Home > Frac > Hydraulic Fracturing Series: Why I Don’t Believe Ian Urbina

Hydraulic Fracturing Series: Why I Don’t Believe Ian Urbina

On occasion, I am afforded to opportunity to converse, in a manner, with those with opposing views through the avenues of Social Media.

I had a bit of a Twitter conversation with @WaterCitizen recently.

I surmise that I tweeted something to Mark Ruffalo (Fractivist Celebrity @Mruff221) concerning his characteristic support of NYT journalist Ian Urbina because of a plug he issued for Urbina’s latest article.

I asked Ruffalo if he was comfortable with aligning himself with Urbina when he has been outed for having questionable reporting methods by the NYT own public editor, Arthur Brisbane.

Ruffalo responded by tweeting “@TheFracDog No one outed him for anything but true reporting. He was completely exonerated by the NYTimes. Industry whiners need outing.

It was at this point that @WaterCitizen came into the conversation and asked that I more thoroughly treat my refusal to trust the reporting of Ian Urbina because I deemed him unreliable. @WaterCitizen responded by asking me to review (specifically) the last article Urbina had written about mortgage complications.  I told @WaterCitizen that I would write a blog about my reasoning concerning Urbina’s integrity because that is what I have a problem with.

My over-arching questions are with his shaky methods and therefore the character of Ian Urbina as a reporter.

Urbina has recently come under heavy fire both by those in industry and by those at the NYT for poor citation, including the utilization of redacted emails and intentional misrepresentation of a single source.

There have been two separate write-ups by the NYT’s Public Editor that questioned the clarity of Urbina’s stories and the truth behind his claims.

The first can be found here and the second here.

Regardless of the issues about which Urbina writes, his practices are unethical for a journalist.
Part of the bedrock for Urbina’s Behind Veneer, Doubt on Future of Natural Gas article was an EIA intern named C. Hobson Bryan.  Urbina referred to Bryan as “one official”, an “energy analyst”, and as “one federal analyst.” He also used redacted emails under the guise of “protecting sources.”  Compare those with these originals and decide more clearly for yourself whether or not his practice is questionable.

The difficulty I have with Urbina is that I refuse to believe that a person who makes his living with his pen and his ability to articulate failed to realize, that without differentiating titles used for one person, he would open himself to the possibility of being interpreted as if he had used multiple sources. He is a professional writer for the New York Times who forms a strategy about how he can grip readers. He does not get to feign ignorance.

The strategy he employed would also serve his purpose in over-qualifying one who was an intern.  I was not the only one to recognize this as Brisbane said:

Without ample descriptions of the unnamed sources, readers couldn’t know who was speaking and could not judge for themselves the merits of what was said. In the case of the redacted e-mails, the descriptors tended to obscure how many E.I.A. staffers were involved and when an intern was the e-mailer.

Urbina also “invoked” comparisons to Enron, Ponzi schemes, and dot-coms when talking about what he believed to be false faith in Shale Gas production.

He knew what he was doing and as has been noted in Brisbane’s criticisms, Urbina was outed, at the very least for being irresponsible in his methods, if not intentionally misleading.

This is not “completely exonerated by the New York Times” as Ruffalo claimed.

The most pointed criticism I would make of Urbina can be drawn from a quote by Michael Crichton on the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.

“Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them. In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

Urbina can write. He makes his living doing so. To industry folks, he sounds like a Yellow Journalist.

I will use three examples to explain. The three examples are articles printed on the same day: Aug. 24, 2011.

In Urbina’s Article, his headline is Geologists Sharply Cut Estimate of Shale Gas. He then says

“The shale formation has about 84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas, according to the report from the United States Geological Survey. This is drastically lower than the 410 trillion cubic feet that was published earlier this year by the federal Energy Information Administration.”

That was Urbina’s take.

What he did not report or clarify is that this does not include currently producing wells; which, by the way, are all producing more than originally projected.

For the sake of rounded comparison, here are articles about the same issue PUBLISHED ON THE SAME DAY by The Huffington Post entitled Marcellus Shale Gas Region Has More Natural Gas Than Previously Estimated, USGS Reports and on NPR’s website entitled Department of Energy Defers to USGS on Shale Gas Estimates.

Both of these articles, in contrast to Urbina’s, note that the current projection of the USGS is 40 times more than what their projection was in 2002.

Urbina intentionally leaves this out and compares the estimates of the USGS to those of the EIA.

Industry folks know that Geologists know what they are talking about. That is why we employ more of them than any other industry. Our profitability hinges on their accuracy.

What is most ironic is that Urbina rolls the EIA under the bus for miscalculating the volume of Marcellus Gas (410 trillion cubic feet) by granting more legitimacy to the USGS’s estimate of 84 Trillion cubic feet.

If you will remember from earlier in this blog, where we mentioned Urbina’s article Behind Veneer, Doubt on Future of Natural Gas, the “one official”, “energy analyst”, and “one federal analyst” was none other than C. Hobson Bryan:  EIA Intern.

Is the EIA respected enough to produce interns worth building articles around but not credible enough to beat out a group of geologists? Spurious.

It begs questions concerning the journalistic integrity of Urbina.

We in industry know this and understand it. Those in the general public don’t and as Brisbane noted, this does not exempt those in a position to create laws.

I don’t trust Urbina because he cannot accept the possibility that he could be wrong, he repeatedly questions a different aspect of industry in the form of an attack, and he repeatedly formulates his arguments without much of a voice from those who would disagree with him.

I don’t trust his definition of “true” because I have far too many reasons to doubt him and because Ruffalo gets his information on the cheap secondhand, I don’t trust what he deems “true” either.

Wikipedia has the following write-up on Yellow Journalism.

Yellow journalism or the yellow press is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers.[1] Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism.[1] By extension “Yellow Journalism” is used today as a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.

A fleeting glance at his headlines will show you that they are intentionally sensational.

  • Behind Veneer, Doubt on Future of Natural Gas – June 26, 2011
  • Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush – June 25, 2011
  • Millions of Gallons of Hazardous Chemicals Injected into Wells, Report Says – April 17, 2011
  • E.P.A. Struggles to Regulate Natural Gas Industry – March 4, 2011
  • Gas Drillers Recycle Wastewater, but Risks Remain – March 2, 2011
  • Regulation Lax as Gas Well’s Tainted Water Hits Rivers – Feb. 27, 2011

So @WaterCitizen, that is why I don’t believe Ian Urbina. I believe he is the quintessential Yellow Journalist and he has limited accountability.

For him to be right, a lot of brilliant scientific minds and those responsible for the future of billion dollar companies would need to be completely wrong.

To quote Jim Cramer, the host of “Mad Money” on CNBC

“Thank you for calling attention to Ian Urbina’s confused reporting about the transformational oil shale business and his insistence that natural gas executives may be exaggerating the reserves.

First, there is an immense glut of natural gas in this country, as witnessed by the failure of natural gas to spike in record cold and record heat, as it always did before the shale discoveries.

Second, we now have discovered so much natural gas in this country that oil and gas companies are mothballing gigantic facilities that were built to import natural gas from overseas. Many industry executives now expect that we will be exporting natural gas, as our production costs are now the lowest in the world.

Third, Mr. Urbina asserts that shale production falls rapidly after a short time. Actually, the production has increased over time and the initial projections in all the major shales have gone up, and up dramatically, from their initial discoveries. Fourth, both national oil companies and major integrated oils, including Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Norwegian and Indian companies as well as Exxon Mobil, have spent tens of billions of dollars buying up domestic shale properties.

Could all of these entities be wrong and Mr. Urbina right? I don’t think so.”

Conversely, I would ask you “How can you justify believing him?”

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