MSC in Patriot-News: PennLive’s ‘Shale Bargain’ series just repackaged tired claims

“If the goal of your report about natural gas drilling was to gratuitously frighten Pennsylvanians, then congratulations on a job well done. If it was to deliver an evenhanded examination of the critical balance that must be achieved between job creation, energy independence and environmental protection in regions with large natural gas deposits, then it was a mighty swing and a miss.”

Former Gov. Ed Rendell and then-DEP secretary John Hanger wrote these words in the New York Times following the paper’s deeply biased and widely criticized 2011 series on shale development.

Their words are equally fitting in response to PennLive’s recent series focused on similar issues.

Natural gas development and the opportunities presented by its expanded use are important issues that deserve serious attention.

That said, there’s a stark contrast between tough but fair reporting and shoddy, weakly-sourced and poorly fact-checked claims.

Regrettably, PennLive’s reporters – who had six months to double- and triple-check their sources’ claims against publicly available, fact-based information – opted for the easier and more sensationalist path, favoring hyperbole and opinions over actual science and proper context.

The series’ shortcomings are far too many to recount and appropriately contextualize in column form.

Perhaps the most egregious charge, however, was that the shale industry “went virtually unregulated for years.”

This claim is careless and flies directly in the face of the facts.

Patently false and highly-charged accusations like this underscore this series’ deep flaws and inherently biased structure which were periodically refuted by their own PennLive reporters and stories.

As Rendell and Hanger wrote in the New York Times in 2011, “Pennsylvania has the strongest enforcement program of any state with gas drilling. Period.”

And since then, with support of the industry, Pennsylvania’s regulatory framework has been further strengthened and modernized to ensure that we protect our environment and safeguard communities across the Commonwealth.

According to the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER), a nonprofit environmental review organization, Pennsylvania’s regulatory program is “well-managed, professional and meeting its program objectives.”

In the case of the New York Times, its ombudsman panned the paper’s poorly-sourced shale series.

Ironically, in the case of PennLive, its editorial page threw a life-line to its series, attempting desperately to validate the paper’s claims.

As President Barack Obama’s Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, a trained petroleum engineer, said earlier this year: “There is a lot of misinformation about fracking.”

Secretary Jewell is absolutely right.

The PennLive series had the opportunity to rise above the same old tired, previously rehashed claims, focused too often on spreading misinformation and fear. The paper had more than ample time to get the facts yet still published a series that lacked objectivity, balance, context as well as vigilance.

Quality journalism is about vetting sources, checking facts, presenting objective context – and yes, vigilance.

We nonetheless remain deeply committed to advancing a fact-based dialogue with all stakeholders, including members of the media who demonstrate professionalism.

Again, natural gas is an important and complex subject that positively touches every Pennsylvanian and is increasingly under the regulatory and public microscope.

What’s more, this historic energy transformation is creating broad-based benefits through affordable energy and cleaner air that are cascading across the entire state, including the mid-state region, providing a boost to local manufacturers and small businesses alike.

Erica Clayton Wright is vice president of communications for the Pittsburgh-based Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry lobbying group.

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