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Alison Rose Levy

Alison Rose Levy

Posted: February 26, 2011 03:11 AM

Did the Gas Industry Censor the Wall Street Journal?


Just as Josh Fox, director of the Oscar-nominated film, Gasland, was heading west to the Academy Awards, the Wall Street Journal reported on the gas industry's losing campaign to discredit the film. An article, called "Oscar's Attention Irks Gas Industry," by Ben Casselman, surveys the unsuccessful attempts to persuade the Academy of Arts and Sciences to pull the documentary, which depicts nationwide instances of home water contamination near gas drilling sites that have been fracked. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a novel gas drilling process that introduced the use of large quantities of toxic chemicals.

When the article was published on Friday night, it was the first time an industry spokesperson deployed a shift in strategy from the industry's standard denials and repeated assertions that fracking is safe, despite the numerous reports of problems, such as flammable water, contamination of drinking water, trucks leaking toxic and radioactive waste-water on public highways, the pollution of streams, as well as fires, and explosions in which people have been injured.

"We have to stop blaming documentaries and take a look in the mirror," Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for gas producer Range Resources Corp., was quoted as saying in WSJ.

However, if you go to the article, you won't find Pitzarella's statement because within the hour the quote disappeared, say citizen journalists, who screen captured it and posted it on Twitter. Gasland director Fox, in Los Angeles, awaiting Sunday night's Oscar ceremony, has the screen shot of the original version. He also has questions:

"Why did this key quote disappear from the article? Why did the WSJ censor its own piece ? Does the Gas industry get to edit the Wall Street Journal?" Fox wondered. "Who pulled the quote?"

It's more innocuous replacement from Tom Price, a Chesapeake Vice-President reads, "We need to be able to respond objectively and accurately."

Yet among the gas industry and its friends, Pitzarella is not alone in suggesting that by stonewalling, the industry is shooting itself in the foot.

It may be that efforts to prevent and address health and environmental dangers would be a better solution for both the public good, and for the industry's tarnished image.

For example, although the film depicts selected cases, there are numerous reported incidents in which directly after fracking, water contamination occurs in areas which up until then had clean water, sometimes for many prior generations. As Gasland shows, one frequently seen problem is that gas leaks into the water supply such that homeowners can ignite the newly flammable tap water.

The industry opposes both public regulations, and up front environmental studies to assess likely impacts of fracking, prior to drilling. Neither does it enter into prior agreements with communities to remediate should any of the widely seen problems occur.

When following fracking, a family loses its drinking water, property, and in some cases, livelihood, instead of redressing, the industry demands that on a case-by-case basis, each individual family spend $20,000 or more to engage geologists and lawyers to "prove" that fracking is the source of what in some instances is overnight contamination. This imposes on private citizens the burden to prove the safety or danger of a practice, that a responsible government in the past would have typically required an accountable industry to prove.

Up until the last decade, citizens had certain protections, and they remember and expect those protections, especially from a process with an array of known health and environmental risks, as well as high economic costs. Attempts to either deny, normalize, or transfer the industry's costs of doing business to the public, only fuel public outrage, which may be why the industry's PR campaign has backfired.

Instead of covering its own costs, up until now, the industry has diverted its funds into massive PR campaigns, which repeat the message that fracking is safe, or that burden struggling citizens to prove otherwise. The choice to cover-up and deny, rather than deal, contributes to the public perception of the industry as a ruthless Goliath, ready to tread upon whole communities. Fearing to lose their million dollar accounts, the gas industry's PR spin masters would likely be the last to advise that this "lipstick on a pig" strategy is unlikely to work, even if one changes the color of the lipstick.

Although it's unknown who ordered the yanking of the quote published in the Wall Street Journal, the appearance of censorship, whatever its source, does little to restore public confidence in either the industry reported on, or the media outlet doing the reporting.

Meanwhile citizens are rooting for Gasland to win the Oscar Sunday night at nationwide Gasland parties, and by writing letters to President Obama, asking for a nation-wide moratorium on fracking and safety studies. To learn more and participate, go here.

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