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NPR’s Gas Pains

In the past few years, listeners to National Public Radio have been hearing frequent announcements that “America’s natural gas” is an underwriter of NPR programming. These spots, created by America’s Natural Gas Alliance, an industry group, claim that increased use of gas is reducing greenhouse emissions and making the world a greener place.

Yesterday, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen addressed the numerous complaints that she has received from listeners about the ANGA spots. She concluded that “despite the passionate arguments of some listeners, I don’t see any evidence that the ANGA underwriting has compromised NPR’s reporting. As has been noted by ombudsmen before me there is a ‘firewall’ that separates the fundraising and editorial sides of the organization . . . I believe that firewall works and I am confident that NPR’s reporters simply aren’t paying attention to who is paying the bills when they set about to report a story or cover a beat.”

I suggest that we give NPR the benefit of the doubt and take Jensen’s word for it that its reporters are not thinking about who is paying the network’s bills when they’re working on a story. Even then, there’s still plenty of reason to worry about the message that’s coming through. Thanks to ANGA’s ads (yes, I know, as Jensen makes clear, they technically are underwriting announcements, not advertisements, but as even she admits in her article, they sure sound just like ads), NPR listeners are exposed to praise of natural gas far more often than they hear reports addressing highly contentious issues like leakage of methane (natural gas’s chief component and a powerful greenhouse gas); water contamination by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking,” the technology that made the current gas boom possible); cheap gas’s suppressing effect on development of renewable energy; and, most importantly, the fact that if all of the new gas reserves that have become available because of fracking were to be extracted and burned, efforts to save this planet from runaway atmospheric warming would be doomed.

Sure, there’s a lot of gas coverage by NPR’s local affiliate stations, as can be seen on its “StateImpact” websites—mostly straightforward reporting of events in the gas industry and the communities where it operates. (Jensen points, for example, to a StateImpact Pennsylvania story on police abuse of fracking protestors that made it onto NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday.) But coverage of gas tends to evaporate as you move up to the national level, especially on NPR’s flagship news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. And that’s crucial, because those are the very programs on which ANGA’s promotional announcements have been so prominent.

Over the past year, the sparse coverage of natural gas on the two big programs has mostly danced around the edges of controversies over the fuel. An April 13 story from Pennsylvania followed young trainees who are landing high-paying entry-level fracking jobs. On February 14, science reporter Richard Harris had a story entitled, “Report: Burning Natural Gas Is Better Than Using Coal.” On June 2 last year, Yuki Noguchi asked and answered a question: “Will EPA’s New Emission Rules Boost Your Power Bill? It Depends.” (It depends mostly on whether gas remains cheap.) Four days earlier had come Elizabeth Shogren’s report, “States Say Cutting Down On Carbon Was Easier Than Expected,” this feat having been accomplished, Shogren informed viewers, “largely because of abundant natural gas, which burns more cleanly than coal.”

Melissa Block’s April 10, 2014 story “Drilling Frenzy Fuels Sudden Growth In Small Texas Town” went a little deeper. While it featured local landowners getting six-figure checks from the gas industry, it also acknowledged the negative impacts of runaway growth on the community of Cotulla. She interviewed Jim Morris of the Center for Public Integrity, who has fielded more than 300 complaints in Cotulla of symptoms such as “headaches, nausea, breathing difficulties, nosebleeds,” which locals were attributing to chemicals being used in nearby fracking operations. Industry spokespeople responded that no such associations have been found.

Harris’s February report, the one with the headline about the superiority of gas over coal, focused on a just-published article in the journal Science which actually found that the volume of methane escaping into the atmosphere, largely from production, distribution, and use of coxanywaynatural gas, is far higher than has been estimated by EPA. Nevertheless, projecting total emissions over the next 100 years, the study’s authors concluded that “system-wide leakage is unlikely to be large enough to negate climate benefits of coal-to-natural gas substitution.” (Benefits would be even smaller over, say, the next 20 years, at a time when very rapid emissions cuts are needed.)

One could, like NPR, interpret the researchers’ conclusions as saying that “burning natural gas is better than using coal,” but that seemingly positive spin actually represents a big retreat from previous gas-boosters’ claims. A few years ago, ANGA was touting gas as a fuel “twice as clean as coal,” based on the fact that gas-fired power plants’ carbon emissions per kilowatt-hour are about 55 percent those of coal-fired plants. That comparison not only ignored methane leakage; it was also logically absurd, equivalent to saying that a bacon cheeseburger is twice as healthful as a double bacon cheeseburger. Now that all of gas’s impacts are being accounted for, maybe NPR should have given Harris’s report on the Science article a more meaningful headline: “Natural Gas: Not Quite as Dirty as Coal.”

With the “twice as clean” claim no longer viable, ANGA’s recent NPR spots have placed emphasis not on phony numerical comparisons but on tall tales meant to inspire. In one, Denver International Airport is held out as a green poster child, for having cut emissions by powering its buildings and ground vehicles with natural gas—all in the service of air travel, one of the world’s worst climate culprits. In another, Florida Power and Light earns praise for using gas, which generates electricity “even when the sun isn’t shining,” a not-so-subtle dig at solar energy.

At the end of every ad comes a call to visit ANGA’s promotional site, thinkaboutit.org. It’s a fiendishly misleading URL, implying that the superiority of natural gas as a clean fuel is blindingly obvious, if you just think about it. (The group Environmental Action gives the phrase a nice twist; its successful campaign to bombard NPR with complaints about ANGA’s ads was called, “Don’t Even Think About It, NPR.”)

There is very little discussion anywhere in the media about the desperate necessity for very rapid, very deep reductions in greenhouse emissions worldwide if we are to keep the rise in global atmospheric temperature to less than 2° C—the threshold beyond which warming could go into unstoppable overdrive. One can listen to countless hours of news reports, including those on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, without hearing anything about the impossibility of achieving those necessary reductions if the world does not resolve to leave a large share—perhaps two-thirds or more—of global fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

Research published last year shows that if the world is to hold warming to under 2° C while maintaining today’s highly inequitable access to fuel resources, North America will have to leave almost 70 percent of all its known coal, oil, and natural gas reserves in the ground. On the other hand, if the burden of emissions cutting is shared equitably among the world’s peoples, 93 percent of North American fossil fuel reserves must be left alone.

You can also spend a very long time searching Morning Edition’s and All Things Considered’s archives and not find any reporters, interviewees or commentators mentioning other crucial issues: fracking-related explosions and earthquakes caused by injection of fracking wastewater; the disincentive to invest in new solar and wind power that is created by plentiful, cheap gas; or the industry’s planning for massive long-term investments in new gas-fueled power plants that will lock us into dependency on fossil gas and prolong its greenhouse impact for decades to come.

I realize that it’s not fair to pick on NPR alone. MSNBC, a TV network that, like NPR, is much enjoyed by liberals, regularly airs natural-gas propaganda from ANGA and the American Petroleum Institute. Back in 2013, MSNBC even sealed an agreement to run articles by ANGA-paid writers on its website. That practice seems to have petered out, but viewers of the network’s advertising-heavy evening shows hosted by Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and others still endure a heavy dose of green-tinted misinformation on gas.

Huffington Post also ran ANGA-authored articles in 2013 and still maintains a “Think About It” page featuring those pay-to-play pieces. HuffPo’s “Generation Change” page, which focuses on green issues, is a joint venture with the NRG electric utility, which operates in 22 states and touts its aggressive pursuit of wind and solar energy. But here’s the breakdown of NRG’s actual generation capacity: solar, 513 megawatts; wind, 1665; oil, 6415; coal, 16,209; and natural gas, 23,864. NRG apparently is not worried about the Generation Change page damaging its image or its access to gas.

It’s easy for media outlets to team up with the fossil-fuel industry, secure in the knowledge that they won’t catch heat from powerful environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council. In its public statement on fracking, NRDC acknowledges the technology’s many problems but concludes with nothing more than a plaintive request that extraction and consumption of natural gas be done “as safely as possible.”

In her recent book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein roundly condemns NRDC, The Nature Conservancy, and other Big Green groups for caving in to the fossil-fuel industry. She singles out the Environmental Defense Fund as the worst of the sellouts. EDF has doubled down on its support for gas in the age of fracking, going so far as to join forces with Big Petroleum and its big profits to create the Center for Sustainable Shale Development. EDF itself claims to be “taking a leading role to minimize risks associated with developing new supplies of natural gas, while maximizing the lower carbon benefit inherent to natural gas as compared to other fossil fuels.”

As Klein notes, corporations and their allies in the big environmental organizations know that leaving most fossil fuels, including natural gas, in the ground in order to stop runaway warming would deal a serious if not mortal blow to big-business-as-usual, so they will never go along with it. We also can’t seriously expect the corporate media to report reliably on this situation. But we can and should demand that NPR and other public media be fully supported by public funds so that they can declare independence from the corporate world and get some relief from their gas problem.

Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas and author most recently of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing (The New Press, 2013). Contact him at t.stan@cox.net.

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Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is an editor at Green Social Thought, where this article first ran. He is author of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing and, with Paul Cox, of How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia

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