Rolling Stone magazine’s Jeff Goodell has weighed in on the debate over natural gas reserves, the safety of hydraulic fracturing, global warming, methane groundwater contamination, and Chesapeake Energy’s controversial finances, in an article titled “The Big Fracking Bubble: The Scam Behind the Gas Boom.” Goodell pulled no punches. He calls Aubrey McClendon, Chesapeake’s CEO, “an influential right-wing power broker.” He says that “Fracking, it turns out, is about producing cheap energy the same way the mortgage crisis was about helping realize the dreams of middle-class homeowners.” He claims that “for Chesapeake, the primary profit in fracking comes not from selling the gas itself, but from buying and flipping the land that contains the gas,” and that Chesapeake “has more in common with Enron than ExxonMobil.”
Goodell’s article covers ground that is not new in the debate over the safety, ecology and economics of hydraulic fracturing. He touches on the study by Anthony Engraffea at Cornell University on whether natural gas has less global-warming effect than coal. He discusses the Duke University study of methane in water wells in Pennsylvania. He quotes Arthur Berman (Berman says miss-quoted), a long-time critic of the industry’s estimates of shale gas reserves.
McClendon says he agreed to talk to Goodell after he was told that the magazine would publish an article on Chesapeake whether it cooperated or not. Chesapeake has issued a rebuttal to the article (“Although our expectations for honesty and fairness were quite low, the writer failed to reach even that low bar.”), and Goodell has responded to Chesapeake’s rebuttal (“The company entirely dodges the article’s central point: that Chesapeake is a highly-leveraged firm operated by a corporate gambler who engaged in complex scheme to profit off the illusion that America has a virtually unlimited supply of cheap natural gas.”). (Isn’t the internet amazing?)
Last Thursday I went to a showing of spOILed, a documentary about the oil and gas industry by journalist turned media analyst Mark Mathis. I recommend the movie as a good effort by a non-expert journalist to understand and analyze the place, importance and future of hydrocarbons in the world today. Unlike Goodell, Mathis comes down on the side of industry. He concludes that, like it or not, the world is dependent on hydrocarbons, which have made our 21st century economy and lifestyle possible; and that the world will not soon develop alternate sources of energy that could wean us from dependence on hydrocarbons, and so must continue to develop available reserves to prevent a catastrophic rise in energy prices if demand exceeds supply.
Whether you agree with Mathis or Goodell, the debate over energy and its future is one that should continue, and good journalists making real efforts to understand and explain the issues in ways that the general public can understand should be encouraged. Remarkably, there is very little debate over these issues in the political sphere, despite the recent environmental disasters — the Gulf oil spill and the near-meltdown of nuclear reactors following the tsunami in Japan. I would encourage Mathis to read Goodell, and I would recommend Mathis’ movie to Goodell. Each could learn something to learn from the other.