Fracking Brings Out the Worst in Journalism

Fracking Journalism - Jeff Heller

Jeff Heller
Steuben County, New York, Landowner
President, Steuben County Land Owners Coalition


Jeff Heller, a Steuben County landowner, takes a local journalist to task for some shallow reporting, biases and lack of understanding when it comes to fracking.  

I recently engaged in an exchange of opinions with Jeffrey Aaron, a business writer with the Elmira Star-Gazette, regarding his coverage of a resolution adopted by Schuyler County Farm Bureau on the subject of fracking.  During the exchange Aaron alleged several things that simply weren’t true, reflected a deep bias or revealed a stunning lack of knowledge. My final response addressed many of the problems we see with coverage of the fracking issue by journalists.  They simply don’t do their homework, interject too much of their own opinion and too often rely upon what is nothing more than rumor or speculation as if it were fact.  Here is what I said to Aaron and what I say to other journalists of this sort:

I promise this will be my last response.  Your coverage of Terwilliger’s statement, as I stated before, put you above the majority of local journalists when it comes to at least attempting to be objective on the gas issue. However, I do want to go over some of your statements in your response to my comments on your coverage, as I believe they reveal you are, in truth, less than objective on this issue and a whole lot less than you probably believe of yourself.

You say you have written several stories on well blow-outs in Bradford County.  You use the plural.  I know of only one blow-out in Bradford – the Chesapeake well in April, 2011.  I remember it was great material for headlines (if it bleeds, it leads) but I missed the coverage of Chesapeake’s being allowed to resume work at the site, and the DEP’s (and the SRBC’s) report that everything was under control and that no environmental damage was done.  I’m sure though that all the journals gave that part of the story the same amount of ink they gave the initial story!

You site a fatal accident involving a pipe falling and killing a worker.  If your implication is that industrial accidents should rule out using an industry – we’re in deep do-do.  I came up here from the Lehigh Valley (Allentown, Pa.).  Your criteria would have shut down Bethlehem Steel about weekly, and Mack Trucks a little less frequently.  While I was in the Navy I was in, or near, a number  of ship yards.  All of them that  I can remember had signs out front “bragging” about how many days they had gone without a fatal accident.  Statistically, the gas drilling industry is no worse than a lot of other industries – and much better than many.

You talk about  a co-worker writing articles about accidents involving waste-carrying trucks getting into accidents and spilling their loads.  First, we need a lot more detail on this.  Truck accidents are relatively common.  Are you saying that trucks carrying “fracking waste” are more dangerous than all other trucks on the road?  We have regulations to take care of any Industrial spills on the roads.  Why are you singling out fracking for attention?  Why are you not providing some perspective, like the fact a gasoline tanker heading down the road with some of the most explosive stuff there is, might not be a much greater risk, even though we accept it as reasonable?

The story of households in Bradford County ( and throughout the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania and Southern Tier of New York) with methane in their wells is a very old one.  Shallow methane migration has been a reality in this area for literally hundreds of years.  Your insinuation that Chesapeake installing machinery to “make it right” was somehow sinister is really a cheap shot.  We can all agree that if they “made it wrong,” they should “make it right” and making it right when things rarely go wrong is one of the things most homeowners actually appreciate about gas companies.  We have seen repeated examples of companies winning converts by just such actions. Also, while it isn’t a gas company’s business to go around installing systems for everyone with methane in their wells, it’s also undeniably true that a lot of existing water well problems have been corrected through gas company action.  That’s a good thing.

My favorite of all your statements regarded your co-worker who hasn’t been to work on time since the drilling started!  I’d really like to think you were just kidding me on that – but let’s assume you weren’t.  Point number one:  If I am his or her employer, and he or she hasn’t been to work on time since 2009, he or she isn’t working for me any longer!  Point number two:  get up earlier and leave for work earlier – or look for another job.  I might suggest he or she look for work in the gas industry – they probably pay better and their future looks brighter than journalism.

Now, time out here.  I don’t mean that as a nasty rant.  I am a huge fan of daily newspapers.  I live far enough “out” that I can’t get a paper delivered to my house.  I hate not having a morning paper.  I hate the fact all the dailies are slowly dying – or at least shrinking to a shadow of what they used to be.  But, perhaps part of the reason for the decline, in addition to the internet, is the quality of the journalism, the tendency to go for the cheap headline built around an allegation, rather than the in-depth story that digs out the facts.

Fracking Bias

Your complaints about “too much” truck traffic comes close to the only valid complaint on gas drilling.  All the other “concerns” are  either half-bogus, or totally bogus – under any objective/scientific/honest evaluation.  I have also seen the “heavy traffic” – on some roads, by no means all.  It is irritating.  My wife and I came up here to retire in large part to get away from the heavy traffic of the Lehigh Valley.  That extremely heavy traffic was a result of a prosperous economy.  Which would you rather have:  traffic lines, or unemployment lines?  Environmentalists would answer – ‘unemployment lines’!  I also assume that if you have seen the heavy traffic in Pennsylvania, you have seen the huge improvement in the roads – at no cost to the taxpayers!

If it seems, or sounds, like I am at least border line bitter – I am.  For 5 and 1/2 years New York has missed out on the prosperity the other 31 states that are using fracking are experiencing.  For 5 and 1/2 years I have watched our farmers struggle while their Pennsylvania neighbors prosper – not because of their farming, but because of the gas drilling.  Their Department of Labor recently released a report putting the number of jobs in Pennsylvania directly dependent on the Marcellus Shale for the first quarter of 2013 at 232,000!

You write a business column.  What part of the economic advantages in the drilling states are you missing?  Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, North Dakota, Colorado, etc. are all experiencing revitalization we desperately need here in the Southern Tier.  Are any of those states stopping drilling?  Are all those states barren waste lands as a result of all the “devastation” caused by drilling?  Are all those state environmental protection agencies corrupt?  New York is a sick – no, very very sick – puppy. It’s refusal to accept gas drilling is the greatest single example of what’s totally wrong with this state.  It likes to think it’s ahead of the curve and setting direction, but the reality is that it’s about 31 miles behind everyone else in the caravan and has lost sight of them.  It’s just plain lost, in fact.

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3 thoughts on “Fracking Brings Out the Worst in Journalism

  1. Excellent Jeff. My entire view of news and the journalism that supports it has changed. I no longer rely on any media coverage. I learned early on to use a three step system.One, Verify.Two verify,and three you got it verify.A standard that in this battle seems to be that we are only held to. But as John Mayers song goes ….Cause when they own the information Oh, they can bend it all they want…….

  2. In case no one is aware of this fact, much of the truck traffic has been reduced in Pennsylvania due to the acquisition of temporary rights of way for pipelines for water lines to the wells. I would say that an idea like that shows that somebody is adapting innovatively to legitimate concerns about truck traffic.
    Secondly, anyone who travelled on route 17 (now or soon to be Interstate 86) between Elmira and Chemung in that last four years knows about truck traffic from road construction and the three years of headaches, dust, noise and danger caused by that construction. Did I mention the new service road running parallel with route 17 required the taking of numerous private lands and which permanently gouged out several miles of the hillside? And what about the disastrous construction mess on Church Street in downtown Elmira for the last six months? What a nightmare!
    My point is that oil and gas drilling, like any other human industrial operation has its moment when the impacts are immediate and annoyingly inconvenient. Yet, when the construction is complete and the road is built or the gas well complete and on line, there is a useful and necessary addition to our quality of life. A four lane road for transportation of goods, services and people, and a natural resource recovery system to keep us warm in the winter and perhaps (yes, perhaps) allow our dysfunctional national leaders to stop sending our young men and women into combat in the Mideast.
    Lastly, nothing is free of risk. The danger is that we become so risk averse that we stagnate or, worse, lose sight of reality, as in Italy where the local prosecutor brought criminal charges against the six state geologists for failing to accurately predict the magnitude and the timing of an earthquake that hit southern Italy. One of the attorneys against the geologists stated that the geologists had a duty to provide a risk free environment for the citizens and that because they didn’t do so they should go to jail. They were sentenced to six years.
    My advice to the Anti-Everythings: Be careful what you wish for, you may get it and it may then be applied against you.

    • Extremely insightful comment here, Paul. The risk adversion, really a failure to comprehend and assess risk, is a key problem at the root of so many other problems. The precautionary principle, if has nay validity at all, has been so abused as to make it a tool of tyranny for those who have no need of progress and, therefore, try to deny to others who do need it.

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