Why Are The Media Failing Canadians On Energy Knowledge?

  • By

Why are major, trusted media failing to help Canadians understand developments in the energy industry that are so critical to Canada’s economy? 

We live in a complex world, and we rely on mass media — be it print, broadcasting, or online services — to provide us with accurate and insightful reporting. I don’t mean just regurgitating press releases and telling us the bare facts of what happened, but providing Canadians with insightful and impartial analysis. Dig in, consult the experts — tell us what key events mean!

Of course, we can access reports, newsletters and the like from any number of online organizations. I can enjoy an insightful and impeccably-researched analysis of current topics every few days in Blair King’s “A Chemist in Langley” blog, or I can be terrorized weekly by the deteriorating state of the world as documented in The Tyee or The Narwhal.

But there’s so much happening, so we have to rely on mass media, like Postmedia, The Globe and Mail, and CBC / CTV / Global to keep current on Canadian energy stories day-to-day. Some stories are researched and developed so that we understand the finer points and implications; Geoffrey Morgan at Postmedia writes these. But all too often, media drop a stinker by simply posting a press release, printing a poorly-researched news service piece, or offering up op-eds from self-proclaimed experts with many opinions and little knowledge. Here’s some examples:

  1. In early July, media posted a Canadian Press story on a report by Global Energy Monitor (GEM), with headlines like “Liquefied natural gas boom is undermining climate-change action” and “Clean natural gas is actually the new coal, report says.” The article summarized uncritically the ludicrous idea that LNG is comparable to coal from a greenhouse gas point of view.

    But CP did not say that the report was by an anti-fossil fuel advocacy group — a fact listed in the first paragraph of GEM’s Wikipedia entry. Numerous experts (including me) eviscerated the report, pointing out bad data, ridiculous assumptions, faulty analysis and irrelevant conclusions. The faults were obvious, even to a layman, and mass media failed miserably in allowing this article to see the light of day, at least without expert criticism.

    And after this embarrassing fiasco, were there apologies, explanations, a mea culpa? Not from the Globe or the broadcast outlets, despite being offered real expert opinion — although Postmedia finally published a Cody Battershill rebuttal piece.
     
  2. In mid-August, major media published a press release from Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), another anti-oil and gas group. CCPA’s “Captured” proposed that the BC Oil & Gas Commission (OGC) routinely breaks rules, failing to protect the public and putting the interests of industry over those of the public. 

    Of course, anybody dealing with the B.C. OGC sees a well-run group of professionals, known around the world as one of the finest and most effective oil and gas regulators. Industry operators see the regulations for drilling wells and building facilities in NEBC as very challenging. And let’s not forget the OGC has barred industry access to surface waters in the Peace watershed repeatedly in the last three years, in order to protect watershed ecology.

    But media did not choose to enquire about CCPA’s viewpoints or motivations, and thus failed to recognize an obvious and unjustified hatchet job. As with the GEM story, any number of truly qualified experts could have set the record straight, but none were consulted. Net result: the public is left with the completely erroneous impression that the oil and gas industry runs amok in northeastern B.C. with the regulator in its back pocket.
     
  3. On Aug. 19, CBC and The Globe and Mail reported on a 2.2 cubic metre oil spill from the east coast offshore Hibernia platform, which occurred shortly after production was re-started following a 12 cubic metre spill a month earlier.  Reporters quite properly questioned representatives from the operating company and the regulator (Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, C-NLOPB) about what happened, clean-up responses, and possible effects. All good, that’s what people need to know (full disclosure, my company Petrel Robertson Consulting provides geoscience consulting services to Canada Hibernia Holding Corp., one of the Hibernia field owners).

    But then CBC decided to consult “seabird biologist and environmental advocate” Bill Montevecchi. Did they ask him about the possible effects of small oil spills on sea birds, or anything else related to his expertise? No. Instead, he and fellow biologist Ian Jones passed judgement on the structure, adequacy and actions of the regulator, their answers demonstrating their ignorance of regulatory responsibilities and practices.

    Even worse, The Globe reached out to Gretchen Fitzgerald of Sierra Club Canada, and didn’t bother to tell us whether she had expertise in anything. She similarly trashed the C-NLOPB with no reasonable context, evidence or support.

    Did media reach out to other regulatory experts about C‑NLOPB regulatory practices? To biologists about effects on sea life? To operations experts about how the incidents occurred? No. They chose uninformed statements from unqualified “observers” with strong anti-industry biases.

Are there even a few comparable pro-industry missteps? Not that I’ve seen. Media allows some pro-industry opinion pieces from people with real experience and expertise like Gwyn Morgan, Joe Oliver and Tim McMillan, but these are labelled clearly as opinions, not disguised as news. And it seems very rare to see a story about even routine industry plans — like a progress report on a new pipeline or LNG plant — without some anti-industry commentary.

Why do media work this way? A respected colleague who has retired from journalism tells me that there are fewer reporters with more responsibilities, who have no time to investigate routine stories. There is more pressure to release stories first than there is to create balanced and insightful articles. And while the public trusts “experts,” media often fail to distinguish real experts from people who simply have a lot of colourful opinions and a social media presence. 

To give media credit, they do not publicize very much “grey” literature dreck like the GEM and CCPA pieces. It’s usually pretty easy to identify pieces written by activists pushing viewpoints rather than providing information. The fact that they are fooled some of the time, however, points to the need to foster better relationships with real experts — scientists, engineers, people working in the field — so that they can better serve the Canadian public by publishing better stories, regardless of the deadline.