MARY KATZENSTEIN: Well, good afternoon, everybody. You know, just probably come, those of you who are good at folding your knees and sitting on the floor, probably just come right in the front. I'm sorry that we didn't anticipate-- we well should have-- the size of the group.
So I'm Mary Katzenstein, the Director of the American Studies Program, and it's an enormous pleasure to welcome everyone to the American Studies Program.
This is the annual Kops Lecture. The Kops Lecture, which, it's been endowed through the generosity of Dan and Nancy Kops, brings journalists to campus to address issues of free speech at the heart of contemporary American politics and culture. Daniel Kops was a Cornellian and editor in 1939 at the Cornell Daily Sun. He went on to a distinguished career in broadcasting, and as his wife said on the phone just last week, he cared passionately about free speech. Although it's our great loss that Dan Kops died several years ago, he and his wonderful wife, Nancy, who unfortunately could not be here today, but we regularly tape this Kops Lecture for her, they have left a wonderful intellectual legacy. So please join me in thanking the Kops family.
It's a great honor to introduce this year's Kops Lecturer, Ian Urbina. Mr. Urbina did his undergraduate degree at Georgetown. He then began a dual PhD program-- [INAUDIBLE] microphone. Mr. Urbina will have a microphone, but I will talk louder.
IAN URBINA: Is there a [INAUDIBLE] area for people that are still out in the hallway?
MARY KATZENSTEIN: Unfortunately, we don't have a mic into the hallway. The best we can suggest is that people come in and sit in the front.
Ian Urbina did his undergraduate degree at Georgetown and began a PhD program, a dual degree program in anthropology and history at the University of Chicago, deciding after a few years to leave his graduate student life, every minute of which was exhilarating, for the lackluster and staid life at The New York Times as an investigative reporter writing about Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech killings, mining tragedies, the Elliot Spitzer saga and, in the last few years, the developing natural gas extraction issues.
He's landed with this assignment-- I hardly need to tell this audience, in the eye of the storm, reporting on an issue that demands extensive knowledge of science, that must balance contending claims from different parties that have enormous economic and livelihood at stake. I know that Mr. Urbina will share with us his thoughts, not only about the latest development about hydrofracking but also about the role and responsibilities of a reporter writing about a highly controversial issue, while seeking a reasonable balance as a practicing journalist between the demands posed by rigorous science, partisan politics, and deliberative democracy. Please welcome Ian Urbina.
IAN URBINA: Thank you.
Thank you very much for the introduction, and thank you, Cornell, for having me here. I'm very appreciative of the Kops family also for making this possible. This is new for me. I'm not used to doing this sort of presentation. So my goal was to under prepare, and I think I've achieved that pretty well. You guys will be the judge of it.
My thought was, the hardest part of a presentation like this is figuring out what people really want to hear, that's what makes me nervous. So I'm gonna try to go through a couple of questions that, I think, have been asked often and answer them, and then I'll open it up for a Q&A.
I guess I would start though, a bit perilously, with an anecdote. It's perilous because it compares what we're doing with this project to Nixon-Frost. I don't know how many folks have seen that movie and remember a scene in the movie where Frost, a reporter, is preparing for an interview with Nixon. He's cramming. It's late at night, and the phone rings, and it's a somewhat inebriated Nixon, who launches into a very strange and oddly intimate and somewhat foreboding conversation with Frost.
Now, what I'm doing-- I'm not Frost, I'm not James Reston, and my topic isn't the president or former president, but nonetheless, there was an experience at the outset of this series that reminded me of that scene. This was about three days before the very first story launch, and we've run the series in clumps, if you will. This was the first clump, and it was focused specifically on environmental issues, waste in Pennsylvania, and we were about three days before that was gonna run. It had gone through layers of lawyers, and I had finally gotten an EPA source to come over to my house for dinner with my family. And this source was-- I have an office behind my house. We'd finished dinner, and we'd gone to my office behind the house. And it was 11:00 o'clock at night and my office, at this stage, had, you know, the walls plastered with radioactivity spread sheets and maps showing which way the rivers were flowing and where the waste was going, and facilities that were handling the waste, and drinking water intake plants that were downstream from the waste.
And so we were having this intense discussion, just making sure that all the T's were crossed. The phone rang, and it was 10:30 at night, and I looked at my watch and thought, it must be my seven-year-old out of bed, and he wants me to come in. And I answer the phone, and the person on the other line is a very formal sounding gentleman, who says, is this Ian Urbina? I said, it is. And the caller turned out to be a very high level state official. And in much the same way as that movie, the gentleman launched into a very strange discussion, which had much of the same sense of foreboding, seeming inebriation, and awkwardness and ambivalence. And the gentleman on the other line was a Pennsylvania regulator, who had been involved over the last nine months with answering the battery of questions that we were sending.
We had been scolded, at The Times, early on in interacting with the state of Pennsylvania, that we were taking up too much of their staff time asking questions. And so we had struck a deal in which we would submit the questions in batches, ideally one batch per week in email listed, and we wouldn't submit a new batch until the last one had been answered. Those were the terms we had established.
And this gentleman said, yes, I know that was the deal that was struck, but there are too many, and they're too difficult to answer, and it's taking up a third of my staff's time, and I need you to just stop. Long story short-- if it's not too late for that-- hour later, this guy is talking, and I'm obviously-- the poor EPA person is sitting there kind of wondering what's going on. This guy is deeply ambivalent about what's going on, wants to do the right thing, but is up against considerable pressure, amazing workload, a lack of staff, really high stakes financially, and on the one hand, you know, I take advantage of the opportunity and say, since I have you on the phone, can I go over a couple of things with you? And he's kind enough to oblige, and we go through a lot of things, just to make sure that we're right.
Are you aware of the radioactivity? Are you aware of this back story about the waste not being tracked well? We go through, and at every step, he says, yes, you're right on. Your right on, but please stop. You know, you're just-- I hung up the phone, and I had never had an experience like that. Not in the sense of having someone call out of the blue, but more in the sense of the strange mixed message I was getting and the combination of frustration, anger with us, but odd, almost reassurance and encouragement, that we are doing the right thing and warning that we were not aware of what we were entering, in terms of the strong pushback that we were gonna face. And I remember thinking, this guy sounds like he knows what he's talking about. I'm not sure that I can imagine what he's describing, but I think I should take it seriously.
Anyway, that was sort of-- three days later, we came out with the story and thus it began in what has turned out to be an amazing story, in the sense that it's more complicated. It's more intense. The passions are stronger on all sides. The money is huge, and the complexity is there. And with each day, the topic becomes more important as energy options for the country narrow.
You look at Japan. You look at the spill in the Gulf. You now look at the beating that renewables are getting, ala Solyndra, and the energy question has only become more and more central. So with that, I just say, I'll try to cover three things and then open it up. These are three common questions. One is, what was the origin of the series? Why did we decide to do this? I think the second category I'll take on is what were the goals of the series? And then lastly, what have been some of the challenges or surprises? And then, I'll open it up.
So previous to being an investigative reporter or having an investigative beat, I was the mid-Atlantic reporter for the paper, and that meant that I covered eight states from West Virginia to Ohio. Oversaw the coverage and also did the direct coverage in many cases. In that capacity, Pennsylvania was one of my states, and it was very clear 2 and 1/2 years ago that the drilling issue was a huge one in Pennsylvania, and it was affecting a lot of people in various ways, not all negative and many of them positive, in fact.
And so I didn't have a beat that allowed me to slow down and just look at it. I had to cover daily stories. So I started sending out freedom of information requests and open records requests kind of as a side project to see how high the stack of papers could get in my office, knowing that there's no way I had the time to look through them but at some point I might. And put myself on, again, sort of games with oneself, once a month, I'm gonna try to send an open records request on something on this, and then maybe in a year, I'll be able to turn to it. So that was one thing that kind of set the ground.
Then I got a new beat as the investigative reporter, and the BP oil spill occurred, and it was my first big responsibility. And it's an amazing story, an important story, and as things wound down with that, we met, editors and I met and said, well, what are we gonna turn to next? And we thought, well, we've learned a lot about offshore drilling and challenges in how offshore drilling is regulated. What does onshore drilling look like? And that was the simple question. My editor said, call me in a week. Poke at that.
And so very quickly, it became clear that if you're gonna look at onshore drilling, you're probably gonna be looking at natural gas drilling because it is the, you know, growth area. And so a week later, I came in. I said, look, if we're gonna do something on onshore drilling, we really should do something on natural gas drilling. I never thought, and still don't think, that our focus was fracking. Our focus was natural gas drilling, generally, and I'll explain what I mean by that difference. So the combination of, we've got these papers that I'd like to go through at some point, and there's a nice pivot point coming on the heels of the spill, led us to think, well, let's try a series on this. So that's the origin.
Goals-- there had been amazing coverage of this topic, Abrahm Lustgarten, AP, the Post Gazette. Some amazing reporters have been doing really good work on this topic. And so the challenge was how to avoid retracing steps. And there were several goals that we sort of established at the outset. One was, to a large degree, this topic has been covered as an environmental story, you know, jobs versus the environment, and you know, the questions that have been raised about it have largely been environmental. And the more I looked at it and my editors looked at it, the more we thought that it's a much larger story and more complicated story and more interesting story, in many ways, in that-- well, so with that notion, one goal was to release almost chapters and take the topic on from different angles.
So the first batch of stories was largely environmental, and the next batch of stories was shale gas economics and was a real close look at the economics of production and skepticism that, at that point, really had not been aired fully but really economic. And subsequent batches will look at other components that are truly distinct. They're all interrelated. So shale gas economics and the questions of how much gas do these wells actually produce, how long do they live, what is the see-saw economics that make it profitable, has direct bearing on how many wells you're going to have to put in a place, and thus, it becomes, again, an environmental question, resource question, water question. But one of our goals has been to really approach this from very distinct angles.
Another goal was to try-- and whether we've lived up to this or not, others can decide-- but to not produce two-dimensional stories but instead, to produce three-dimensional platforms. And by that, sort of a schnazzy way of saying documents. Rather than sort of-- you know, show me, don't tell me. And so if we have to hold a story for an extra month to try to get more documents and more people on record that substantiate, corroborate, expand, clarify what we could have produced a month earlier with one line, then we'll hold the story. And ideally, with each story-- and this was the spot where I was gonna show you something on there but I'm a little nervous to mess with the technology-- with every story, there will be the main bar story. And I'll see if I can do this. This is where someone may, I think-- yeah, so this is an example of a story.
This is one of the first stories and with each story, there's the story, and then over here, usually on the left-hand side, I think all too discrete, is documents. And in an odd way, this is really where the story resides. It takes you to another page. This is a splash page, and this document reader, I think, was almost 1,000 pages long and had different chapters. And in each chapter, in each topic, which directly pertains to what's in the story, the documents are there. And then we annotate the documents, which is to say we try to go passage by passage and explain what it is that's being said and why it's-- of course, that's not supposed to happen. I mean, I'll only have this up for a second. So let me see if I can actually get-- yeah, I think there's not certain software on this.
So you go would go into the reader and the documents would be there, and you click on the documents, and you have a whole other layer, a third dimension, of reporting. And so again, a story that could have been in the paper in two months probably wasn't in the paper for 3 and 1/2, four months because all sorts of access reporting was going into getting the documents and then explaining them in a way. And a lot of things that go down to a really granular level, that only a small percent of people really care about, are in the document readers. And that was, oddly from a journalistic point of view, a real struggle, because papers have fewer reporters. There's less resources, and we need to produce copy. We need to produce text. And taking that much longer to produce something that only a small percent of people are going to look at and perhaps benefit from is a difficult cost benefit analysis, but nonetheless, the paper said, let's do it. I think it's important. I think it's the way the internet's going. I think it's better journalism. It's truly public service journalism, and so let's do it.
And in the beginning, there was some grumbling as to whether it's worth it because the numbers come in, and you see just how small the percent of people is that actually goes into the document reader, how far they go, and how long they are staying on the individual pages. In the beginning, it was bleak. You know, I would tell the techies, don't tell me, you know, that 40 seconds is how long anyone stayed on any-- I don't want to hear the numbers. We're gonna keep doing it, you know, come what may. The end of the story is a happy ending on the document reader, but in the beginning, it was really touch and go as to whether they were gonna allow us to keep doing that. So that was the second ambition, was to make sort of these 3D platforms.
The third ambition was topical. We are in a different moment right now with regard to the discussion that's occurring around drilling. I think it's a much more informed discussion. A lot more people are involved. It's still pretty heated, and there's a lot of misinformation, I think, on all sides. But there's a much livelier discussion going on all over the country, and it's not because of my work or The Times. I think we helped, but there's been a lot of work that preceded it.
But if you go back in time to March of 2008, for those who have been watching it for that long, you'll remember that the price of natural gas was up at $14. It's down around $4 now. The exuberance surrounding natural gas was off the charts in every way. Wall Street was excited about it. Washington was excited about it. T. Boone Pickens was excited about it. There were ads all over, and a lot of the legitimate upshots of natural gas were well known, and large environmental groups were also very much behind it.
Now, go to the end of 2008, October, September. The price of natural gas falls to the floor, largely because of the global recession but also because of a glut of natural gas. The combination of the two and just a history of volatility in the price of gas cause a serious situation in the price of natural gas, which has major impacts. And yet, the excitement around natural gas is still prevalent.
Case in point-- after the Republicans did very well in Congress, the first speech that President Obama gave was one in which the area he cited where Democrats and Republicans could work together was natural gas. So natural gas has had, has enjoyed an unusual consensus-- large enviros, Washington, Wall Street, to a large extent, the oil and gas industry, especially early on, was doing a very good job at promoting its benefits. On the Hill, there were some very sizable subsidy packages that were seeking to promote natural gas uptake, demand.
So it's important, I think, to remember that the moment we're in now, there is still considerable consensus and support and some of it quite legitimate, but that consensus was a very different thing a year, two years ago. And so in terms of goals of the series, this consensus was one of the motivations of doing the series, especially on the heels of the spill. We at The Times-- or I shouldn't speak so generally-- my editor and I thought, number one, wouldn't it be nice to ask some of these questions before a big disaster?
You have to be careful in doing that because you become Chicken Little, and you have to be responsible in how you ask the questions and what questions you ask. But nonetheless, our view was, if this country is going to embrace, in a pretty sizable way, this energy source, isn't it the responsibility of papers like The Times, who still have enough money to do this kind of thing and cut a reporter loose to really focus on a topic for a year and half, isn't it our responsibility to try to pressure test that consensus, and as a topic, to really press on it, cross-examine it, raise lots of well-researched but aggressive questions about it?
And so whether we achieved it or not and whether you agree or not, one of our goals was to produce a series that raised questions about this consensus and the assumptions underneath it and this new energy source. I mean, you only have to look back at coal bed methane or ethanol and see that this is not a first time that we've had this level of exuberance around an energy option, and there hasn't been a lot of cross-examination of that exuberance. So that was the third of our goals, was to sort of pressure test and analyze the trend.
So challenges-- challenges and realization-- this is kind of my dumping ground of other stuff I wanted to say. The challenges in a story like this were significant. Getting information is oddly difficult in that there's so much of it out there. The problem is that it's not easy to find, and the type of information you need is often not the stuff that's out there. So I'll just give one little anecdote that pertained to the first story.
We tried to constantly-- we try to always ask simple, straightforward questions, sort of as our reporting proceeded.
Is that too close? If folks can't hear me, just tell me.
So simple questions. It's a lot of waste. Where is it going? What's in it, coming up from these wells? And the question that we really would start focusing on were, are there things that everyone seems to know but no one can provide any content to or specificity for? For example, it was well known that there was radioactivity in the waste. How much, what type, and with what consequence?
The how much and what type was oddly difficult to pin down, and it seemed strange to us that there was no way to figure that out. So we just kept running at that wall, and it quickly became apparent that there, indeed, was a way to figure out how much. And we had no idea, was it a lot? Was it a little? But there were these documents, these annual forms, that in Pennsylvania, at least, drillers, to use a general term, had to produce for the state and put on record. And those documents tended to have, normally had a content analysis of their waste. And they were fairly detailed, and that's where you were probably gonna see what's in the waste, and you would see how much radioactivity. So OK, great. We're halfway there. Call Pennsylvania and say, give us those documents. Good luck.
So you call, and they say, we don't keep those in a central office. They're decentralized. Great, what are they called? I'm not really sure. So then you get into this game, and oftentimes, people are being very honest because there are a million forms they're handling, and I don't mean to imply that they were lying. So now, you're realizing it's decentralized. Information, and you have to know the name of what you're looking for to be able to target it. It took three weeks to figure out the form is called 26R, and that's a perfect example of the most basic level barrier that's not-- I don't think it's intentionally put there to obstruct people. I personally don't believe that, but nonetheless, the consequence is the same. Getting the information is ridiculously difficult.
And so with help from sources, some of them, you know, in the crowd, and a lot of footwork in Pennsylvania, where we later found out that you couldn't simply-- these forms are kept in local offices. OK, well, let's get all the phone numbers, call them, and open records request them. Sorry. You have to come in personally. We don't have the budget to provide it. You have to come in personally. OK, let's hire some stringers. You know, get on the schedule. Sorry, you have to schedule to come in and right now, the only openings are this, that, and the other OK, we send several people to certain offices, and the amount of these forums is considerable. And you're only allowed a certain window of time. So we schedule. We get in there. We only get through a third of what's, you know, a gigantic stack, and then we're booted. So now, we're looking at getting back on the schedule and figuring out how can we get the most out of-- and this is very mundane. I don't know if this is of interest to anyone, but this is what it actually looks like to get this information, and it sort of explains why, to go back to the beginning, everyone knew there was radioactivity but no one really knew how much. That's why.
And the information was there, but it takes a lot of work and help and luck and persistence to get it. So the name game was one-- I'd run into it before but never like this. And there were other instances where figuring out what the name of the document was was 80% of the battle.
To come full circle, another major realization then I'll stop. Tell me how long have I been talking. OK.
Big realization-- documents matter. The techies, who used to harass me with, by the way, the average time that someone spent on that page was 30 seconds, and there were only, you know, 200 of those people, when enough time passed, you started to realize that that 40 seconds went to 40 minutes and the numbers grew, partially because the blowback settled down and also because the people, regulators, investigators, were starting to actually-- they wanted to read those things. They didn't want to read our story. And so they were going to the document reader and they were going through every page. And it's the document reader and those documents that actually resulted in, and I hear this from SEC sources, New York Attorney General's office sources, EPA sources, it's those documents that actually have given rise to the impact that the series has had.
There are more questions, not prejudging the answers, but more of the right questions and important questions being asked by people who matter. Ultimately, I don't matter. SEC does matter. New York Attorney General's office matters. EPA matters. They can actually confront and correct many of these issues. And they need to be the ones, as well as the public, who are asking the right questions.
And when we started hearing, three weeks, six weeks after these stories ran, from sources in those agencies about what was going on, it was real vindication that this kind of front loading of journalistic resources pays off. It takes a while, and the initial balance of other media venues may not be great, and your editor may kind of come and say, why is no one else-- you know, why is everyone running a second day story that's a he said, she said story, where the industry is saying The Times said this and the industry said that? If this document reader matters so much, why aren't any of the other media venues diving in and making use of the documents? And some of them did, and some of them have done amazingly well, but I didn't have a response. But when regulators started actually going through it, and you start hearing what's happening, it's reassuring.
Last anecdote, then I'll close. Case in point-- there had been, on this same story-- and I'm fixating on the first story, I don't know why. But as we looked at the issue of waste, a lot of it produced. Where does it go? How is it tracked? And let's follow it as far as we can. Comes up from the well, gets taken to, often, these waste treatment facilities. Waste treatment facilities process them to some degree. Not entirely, a lot of things can't get taken out. Discharged into rivers-- so we're still trying to follow it with papers and interviews. Enters the rivers. How much testing is done on the outflow? Comes downriver. What's downriver? How close is the drinking water intake? What happens at the drinking water intake? Are they testing on the inbound? When did they last test? And coming back into the river, has anyone done modeling to see whether-- the phrase is dilution is the solution to pollution-- and has anyone actually looked at the river to test that and see to what extent dilution is the solution to pollution and whether it's doing a sufficient job?
And the answer from state regulators and federal regulators was consistently no. No one's looked at it but it is. So we then have, at this stage, very good sources in EPA, and we're hearing the same thing. The story comes out. One of the sources turns out to have known about the fact that EPA itself did just that testing and looked at, in a modeled scenario, dilution rates for large, middle, small bodies of water. And you know, this analysis was done and provided to other EPA workers in a very public venue, buried.
So the story comes out, and we put that document up there and annotate it and explain what all this means with help from the EPA sources. Again, this is an anecdote on the divergence of documents matter. We got a call five weeks after, and we're told that two things hit hugely within EPA and have spurred major movement. One is an email in which we got leaked that an EPA person in the PA regional office says don't email anything. We don't want this discussed in email because they're accessible to public records, and we could start being held accountable for what is in writing. And I don't make this up. Look at the document reader. It's in there. I'm not-- I mean, if someone told me that was in an email, I'd laugh too. But there it was, and it was beautiful to receive as a reporter.
So that email was one of the main reasons that within three days of the story breaking, the Director of EPA was on a train headed to Philly to talk to that guy and to find out what was going on. So documents matter.
But also, this dilution is the solution to pollution-- person in the enforcement division, they're the guys that sue and criminal and civil within EPA, had been asking repeatedly and aggressively the water division, is there any analysis of this sort? Have we looked at dilution? You know, have we really gamed this out? No, no, no, water kept saying. Doesn't exist. Doesn't exist.
Now, again, whether one hand didn't know what the other was doing, seems very possible. I'm not presuming that this person was lying when they told enforcement. All I know is when we put that up on the internet, the enforcement division and the water division-- and I may be wrong if it was water-- but the other division had a lot of talking to do. So again, we could have put that in the story without a document and said, we've been told by a source at the EPA that the studies have been done, and here's what they found. I doubt a phone would have been picked up. But because the presentation was right there, a lot came of it.
You know, I think that's it. I'll open it up to questions. I think, Mary, you were gonna--
MARY KATZENSTEIN: We do have quite a lot of time for questions.
AUDIENCE: You mentioned pushback. I'm curious what kind of pressures have been put on The Times and on you having surfaced these stories?
IAN URBINA: You know, this is such a predictable question, and it's a fair question and the whole point here is thinking, you know, how far--
MARY KATZENSTEIN: Can you repeat the question, please?
IAN URBINA: Yeah, so the question was, you mentioned pushback. Can you talk a little bit more about what that looks like for the reporter and for the paper?
The reaction to the stories has been intense from lots of corners and for legitimate reasons. The overall reaction-- this answer is not gonna satisfy you. So just prepare to be disappointed. There are a number of different things that are commonly said, one of which I think I should talk about now, which is that The Times and I am are anti-natural gas.
I would encourage anyone who thinks that to talk to my wife, who feels like I have a second, you know, marriage to this topic. Because for the last two years, essentially, but year and a half, it's just been all I've looked at because I think it's actually extremely important and not strictly as a threat, but because the country does have very serious energy problems and big decisions have to be made about how we're going to proceed on a policy level. And natural gas is domestic, it is abundant, and it can be cheap, which is this kind of three-word mantra that you hear. It does help in energy independence. It has produced a lot of jobs in many places. But every single one of those points has been discussed, I think, in a pretty shallow way, and it's not as simple as those one-word mantras sum up.
And so I definitely think that natural gas has a very important role, and it's for that reason that we want to now, before, you know, multimillion dollar subsidies are directed to it, or infrastructure is built so as to embrace it or try to embrace it, or assumptions are made about what it will look like in five, 10 years, in terms of price, in terms of availability, before all that, we help push and broaden the discussion.
So back to your question-- the industry is a well-funded industry, and they have been very smart about putting out their perspective and frankly, I think that if we had chosen as our series coal or pharmaceutical industry and we set out with the same ambitions, let's intensely cross-examine this industry and find places that deserve closer scrutiny, potentially closer oversight, but certainly better questions, I think we'd get similar pushback from any industry of that size and strength.
We happened to choose this topic. And I think it's totally legitimate for those industries, in this case, the oil and gas industry to try to put its perspective out there. I have been a little surprised by some of the misinformation that the industry has been willing to put forward, even just about the series, and I'm not easily surprised by that kind of thing. But anyway, the pressure has been intense. It's come in the form of, I think you already know, their own media production, directly complaining to The Times. But luckily, you know, you put up a 100-page document reader and you annotate it, and you have an industry that's gonna go over every single comma and look for something to force a correction on, you better be really careful, and so far, we have no corrections.
AUDIENCE: Are you familiar with the book The End of Country by Seamus McGraw?
IAN URBINA: I am. I interviewed on NPR with Seamus.
AUDIENCE: Can you comment on the reliability of the information?
MARY KATZENSTEIN: Can you repeat the question?
IAN URBINA: So I shouldn't have answered so quickly. I'm familiar with it. I haven't read it. The question was, am I familiar with the book The End of Country by Seamus McGraw? My answer was I know of the book. I know of Seamus only because I have interviewed with him on the same shows, but I don't know enough about the book to comment.
AUDIENCE: You say that documents matter. And yet the industry is trying their best to not to generate it through nondisclosure agreements. There are dozens of cases in Pennsylvania where people, the only way they can get fresh water brought to them is to sign a nondisclosure agreement. It would be very instructive and important for people to know what it is that the industry doesn't want out there. How does one go about what those nondisclosure agreements are?
IAN URBINA: Yeah, so the comment really was you say that documents matter, and yet, the ubiquity of nondisclosure agreements makes it difficult to get access to information. We actually had-- I guess it was two stories ago-- a piece that was looking at two things. One, there's a common industry saying that there's not a single documented case of and yet there was a pretty definitive set of EPA documents about a case that we focused on in which the EPA, not The New York Times, concluded that this is such a case in which fracking seems to have contributed to the contamination of someone's drinking water.
The second part of that story was not intended at the outset but in reporting it and talking with the EPA officials who worked on that report, which was from the '80s, all of them wanted to talk more about the point you're making, which is that this is-- and some of them actually didn't even like the story, like that we were focusing on the case because it implies that it's such a rarity. And it may be, it may not be, but their point was, the larger story is the point you made. That it's very difficult to actually get an accurate sense of how common these problems are because of-- the industry, I think, in fairness, responds that, you know, every industry uses nondisclosure agreements, as do private citizens, as do divorcees.
I mean, you know, sealing of documents-- I'll just-- my father is a federal judge in DC, and that story got us in a very interesting debate about that issue. And a lot of judges actually understand and support the notion of allowing parties to litigation to seal certain things in the litigation and the importance of that part of litigation. Because when an individual or a corporation is litigating and maybe settling, they're often not just protecting their-- they're often not just seeking financial quid pro quo. They're also trying to protect their brand and protect themselves from, as they would say, the use or misuse of information against them down the road. And so that's part of the exchange and why, these folks would argue, shouldn't they be able to do that?
The counter, and federal judges themselves as well as others, have said, OK, perhaps, but when it comes to public safety, is that legitimate? You know, you look at the famous cases in history-- Firestone, SUVs, Pinto, you know, asbestos-- almost all of them-- and we looked because we were gonna do more with this-- have an element of those stories in which you could pretty well argue that more people would have been saved, harm or worse, you know, suffering or worse, had the industry or the individual company not been allowed to seal. And so this comes to the, when it comes to public safety, should it be accepted that you can seal? And that's still debated. In the piece, we talked about federal legislation that's actually seeking to put limits on that, but it's a good point you make.
AUDIENCE: Who's sponsoring that?
IAN URBINA: I should know this since I wrote the story, but I don't remember.
AUDIENCE: Are you planning on continuing the series? And if so, can you give us a preview of some of your tactics?
IAN URBINA: Yes and no. I'm sorry. Yes, we plan on sticking with the topic, and no. We're struggling for readers as it is. Why would I?
AUDIENCE: I just wanted to know, when all is said and done, with all the work you've done the last couple years looking into all of this, what would you say is the biggest problem with natural gas?
IAN URBINA: Yeah, I don't know if I can answer that, honestly, because with all due respect, I don't think it makes sense to simplify it down into the biggest problem. I think-- yeah, I guess, here's what I can say. I think if I look ahead and I were to say where I think the growth areas of important consequential questions are and should be and need to be, I would say air, a lot of focus on water, and only starting to be focus-- I mean, look at the EPA national study that's under way, again, mandated with a very specific goal, but the emissions issue Tony [INAUDIBLE] and others have looked at is hugely important from a climate change perspective, but also just the air quality issues for people living in these regions, and those vis a vis what sort of tracking is or isn't being done. I think that's a hugely important area and is only starting to get discussed more substantively.
I also think that it's really mundane. It causes, you know, my wife and friends to yawn but land use, I think, is really key for two reasons-- one, the importance of it, the consequence of it, and two, the level of discussion that's occurring. The bigger the gap, the more important I think it is. There's very little discussion occurring by other media and just publicly about, OK, if federal regulators are saying x amount of gas is going to come online and when it does, we'll be able to shift away from coal and all these things will happen, what does that mean in terms of the number of wells? OK, what does that number of wells mean in terms of land use? And have, on the local, state, or federal level, we really looked at rules for land use, setbacks and all these things?
Now, in places that they have looked at those things, have you crossed them? So if you have setback rules in x place and you're predicting y amount of gas, which logically would require q number of wells, what does that look like? Can you actually put that many wells if there are those setback requirements? And if you can't, how is this gonna work out? Are you assuming that there's going to be lobbying down the road to rejigger one of those factors?
So land use, I think, is hugely important. Air is also important. Those are somewhat environmental. I also think there are other very important areas that are still to come that we'll cover.
AUDIENCE: We've heard that-- or I've heard that because the price of natural gas is so cheap in the United States that companies are looking to sell the gas overseas. It seems a shame that they can trash our country to make a higher profit. Have you heard that, and is there anything in the government that can stop it? Or is this [INAUDIBLE] in we can rape and pillage the land for profit?
MARY KATZENSTEIN: Can you repeat the question?
IAN URBINA: I'll repeat it. Export-- you know, where do things stand with the notion of exporting the gas? And the questioner asks, is it legitimate to put such a burden here if we only plan on exporting it? It's a really good question. And taking into account price is exactly one of the things that, I think, there needs to be more understanding about. And what will the export of it mean for all these other things we've heard about the benefits of natural gas? So I think it's the right question.
There's a lot happening. Liquid natural gas export facilities, Louisiana, for example, are getting approval. Now, on balance, I think that the industry would point out, with, I think, some merit, that export isn't necessarily all bad. You're still looking at a lot of jobs. How many is obviously a source of discussion and research by some people in this room, including-- but there are advantages that don't disappear just because we're looking to export, point one. You know, there is the trickle down notion. You know, we, as a country, want to export stuff, and that helps bring money into the economy, and so we shouldn't dismiss that.
I do think, though, that the export issue is worth bringing up when the industry emphasizes the point about energy independence and domestic consumption. And again, buried in the document reader that few people look at, is an amazing letter that-- and I may get their name messed up-- but I think it's the American Public Utilities Association or something of the sort, and it's a letter in which they are arguing against the approval of one of these export facilities. And they're arguing in the letter that if you allow a lot of this gas to be exported, you're essentially hooking the price of the gas to the foreign market. And that's going to make it go up, and it's going to price out the domestic consumers. I'm not arguing this. This is what's in the letter. And that's gonna have consequences for utilities, for the chemical industry, for consumers. Those prices get passed down to, you know, homeowners.
And so we need to be thinking about the big picture as we scramble to help the industry stay afloat financially by sanctioning some of these export facilities. What are the longer term consequences? It's a really interesting letter, but it strikes on some of the points you're making.
AUDIENCE: I'm glad you're doing such important work. I was wondering what your view is on the role of the press in looking at the balance using the gas industry's efforts to subvert local municipality's land and control authority versus [INAUDIBLE] gas industry [INAUDIBLE] right here in [INAUDIBLE] County. I live on [INAUDIBLE] and we [INAUDIBLE] where our van was going and we're now being sued by the gas industry saying you shouldn't be allowed to do that. [INAUDIBLE]
IAN URBINA: The peril of opening-- yeah, I'll repeat the question. On the issue of land use, what about the fact that there are growing conflicts between local communities that are seeking to put limitations on how the land is used and to limit how drilling companies can operate, versus the drilling industry's efforts to limit those sorts of, you know, restrictions? And what I was gonna say is, the peril of Q&A is that you would ask a lot of questions that I can't or won't answer, but I think are really important.
In this case, I'm watching that very closely, as are a couple other legal reporters at the paper. It's immensely interesting. I think it's, in terms of the growth areas of places where there are the most consequential battles gearing up, I think that is one of them. I do think, again, on balance, that industry has every right to defend contracts, that when they're made, allow them x, and then mood shifts later and communities-- and I'm not, by any means, taking a side, but later on, they say, wait a minute. You're moving the goalposts here, and these contracts need to be honored. And just because public opinion has shifted, doesn't mean that you can then negate them, and we have every right to sue based on that.
You know, at a fundamental level, I think there is some merit on that. I don't know the specifics of the cases, and I don't know what actually was agreed to at the time and what has or hasn't shifted. But I do know that that's one of the arguments that I've heard in response, and on a basic level, it makes sense. So too, does the notion that local communities want to have some say in how their land is used. And they may not, at the time, have realized or not have been informed of the extent of certain usage or the consequences of certain usage. And so now that they're more aware of it, they may want to more closely regulate it. That, too, makes some sense to me.
MARY KATZENSTEIN: Way in the back.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. We're now exporting 395,000 barrels of gasoline every day, not from the United States, but elsewhere, and it's up from 230,000 barrels earlier this summer. [INAUDIBLE] I think a real big question in this argument about [INAUDIBLE] is, what is the rush in New York City? What [INAUDIBLE]. I know they're all [INAUDIBLE] but I think [INAUDIBLE] in this state [INAUDIBLE].
IAN URBINA: So partially because I feel like my duty is always to be a voice in the--
MARY KATZENSTEIN: Repeat the question.
IAN URBINA: Oh, sorry. Keep reminding me. The point-- well, honestly, I don't understand the gasoline point but--
AUDIENCE: Well, the export of fossil fuel [INAUDIBLE] energy policy was independent of everything else and yet, it's undermining that because you were saying, oh, we don't have [INAUDIBLE] export natural gas itself. But they make a big deal when they were promoting [INAUDIBLE] pipeline and all that. They're talking about being energy independent and yet, now, they're at the point of exporting gasoline from the country and a lot of it.
IAN URBINA: So I think one was a comment. I think the question that I can try to answer was, what is the rush in New York to move ahead? And my remark was, I'm finding myself in a pattern in which I'm voicing the industry perspective, and I think that's important. You always size up who your audience is and just, so I would say that-- I would just say one thing about the rush critique.
If you're a company that has gotten a certain number of people at a pretty penny to sign leases that have a shelf life on them, and the process of overseeing whether to begin drags out further and further, that's expensive. And so I think that, from the industry perspective, and that's not what you were asking about, they have every reason to want to hurry up and move ahead. And it's not simply or crassly that they just want to shut down discussion. I think they probably would like to shut down discussion, because it's heading in a direction that's not beneficial to them. But I think it's also a legitimate kind of financial and contract issue, which is these discussions can go on indefinitely and at some point, a decision has to be made as to whether to proceed.
Now, the point you were making and from the perspective you were offering, I think that New York-- when you look at New York compared to Pennsylvania, has been much more careful-- I don't need to tell you-- about trying to think through the issues. And a lot more issues are starting to come out, and I think New York is saying this could drag on indefinitely just from a regulatory point of view. It costs us, too, as the state using your taxpayer money, a lot of money to be doing this. We also would like the jobs and the tax base. So at some point, we're just gonna say we're moving ahead. And my inference, that's all it is, is that the administration in New York is in that zone, where they want to hurry up and get this hurdle cleared and make a decision as to what they're gonna do. It restates your question rather than answering it, but it's the best I can do.
MARY KATZENSTEIN: Yeah, in the green shirt.
AUDIENCE: Many of documents that you obtained are specifically exempt from Freedom of Information, and they're incredible documents. How did you get them?
IAN URBINA: You know, it's leaked by sources. You know, some of them I've gotten from you, so a self-serving question.
And a legitimate question, and many others. But the vast majority-- and you couldn't do this without help from sources, who are smart and aggressive and persistent, and they are willing to work with you, even if it involves waiting months on end.
So if we had just run these stories and their document readers without leaked documents, the series would not be half as strong. But the majority of what we have run, especially in that first story-- I don't know if majority is right-- a lot of the documents in the first story were obtained through open records, and in some ways, the most important ones. And it's irrelevant to rank them, but my only point is to say that oftentimes, the most important material out there is accessible, except for these barriers I described. You know the 26Rs was probably the most important set of documents that we went after because without those-- I mean, up until that story-- and you know this well-- the data set of radioactivity, you know, numbers on how much, how hot the radioactivity in waste, was a data set of, I think, maybe 22, 23 out of a New York state document. And our goal was to bump that up to 200, 300 wells worth of data. And it was, I think, a noble and important goal because I was calling United States Geological Survey and EPA and professors around the country who specialize on the stuff. None of them had-- they had no data, and they were in the same scramble we were. You know, they were trying to talk about something for which they had no new numbers, sort of almost using the same small data set.
So we thought, OK, whatever it takes, we're gonna break this data set out and you know, and whatever it says, if the radioactivity is low, we're gonna write something about radioactivity and put this issue to bed one way or the other. So those 26Rs, which were publicly accessible, were key.
AUDIENCE: Well, coming to Cornell to talk about, enjoying questions that are atop [INAUDIBLE] lists. Like, you know, this is probably one of the few places you could do that. I understand your average newspaper editor, when told that something is more complex than that is unhappy about that. Looks like you ended up doing almost as much research for this as you would have had you continued with your studies.
One of the things that I wonder in this, you know, you talked about how there was this consensus and that was part of the reason that your editors wanted to look critically at this. We have more and more where we're looking at these new technologies that we're developing and we have, you know, companies working with academics to develop the technologies. We have governments investing in them, either, you know, through the university system or directly through grants, and we do develop these consensus. Meanwhile, the press is, you know, in some instances, reduced to just sort of printing whatever press releases they can get hold of because they've got no reporters. Who's gonna pay for critical thinking and sort of implement the precautionary principle of the future as we get more and more extreme ways of doing things like getting energy?
IAN URBINA: And just to clarify, when you say, who's gonna to pay, do you mean-- and then I'll tell everybody the question-- journalistically, who will pay for this type of journalism or--
AUDIENCE: Journalism, in the Academy, in government, who's paying for critical thinking?
IAN URBINA: I think-- so the question was-- at root it was, who will pay for hard questions to be asked, either in journalism or in regulatory environments? And it's sort of a mundane answer and totally theoretical. I mean, because what do I know about that?
I think on the federal level-- you and I, you know, federal, you know, taxpayers. And the paying for it isn't the challenge on a regulatory level. It's a political matter. So there's money to be taxed if there's the will, and there are plenty of people who know a whole lot more than I do who can ask these questions well in the Academy and in government, but the agencies that hire those people are under attack. So look at the EPA, right, I mean, the most vilified federal agency under the sun right now. Some candidates are saying they may disband it. So that's a political question.
If such perspective was in the room, and it may be, that that's worthy, I think that person would argue, it's not just a political. It's a financial. The country is strapped. We need to find ways to save money and make more money and indeed, these type of agencies, like the EPA, are throwing up a lot of red tape, killing jobs, and wasting money, and so it is a money question at root.
You know, that's a perspective and that debate is a political debate. The dollars are, I think, there. State level, it's kind of a microcosm of the same. And the severance tax issue, in Pennsylvania especially, is a perfect case in point, where major decision made that ended up passing up, for any number of reasons, the very type of money that would go towards this.
And then on the journalistic front, I don't know. You know, I don't know. I mean, I think that I have no idea. It's not my field.
AUDIENCE: In your research, you mentioned [INAUDIBLE] documents. Did you actually run into any intense obfuscation of information, applied by oil company people or others.
IAN URBINA: What was that?
AUDIENCE: Obfuscation-- deliberate attempts to withhold information or alter information [INAUDIBLE]?
IAN URBINA: When I ask for documents from companies, they don't tend to give them to me, especially now. So if that counts, then put that in that column. Again, to play the obvious devil's advocate, our series is, by definition, critical, and we're not ashamed to say that. So if I'm in the industry, I know that this series is setting out to ask hard questions and raise issues that would better be not discussed or certainly not by that guy at that paper. And so for that reason, too, I think they're not helping.
In terms of altering documents, nothing comes to mind, in terms of, you know, differences.
AUDIENCE: Ian, thanks for making the trip here. I've seen a couple of articles, and maybe clarify for me what this wave is that we're trying to stop in New York. First, they do infrastructure improvement for the gas process, while they shore up the leases. You guys have run a couple of stories on lease regrets, forced major, the letters going out to lease holders, et cetera, insisting that the leases be extended and that you can't avoid extension, et cetera. But I haven't seen any articles about the infrastructure that's being built up in New York for this. Right now in Skylar County, a company named Energy has a phony application for a propane storage facility. Their 2010 Securities and Exchange Commission filing indicates that they've got 10 billion cubic feet of natural gas storage at that facility that they wish to exploit in the near future. Any chance of us reading in The New York Times about these infrastructure developments?
IAN URBINA: It's a good question. So I think everyone heard the question.
I think-- so I'm not the editor of The New York Times. I have a very specific mission, which is to try to land national stories, not New York stories, and in this very specific way that we set up the goals. And not-- this term isn't meant pejoratively, although it will sound that way, but I'm not supposed to do incremental coverage, sort of, beat coverage of this. There are reporters who are doing a good job on that. And I think the infrastructure question, like land use, is a really fundamental one. So I just say maybe, and I certainly would encourage it.
MARY KATZENSTEIN: So two or three more questions. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: A lot of Central New York papers are accepting industry ads [INAUDIBLE], ads that perpetrate [INAUDIBLE] yet [INAUDIBLE]?
IAN URBINA: New York Times ran a full page Chesapeake ad not that long ago-- I mean, an Exxon. So we-- I'm sorry. The question was-- it's amazing I keep forgetting that.
A lot of papers are taking ad dollars from the industry and yet purporting to cover the story in an objective way. What are your thoughts on that? Before I joined the paper, and maybe I've drunk the Kool-Aid, but before I joined the paper, that critique carried more water with me because it structurally makes sense. Since I've been at the paper, I, for better or for worse, realize what a divided and chaotic, you know, kingdom these institutions are, even smaller papers. And the ad people have no say whatsoever on the news side folks. The news folks have no say whatsoever on the editorial side folks. And so my personal opinion is that I don't see that as a huge issue, generally speaking.
I do think though, I'd say that it can be, and I've heard vague stories, not about this topic or at any specific paper, about companies that are providing a lot of money in ad revenue saying, we're gonna pull our ad because your coverage is abysmal. And I have to think that, especially if you're a smaller paper, for whom that really can rattle you, I would be surprised if a call isn't made saying, are we solid on this? I would also be surprised if the call of that sort at any paper went beyond that. In other words, you know, is your reporter solid? Are you watching over them? Are you sure about the coverage? Yes. End of discussion. I don't think that it tends to say, you know, and you know, tell your reporter to back off because we're losing this. I've never heard that, and I know a lot of reporters at other small papers, and they would tell me if that kind of thing was happening.
AUDIENCE: I was wondering if you had any idea of how aware people who live outside areas of natural gas drilling are to the consequences of natural gas drilling?
IAN URBINA: So this goes back to the point I was making before about.
MARY KATZENSTEIN: Can you please repeat?
IAN URBINA: I'm consistent, if nothing else. The question was how aware do I think folks outside of intense drilling areas are of the issues related to drilling? And I think that, again, going back to-- go to 2008 versus go to now. I think the awareness is much greater and very different than it was circa 2008, now, and you know, that's for a lot of reasons and a lot of good journalism and also a lot of just structural factors that I was alluding to before about how energy, as a story, has really risen, especially post-BP, in the last nine months, really.
So my impression is that there's real awareness pretty broadly. I think you live in Tampa, you might have heard of fracking. You know, and your in your 20s, you know, and maybe you don't read the paper, but you do watch Jon Stewart and you do read a lot of things on the internet, a lot of news on the internet, and you're a college student. I bet you have heard of fracking, and you know generally it has something to do with drilling. I don't think a year ago that was the case.
Now, this is where I come back to the point before. Do you realize-- or is your perception of fracking and natural gas drilling a environmental one? In other words, jobs versus environment? Probably, and that frustrates me, personally. I find that frustrating, because I think it's, as I said before, a much bigger, more complicated issue. It's a legal story having to do with the contract that is leases. It's a geopolitical story having to do with why Poland wants to wean itself from Russia, and why the US is supporting projects in some places so as to reconfigure the map. It's an economic story about Wall Street's interrelations with Washington and the interplay and the type of hype that both Washington and Wall Street are prone to. It's all these things.
It's a local story about people's lives and about an economy that's bottoming out. I mean, one of the most compelling things I saw was-- we ran a story, it was a column about a rig hand, who had worked on, not the Deepwater Horizon but an adjacent rig, and was then obviously laid off. And then he-- I think he was from Oklahoma or Texas. Then, he got a job on a drilling rig in Pennsylvania, and it was a great story. I mean, here's a guy with a family and you know, kind of salt of the Earth, and this is the best thing that happened to him. It was a good paying job at a time when it was really hard to find, and it was a transition he could make that actually had a future, in that he was transitioning into a skill set in a growth area, and so that's another part. You know, so it's-- my point is, it's a story that's much bigger than the environment, and I don't think that, yet, has really-- I don't think the recognition of that is there yet.
MARY KATZENSTEIN: We're gonna have to make that the last question. But I want-- for those of us who care enormously about information, one important [INAUDIBLE] from this area. So interesting to hear those stories about the document page. So we have [INAUDIBLE]
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Shortly after the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that raised questions about the adequacy of government regulations, the New York Times assigned reporter Ian Urbina to undertake an investigation of onshore natural gas extraction.
The method, known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," and the disposal of the return water has elicited contentious claims about both the science and economics of gas extraction.
Urbina talks about the latest developments in the fracking debate and about the role and responsibilities of newspaper reporting. His October 4, 2011 talk was the annual Kops Freedom of the Press Lecture.