09/21/2011 10:50 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2011

In Praise of Public Interest Journalism

The New York Times' recent "Drilling Down" series about the risks of natural-gas drilling and efforts to regulate this rapidly growing industry is one of the strongest pieces of investigative journalism I've seen in long while. It has uncovered serious flaws in the regulatory programs that are supposed to protect public health and the environment. These include threats to air and water that have been overlooked and information that has been hidden from public view. Not surprisingly, the expose has sparked a strong, sometimes vicious, response from the oil and gas industry. It is not only the environment that is under assault; it is the very concept of public service journalism.

Following a familiar playbook, the oil and gas industry's first tactic has been to divert attention from the series' groundbreaking findings by accusing the Times of being anti-natural gas, anti-jobs and anti-American. This is what comes from taking on powerful economic and political interests these days. Few media outlets have the resources or the stomach for taking on a story like this and the countless hours spent in digging out facts, asking tough questions, vetting sources, unearthing documents buried in agency files and penetrating the maze of laws and regulations that are supposed to protect the public but often end up protecting the regulated industry. Remember Deepwater Horizon? A drilling technology so layered with supposed "fail-safe" devices it didn't warrant the most rudimentary form of environmental assessment by the government agencies charged with protecting the public interest. Where were the media watchdogs before the Macondo well blew?

Here we have an industry that has insulated itself from potential liability by securing an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act for the hydro-fracking technology being used to extract gas from deep underground. An industry that claims the chemicals used in the fracking fluids are trade secrets that can not be made public. Chemicals only recently disclosed in response to a subpoena from the Environmental Protection Agency, and that will take years to evaluate. An industry that has been sending wastewater containing radionuclides and other toxic elements to municipal treatment plants not equipped to deal with them. A practice, by the way, that was stopped shortly after the Times reported it. That was just one of the many positive responses the series has generated.

It would be different if the Times was guilty of publishing false or misleading information. The oil and gas industry accuses the Times of shoddy research, but the paper has released a huge archive of original documents, some obtained through normal channels and some through the time-honored process of leaks from whistleblowers. The industry says the Times got its facts wrong but fails to cite a single factual error in any of the newspaper's coverage. The industry complains that some of the documents contain redacted material. Yet the redactions are limited to protecting the identities of the sources who leaked them after their agency superiors refused to honor public records requests for their disclosure -- standard operating procedure for this kind of investigative journalism.

The Times has also rightly broadened the discussion to issues beyond the environment by tapping into industry and government officials who question whether oil and gas companies and federal energy officials have over-sold natural gas' reserves. The result: The Securities and Exchange Commission and the New York Attorney General are investigating. The oil and gas industry could not be more thrilled by the exuberance from Wall Street, federal lawmakers and the White House about the prospects for shale gas as the next big thing. Maybe so, but the same was said for corn ethanol and other "miracle" fuels that have proven to be problematic from both an environmental and economic standpoint. The latest study by National Center for Atmospheric Research concludes that shifting from coal to natural gas could reduce global warming by about .01° Celsius by 2100, but only if methane releases from gas extraction can be kept under 2.5 percent. That may prove impossible to achieve.

Big bucks are at stake. So are public health and environmental quality. The oil and gas industry can be counted on to vigorously pursue this 21st century gold rush and to bring all its wealth and power to bear on those who stand in the way. But the Times has dived in anyway and is doing an unusually rigorous job at covering an extremely important issue. One can only hope that the overseers of the paper will not lose their nerve, as some of our political leaders have, in the face of this furious but unjust onslaught.