From the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the risks of fracking, investigative journalist Abrahm Lustgarten
has covered some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. At ProPublica, his investigations into controversial drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have earned him a George Polk award for environmental reporting, a National Press Foundation award for best energy writing, and a Sigma Delta Chi award. He is the author of Run to Failure: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster
and China’s Great Train: Beijing’s Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet
At noon Thursday, April 9, Lustgarten will give a talk, “Covering Environmental Crisis: An Investigative Journalism Approach
,” in Kroon’s Burke Auditorium. It is the first installment in Sage Magazine
’s 2015 speaker series on environmental investigative journalism.
In an interview, Lustgarten describes the challenges of investigating secretive industries, the public relations backlash to his stories, and the effects of his reporting on drilling regulations.
Q: Do you think natural gas plays a role in our transition to a clean energy future?
Yes, without a doubt. It accounts for about a third of our electrical generation and energy use right now, and it’s been increasing as coal has been phased out. From the smokestack perspective, it’s led to a drop in our admissions — at least those directly attributed to electricity generation and leaving out for a moment the emissions to come from the gas development process. But yes, in every way I think we are seeing in the United States and around the world that it is playing a role in transitioning what types of energy we use.
Q: How did your reporting on fracking affect New York State’s decision to ban it in December?
I can’t say what their thinking was by the time they actually got around to making that decision, but I can point back to what happened immediately after our reporting began. In July 2008, I went up to Albany to meet with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and they couldn’t answer the most straightforward questions about the fracking process. They were about to begin permitting it and they couldn’t tell me what chemicals they were going to allow into the ground, even though they had approved them under their environmental review process. They couldn’t tell me where the waste was going to go even though that was a criterion of their environmental review process. They really didn’t know much about the risks and didn’t seem to have considered them at all. The next day, then-Governor David Paterson imposed what became a moratorium on drilling. They put a stop to the process in order for the environmental reviews, which turned into health reviews, which turned into delays that ultimately culminated in the ban. There were a lot people that had reported on fracking by the time they made the recent decision to ban it in New York, but I’d like to think that my reporting early on flushed out a lot of the core details that became pillars of the issue and debate.
Q: How do the new federal fracking rules issued last week by President Obama stack up?
The regulations instituted last week directly address some of the most serious risks that I’ve been able to document. Where those rules will apply, I would expect them to have a pretty dramatic and very positive effect on minimizing the environmental risk. The downside is that the rules only apply to drilling that happens on certain Federal lands, mostly in few Western states, which amounts to about 10 percent of the drilling in the country. So it’s substantial and important, but it’s also limited. The Obama rules are not the most stringent regulations that are out there. Private land is generally regulated at the State level. The Federal government determines what big broad environmental rules need to be met, things like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, but the state regulations actually govern how companies drill for gas. In some places, it is more regulated and in some places its less regulated.
Q: Has there been any backlash to your reporting?
The backlash has been within the oil and gas industry specifically. The industry initially — and continued for a long time — to challenge much of what I wrote. It argued on a lot of specific points that it was essentially impossible for the fracking process to lead to contamination of water, and that the cases I cited couldn’t be proven with scientific certainty to have been caused by fracking. They alleged that I had an agenda in my reporting, I think mainly because they weren’t accustomed to the close scrutiny of investigative reporting and to the volume of articles that we published on a repeated basis.
Q: How do you translate and write about scientific studies that have uncertainties in their conclusions?
Scientific uncertainty is not the same as journalistic uncertainty, which is also not the same as legal uncertainty. Each of those things has their appropriate place. From a journalistic perspective, it is important to present a view that represents a consensus of the best knowledge and is also transparent about where uncertainties exist. I don’t believe that it is responsible journalism to engage in a completely equally weighted, “he-said she-said” examination of an issue that essentially gives equal credence to all sides of a debate.
Q: How do you report on an industry that is so secretive?
All industry is secretive. There are many tools available. There is a lot of knowledge to be tapped into from speaking with people who are either in that industry, have left that industry or have interacted with it at some point. Public records are another very deep resource. Most of these companies will file permits and applications with State governments and with the federal government, and all of those are public records, as are the enforcement records. As these companies comply with various environmental rules, there is data collected about their compliance that can be specific about exactly what pollutants they admit, in what form and when, and whether that is going to be increasing or decreasing. Then there are court records or documents from lawsuits. It’s quite limitless. Everything I just mentioned are things that aren’t hidden and cannot be hidden. It’s so voluminous that really all it takes is time and diligence. We aren’t talking about secretive, deep throat source material. That’s another layer that sometimes you will get lucky and get as well. But all those things I just mentioned are right there for the taking and anybody can have them.
Q: How do you deal with the tension between reporting difficult environmental stories without overwhelming your audience, or triggering an apathetic response?
On one hand, no matter what kind of environmental stories, it has always been and will continue to be a challenge to capture a reader’s attention, keep them engaged and make them read about something that they might otherwise not have a strong interest in. I think that challenge is a bit greater for environmental subjects than it is for other subjects. On the other hand, there is a certain nature to what I do, in that it is investigative. It is important for solution-oriented and positive stories — I value the work of those that do them — but the work that we do tends to be more critical, more focused on problems because our goal is to affect some change to those problems. Yes you can feel that you are mired in negativity at times, and investigative reporting can turn the best people into real cynics. But you address that by switching topics, refreshing your mind, and filing forward.