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When the Pack Overruns the Story

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApril 16, 2011 1:55 AM


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I don't know about you, but I'm still getting whiplash from the write-ups of the splashy Cornell University study that concluded shale gas is probably every bit as potent a greenhouse gas as coal and oil. (I first wrote about the study here.) Let's retrace the course of the media coverage this past week. Hang on tight. First, in the peer reviewed paper itself (published in the journal Climatic Change), it bears pointing out that the authors admit their data is "limited" and based in part on "PowerPoint slides from EPA-sponsored workshops." On Tuesday, BBC's Richard Black wrote a credulous article on the Cornell study that doesn't mention this at all. Yet lead author Robert Howarth is quoted in the story, saying to Black:

We have used the best available data [and] the conclusion is that shale gas may indeed be quite damaging to global warming, quite likely as bad or worse than coal.

In the article, Howarth also declares:

We have produced the first comprehensive analysis of the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas.

That same day, April 12, Joe Romm covers the study in detail at Climate Progress, writing that (my emphasis),

as the lead author Cornell Prof. Robert Howarth explained to me in an interview, it is based upon very limited data.

Near the end of his post, Romm returns to the issue of the data (my emphasis):

Given the bombshell nature of the conclusions, I asked Howarth what his confidence was in the results. He is very clear that this is "poorly documented information" and that we "did our best with sparse data."

Well, either BBC's Black didn't think to ask about the dearth and quality of the data, or Howarth wasn't as clear about it with him. (Matt Ridley heaps scorn on Black's story, and says he "will never trust a story from Black again.") Nearly all the mainstream media coverage of the study, such as this story by Tom Zeller in the NYT, quoted another perspective on the research findings, but only that representing the natural gas industry, and you can imagine what they had to to say about the study. None of the initial news stories I have read bothered to quote other climate scientists or energy experts on the merits of the Cornell study. Indeed, in a follow-up post, Zeller focuses on criticisms of the study made by Energy in Depth, a group representing "small and independent" oil and gas companies. Other stories, such as this one in The Philadelphia Inquirer, and this one by MIT's Technology Review, followed suit, each quoting Energy in Depth's rebuttal. (Via Science Journalism Tracker, here's a round-up of the initial wave of stories.) What gives? You mean no researchers unaffiliated with the gas industry could be found (or were willing to go on the record) to comment on the Cornell study's methodology or conclusions? Well, not entirely. By today, after the headlines had faded, Nature published a story quoting Henry Jacoby, former co-director of the Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, calling the study "very weak". Also today, Michael Levi, an energy expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, writes over at his blog that the Cornell analysis

is based on extremely weak data, and also has a severe methodological flaw (plus some other questionable decisions), all of which means that his [Robert Howarth's] bottom line conclusions shouldn't carry weight.

That said, I agree with Levi that,

Howarth's basic question is an important one: what happens to the claimed emissions benefits of natural gas once you include the methane leaked in its production and transport?

What I wonder is, if in the journalistic stampede to cover seemingly "bombshell" results (as Romm characterized) some basic questions about a study's merits fell by the wayside. Ironically, it was Romm--a guy I've often criticized for his bombastic style--who came the closest to journalistic due diligence and managed to separate himself from the pack.

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