The New York Times' natural gas fiasco

Talk about hot air. The Gray Lady blew a spectacular bit of smoke with a recent article that suggested shale natural gas production is a shaky investment at best and, at worst, a Ponzi scheme of sorts, destined to devastate those who buy the “lie” that shale plays will not only produce high profits for companies, but will also provide affordable energy for the country.

The piece — “Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush” — appeared in the Sunday New York Times and implied natural gas companies intentionally or even illegally overstate the productivity of their wells and the size of their reserves. The article mentioned by name (among others) Aubrey K. McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy Corporation, the second-largest producer of natural gas in the country. The piece juxtaposed a McClendon quote — “It’s time to get bullish on natural gas” — with supposed “facts” that suggest no reason to be bullish exists.

By Sunday night, McClendon had already responded to the inaccurate and misleading article. In an internal all-staff e-mail, McClendon reminded Chesapeake employees of the facts NYT reporter Ian Urbina conveniently chose to ignore. Yesterday, McClendon published much of the same information to the Chesapeake website:

Chesapeake stands behind all of its statements to shareholders, partners and the public regarding our natural gas discoveries and production. Our industry’s operations and investment decisions are informed and guided by the best geoscientific, petrophysical and 3-D seismic data available and analyzed by some of the best drilling, completion, production and reservoir engineers in the business. The results of the industry’s efforts to revolutionize natural gas development and production have been extraordinary and continue to improve. …

By analyzing our own and industry peer well performance, we know that the initial productivity of a majority of the industry’s shale gas wells have been steadily improving, both in initial production rates and the expected ultimate recoveries of natural gas. We fully expect that the majority of these wells will be productive for 30-50 years, or even longer. …

It is also absurd to conclude that shale gas wells are underperforming while America is awash in natural gas and benefiting from natural gas prices less than half of what they averaged in 2008. I also note that Chesapeake and other shale gas producers are routinely beating natural gas production forecasts. In fact, in 2009, thanks to shale gas, the U.S. passed Russia as the largest natural gas producer in the world. Today shale gas production represents approximately 25 percent of total U.S. natural gas production. How can shale gas wells be underperforming if shale gas companies are beating their production forecasts, natural gas prices remain low and U.S. natural gas demand is at a record high? …

I am proud to be associated with the American natural gas industry – an industry that is providing a direct economic stimulus to the U.S. economy of more than $250 million a day through lower natural gas prices than in 2008. The indirect economic effects are likely many times this amount. In addition, the U.S. natural gas industry has created more than 500,000 jobs in the past seven years of the gas shale revolution and created tens of billions of dollars in economic value, while at the same time reducing the need to perpetuate massive trade deficits from reliance on foreign energy sources. Natural gas is the only available, scalable and affordable fuel that can reduce oil imports, reduce air pollution, create jobs, enhance national security and save Americans money on energy costs. Chesapeake will continue to deliver natural gas in increasing quantities in the years ahead to meet the increasing market demand from consumers for this American treasure.

McClendon was hardly alone in his reaction to the article. Energy in Depth compiled a list of some 25 responses to it, from experts in government, academia, industry and peer media, all to the same effect: The NYT article misstated the truth about natural gas. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Petroleum Institute and the American Natural Gas Alliance are just some of the organizations that responded with disappointment and outrage to the Times’ poor reporting.

Two quotes from the EID compilation stand out, in particular. The Energy Information Administration had this to say:

EIA was contacted by a Times reporter in advance of the story, and provided a response that described the agency’s approach to developing its shale gas projections. Those interested in EIA’s views on shale gas, which differ in significant respects from those outlined in the June 27 article, may want to review the EIA response to the inquiry from the Times, the Issues in Focus discussion of shale gas included in the Annual Energy Outlook 2011, and a recent presentation on domestic and international shale gas.

Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, who was quoted in the original NYT article, said the newspaper took his quotes from an e-mail he wrote on shale economics — an e-mail that didn’t express the full range of his views on the subject. “The reporters didn’t talk to me in person,” Engelder said. “[The e-mail had] a lot of nuance in it. The reporters could have learned something from the nuance.”

Both quotes suggest Urbina had the facts at his fingertips — but deliberately disregarded them. The seeming anti-natural gas agenda this reveals perplexes me, until I consider what Ed wrote just this morning in his defense of hydraulic fracturing, a technique used in the natural gas drilling process.

The problem with fracking isn’t that it’s particularly new or dangerous. The methodology has been in use for decades, and it is as safe as other drilling processes. The real problem is that it could produce relatively cheap hydrocarbon energy for a very long time, and that’s what has environmentalists worried.

So it is: Natural gas just might be the energy solution environmentalists say they want, but actually can’t stand because nothing would put them out of business faster. Forbes blogger Chris Helman words it perfectly:

We would have thought that the Times would be in favor of plentiful, low-cost natural gas. It burns a lot cleaner than coal, and with nuclear off the table for now, gas is poised to fuel U.S. economic growth for more than a generation to come. I can only guess that the problem, as the Times sees it, is that as long as we have all that cheap gas, there’s precious little need for solar panels, windmills and other cornerstones of their much-heralded but slow evolving green jobs revolution.

Forbes, on the other hand, thinks it’s pretty awesome that thanks to drilling ingenuity the U.S. has proven to have one of the world’s biggest and cheapest hoards of clean-burning gas. Now that’s a story.