Natural Gas "Bubble" Report: Market Tinkering or Shoddy Reporting?

By Jon Entine - July 1, 2011

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One also wonders whether Berman disclosed his relationships to the New York Times. Only Urbina and his editors know for sure. Berman states in an email that he never profited directly or indirectly from his advice and specifically never gave any "information" to Middlefield in his role as a strategic partner and paid consultant on natural gas about the shale gas debate. I attempted to contact the reporter, the Times' executive editor, managing editor, business desk, news desk and public editor by phone and email for comment on the issues raised by the story. Eileen Murphy of paper's corporate communications office responded, writing that “the facts of the story are not in question and we fully stand by it,” refusing to address the ethical issues raised by Urbina’s reporting.

The Curious Case of the Federal Reserve "Adviser"

The Times' story rehashes criticism of the shale gas industry that has been rattling around the Internet for years. The only new identifiable voice is that of Deborah Rogers. She is described by Urbina as "a member of the advisory committee of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas" and later as a "commissioner" at the bank. She portrays herself as having begun her "financial career in Europe where she worked in Corporate Finance in London, specifically venture capital."

That sounds like someone with genuine credibility. And that's how she was treated on Monday, when she made the media rounds. CNBC, for example, featured her in an interview as a "retired financial consultant" now with the Federal Reserve.

In a telephone interview, Rogers said that she was once a model with the Ford agency, and left the job to join a one-person firm in London as an assistant. She returned to the U.S. and was briefly a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch. Now she's raises goats and is the founder of Farmstead, a dairy that makes artisanal cheeses.

Urbina also did not disclose that Rogers has been fighting the natural gas industry -- and Chesapeake Energy in particular -- tooth and nail for years. She is on the steering committee of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project at Earthworks, an anti-shale-gas advocacy group, and lectures around the country. In Urbina's story, in her public appearances, including on CNBC, and in her interview with me, she indicated she became an activist by accident. Urbina quoted her as "studying well data from shale companies in October 2009 after attending a speech by the chief executive of Chesapeake [Energy]," the central target of the Times' piece.

What's not reported is that this was hardly a serendipitous event. Throughout 2009, Rogers had tangled with Chesapeake, which has a well near her Texas farm. That spring, she hired Wolf Eagle Environmental Engineers and Consultants to take air pollution measurements near her farm. An analyst examined those findings at the behest of the city of Fort Worth; the subsequent report said Wolf's study was "rudimentary in scope and design," adding, "Discussions of chemical hazards in the documents reviewed were generally exaggerated and speculative, not representative of the hazards posed by the actual concentrations of compounds detected." In a matter unrelated to the drilling issue, Rogers was cited by the state Health Department a year later for failing to conduct bacterial testing of well water at her farm; in response to the civil citation, she paid a fine and received 12 months' probation. 

When I emailed the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas about the Times' representation that she was on an "advisory committee" and was a "commissioner," spokesperson James Hoard corrected the record: She is an unpaid volunteer member of the "small business and agriculture advisory council (not ‘committee'), which is composed of professionals primarily representing small business and agriculture . . . local citizens who provide input into regional business conditions. (Ms. Rogers is a cheese producer.)," he wrote. Hoard added that she has no "governance or policy responsibilities." The two former chairs instrumental in appointing her are executives in the oil industry: Jim Hackett at Anadarko Petroleum and Ray Hunt at Hunt Consolidated.

I asked Rogers whether she had discussed her ongoing battle with Chesapeake with the Times. She paused. "Call Urbina, call the New York Times." When pressed, she went silent. "Thanks," she said, and hung up.

Where were the Times' fact-checkers? Imagine how the reader of the Times' "investigation" would have assessed Rogers' credibility if Urbina had revealed key contextual details. Would she have been seen as credible, or even featured in the piece, if she had been introduced as “Deborah Rogers, a goat farmer, cheesemaker and activist who has tangled repeatedly with Chesapeake Energy and lectures for anti-fracking NGOs"? That would have been a one-sided caricature -- but no less deceptive than the résumé details cherry-picked by Urbina.

I spoke with representatives of two companies that are portrayed in the Times' piece as peddling to their customers the "bubble lie" that shale gas has a rosy future. PNC Wealth Management said it was not contacted by the reporter. IHS Drilling Data spokesperson David Pendery, quoted in the Times story, was irked at the paper. "I got a bizarre call from the New York Times reporter, who wanted me to respond to sections of an email that he read to me, but he wouldn't supply us with the actual email so we could read it in context," he said. "He wasn't very professional."

The Times’ readers were never informed that the key named sources in a market-shaking investigative report are activists with personal stakes in the debate or with direct financial conflicts. By running this piece, the Times chose to endow with credibility what other responsible news outlets had determined was less than newsworthy. Issues large and small have been raised by the newspaper's reporting. Hopefully, the paper's editors or its public editor, Arthur Brisbane, will address the matter.

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Jon Entine directs the Genetic Literacy Project and is a senior fellow at STATS and the Center for Health and Risk Communications at George Mason University.

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