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and almost all of West Virginia, has been drawing a good deal more attention from energy companies, environmental groups, and state regulators in recent weeks.

Part of this attention has lots to do with the drilling technology required to extract natural gas from this shale; the controversial practices of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, both of which have generated considerable debate in both regions.

I don't know much about this, which is kind of embarrassing because I was born and grew up in the middle of this part of the country. I did do some research, and consulted local geologist and fellow blogger Ralph D'Andrea, who went to school in the middle of it and lent some very useful insights.

As it happens, Ralph also published most of those insights in one of his blog posts this past November, detailing the primary differences between the Marcellus Shale and gas deposits on the West Slope, such as the Piceance Basin featured in the Sentinel's series:

First and foremost, the Marcellus Shale gas fields are, in round numbers, 2,000 miles closer to natural gas consumers than Colorado's gas fields. That significantly affects the cost of transporting the gas to market. If you're a gas company, are you going to pay to pipe gas from Colorado to heat homes in New York and Pennsylvania, or are you going to pipe gas from New York and Pennsylvania?

Second, if you look at the maps on the site linked above, particularly the structure contour map drawn on the top of the Marcellus Shale, you'll see that much of the formation is less than 7,000 feet deep. That's shallower than most of of the gas produced locally.

Cheaper to drill, cheaper to transport, more profitable. It ain't rocket science.
Ralph additionally stated something that seems prophetic today: "But I guarantee you, when drilling picks up, it will pick up in the Marcellus Shale first."

That's what's been happening over at least the last month or so. Local, state, and federal governments have been noticing, including those quasi-governmental entities that serve as water utilities for many of the targeted areas. The media there have also been noticing; a Google News search for 'Marcellus Shale' usually kicks back 6 to 8 new stories a day.

One story that drew my attention was the press release excerpted at the top of this post.
A hotline set up by the EPA to report issues with drilling? It sounded like news to me.
However, If you were relying on your local news media, at least in western Colorado, to report this, you were out of luck.

One thing I did notice about the press release was that it originated from the EPA's Region 3 office in Philadelphia, whose area of responsibility includes the majority of the Marcellus Shale. Most of the media outlets that covered the establishment of the tip line were also located in this same region of the country.

I went so far as to contact the tip line staff, along with the EPA Region 8 office in Denver, to inquire if the tip line could be used to report drilling-related problems in any part of the country. Both offices assured me that this was the case; any information specific to Colorado, for example, would be relayed by the tip line to the appropriate people in Denver.

Not seeing any mention of this story in any local media outlet, I sent e-mails to just about every one of them over the course of last week. No reply, as well as no coverage, was the order of the day.

Granted, there are probably reasons that the local media would ignore something like this, given the tacit association of the tip line to another region of the country. Back in November, however, an attempt to use last year's downturn in drilling activity as a political football resulted in some local media attention toward the Marcellus Shale, in what appears to me to be a decidedly short-sighted and selective fashion.

As many people who know more than I do have said, the downturn in drilling is market-based, and not the fault of new rules and/or incumbent politicians. You don't have to look any further than the activity in the Marcellus Shale for evidence of this.

Republican candidate for Governor Scott McInnis, who praised Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell in November for, among other things, bypassing "
an opportunity to levy a tax on natural gas drilled in his state", may want to revisit that assertion, given more recent news to the contrary. Some examples are:
  • Reuters, Jan. 14, 2010 - "Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said on Thursday he will press for a wellhead tax on natural gas drilling in the state's Marcellus Shale formation to take effect July 1 this year".
  • Associated Press, Jan. 29 - "Police in northern Pennsylvania say they discovered a natural gas well-drilling service truck that was more than 41 tons over the weight limit for the road it was on. Cpl. Roger Stipcak said it is the latest of numerous examples of state troopers finding overweight natural gas trucks inflicting damage on area roads."
Eastern states are generally much more intensive in their taxes and fees, layers of government oversight, and regulatory infrastructure. Pennsylvania and New York are no different, and are starting to take what appear to be common-sense measures to assure that drilling in the Marcellus Shale is done within the scope of safety for waterways and water supplies, treatment systems, and transportation infrastructure.

The gas is there, in abundant quantities, close to where it will be used, and generally easier and cheaper to extract; most of the land is privately owned. The energy companies will likely comply with any reasonable rules and regulations that allow them to get at the gas.

What can we in western Colorado learn, if anything, from these experiences? I think plenty.
We already know that new pipelines here will make it a lot easier to move natural gas to markets where it is in demand. We also know the potential environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing.

We rely to a large extent upon our local news media to objectively report on these issues to keep us informed of those events which could have consequences for both citizens and industry. Except for November's report, and perhaps a paragraph or two in the Sentinel's "Energy Alley' series, the local media has not seen fit to cover the unfolding issues back east that may set the stage for the future of gas drilling all over this country. That's disturbing.

An e-mail sent to Sentinel reporter Gary Harmon and Managing Editor Laurena Davis received no reply. To be fair, they're not the only ones who seem to be ignoring the issue.

I suppose that if there is consensus on the part of a media market that something is not newsworthy, then it isn't. I'm thankful for the freedom and ability to pursue this information from virtually any news source around the world, and to decide for myself what's important and who to believe.

Faced with increasing numbers of those who feel the same way, one would hope that local media outlets here and elsewhere will get the message. I'll try to keep my fingers crossed while I'm looking around on the web.

Have a good evening.

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