Tuesday, April 17, 2012

UNDER THE SURFACE debuts at Binghamton University

Under the Surface makes its debut in the Binghamton area tomorrow (April 18) at Binghamton University. I’m honored to give a talk at 6:15 p.m. in Lecture Hall 2, hosted by the BU Student Environmental Action Coalition. The theme -- The Future of Shale Gas Development in New York -- looks at the many issues unfolding in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, as well as market conditions, that will influence shale gas development in years to come. I will also offer an overview of the geology of the Marcellus and Utica shale formations extending under the northeast, the contrasting mineral extraction cultures and histories in New York State and Pennsylvania that have shaped events in those states, and analysis of the anti-fracking movement’s influence on current and developing national policy. I will read a few passages from my book, which recounts Marcellus shale development through a narrative featuring various stakeholders in New York and Pennsylvania. The first copies will be available at the event.

The event is open to the public. The Lecuture Hall building is just east of the library, and roughly across from the public parking lot in the middle of campus. CLICK HERE for a map.

As I am now re-entering the fray of this very lively issue, I thought this a good opportunity to share some of my views on several points.

On the state of Journalism: Newspapers have traditionally had to serve the interests of a broad base of readers. The age of social media has essentially broadened public access to the stump in the town square, and this is good. But with the decline of broad reaching newspaper journalism, we are also losing pressure on the media to be fair and comprehensive. Joseph Pulitzer urged journalists to be unafraid to “attack the plutocracy” and expose institutional interests, but he also urged them to be unconnected to any party and to be “drastically independent”. I have been trained in this school of journalism and I generally try to adhere to it.

To activists: You are part of one of the largest grass roots movements in the region’s recent history, and it comes at a decisive time. The anti-fracking movement is an example of the power of free speech to influence government, and a vital balance to concentrated wealth and institutional power of Big Oil.

On Josh Fox. It is necessary to make a distinction between activism and journalism. There is honor in both, and they have traditionally been intertwined, as a free press has always been an agent for reform and even revolution, and editorial comment has long been a vital subset of journalism. But I still feel a distinction is important. Josh Fox’s work is more activism than journalism, and that doesn’t detract from its importance. Although one-sided, Gasland has been hugely influential in defining and galvanizing the anti-fracking movement and provoking fundamental questions yet to be answered, and to provide a balance to the voice of the industry. It’s also a nice piece of cinematography

I consider Under the Surface a work of journalism. Like Fox, I used a narrative approach to the story, and it is sympathetic to those who feel they were mislead about the impacts of drilling. But I took great care to document and explain technical details, set it in the context of history and current events, and to give voices to those on the other side and in the middle of the debate. I still expect the drill-here-drill-now contingent will find it to be critical, and it is, in the spirit of Pulitzer’s doctrine.

To industry: All institutional powers – public or private -- controlling vast wealth and political influence, should be fair targets for public scrutiny and sources of healthy skepticism. This always has been the nature of watchdog journalism. From a PR perspective, industry would fare better acknowledging that this is the way a healthy media works in a free country, rather than characterizing reports of spills, problems, and lack of disclosure as an unwarranted attacks and “negative publicity.”

To fracking supporters and opponents: In fighting for your causes, keep your minds open. Don’t assume that everybody who is not with you is against you. Energy companies are not categorically reckless and uncaring. Activism is not a casting call for obstructionists and hypocrites.

To landowners. Make sure you understand what can happen once you sign a lease. It may be pitched as a partnership, but if you accept a standard lease you are essentially signing away your rights to the land. This means your surface rights, as well as rights to the mineral resources below. Drilling can be done without polluting the water table, but know that water contamination and methane migration are common and relevant risks. No matter what anybody says, the process is not failsafe, regardless of what precautions are taken. Don’t count on state agencies to make things right when they go wrong.

To policy makers: Don’t pretend that committing hundreds of billions of dollars to expand infrastructure and incentives to extract, transport and burn natural gas is really building a bridge to renewable energy. It’s critical to develop a long-term, forward-looking energy policy as opposed to defaulting to the path of least economic resistance. The onshore drilling boom is (once again) waking this country up to the fact that we are dependent on fossil fuels. Now is the time to develop a long-term, forward-looking energy policy. The inertia of developing sustainable energy and the momentum of a fossil fuel economy are strong forces driving us to a limited future.

I hope you can join me tomorrow, or during one of my future talks in the area or in the region, so I can hear your questions and listen to what you have to say.


  1. I thought what you wrote about Josh was right. I don't think Josh ever portrayed himself as a journalist. In fact, right from the start of the film he tells you his bias. He tells you he has a personal stake in the story.
    That doesn't mean that GASLANDS isn't factual or informative however, but it has always frustrated me that people seem to think (and they say the same thing about Michael Moore) that there are only two kinds of film in the world. FICTION - i.e. the movies most people walk, and JOURNALIST DOCUMENTARY. For heaven's sake, even newspapers have op-ed pages. If opinion is okay in newspapers, why can't filmmakers make opinion pieces?

    I just don't see how bias is really a valid critique. As long as the filmmaker doesn't try to portray his work as objective journalism when it's really not.
    At the same time, just because a piece is biased, that doesn't mean the facts it presents aren't accurate. It's your job as the viewer to figure out, if you care that much, if there are other facts that are missing. But the facts are still facts. And Josh's facts stand up well.

  2. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.