Framing Geopolitics: Environmental Impacts of Shale Boom
Picture Credits: Max Phillips (Jeremy Buckingham MLC), Flickr
Russian and Chinese online media coverage of fracking
As one of its last actions under the current administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its final assessment report on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on U.S. drinking water resources earlier last month. Its reception in the media exemplifies the contesting messaging in the environmental domain by fracking advocates and its critics.
At the same time, its coverage in foreign media outlets illustrates select findings of my own research on the Russian and Chinese news coverage of the U.S. shale boom, which I conducted at the Hertie School of Governance over the past months.
In the 666-page heavy EPA report the absence of one single sentence, still present in an earlier draft version of the report, has absorbed almost all the journalistic attention. Upon review by the Science Advisory Board of the EPA the conclusion of the draft report that “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms [associated with the hydraulic fracturing water cycle] have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States” was scrapped. The messaging shift occurred as the authors were unable to quantitatively characterize the severity and scope of the impacts because of “significant data gaps and uncertainties”. The reworded final report reads that in some circumstances fracking can affect drinking water resources.
In the aftermath of the release the biggest oil and gas trade group in the U.S. blasted the EPA for allegedly reversing course on the way out of office. Meanwhile, the new wording was well received by environmental advocacy groups. EDF Vice President Mark Brownstein commends that the report “ends the false narrative of risk-free fracking”.
In this tug of war, it is important, though, to acknowledge that the underlying scientific evidence – carefully reviewed in the body of the EPA report – has basically not changed in between the circulation of draft and final version of the report. Researchers from Resources for the Future note that “what we observe is a new round of messaging, rather than a reaction to new information”.
The EPA report resonated not only within the United States but was picked up by news organizations from Russia and China as well.
At the occasion of the EPA draft report release, the Russian government-controlled news network RT, tasked with providing a Russian perspective on world events, laments the narrow scope of the EPA . In an apparent effort to ‘counterbalance’ EPA’s preliminary assessment of no “widespread, systematic impacts”, in its article RT embeds two audio snippets about fracking-induced earthquakes and local water stress while prominently placing a link to a story about contaminated groundwater near shale explorations.
Similarly, Russian government-owned Sputniknews portrays itself as the protector of nature and people’s livelihoods. Taking offense with the draft report’s conclusion, its coverage features interview bites with representatives from the Natural Resource Defense Council and Earthworks. The article questions EPA’s notion of what constitutes safe use of fracking and points to limits to the study overall. It is hard to miss the anti-fracking spin of these stories, which is clearly advantageous to Russia’s turf war with the U.S. in the global barrel.
Examples of RT’s ‘environmentally-conscious coverage’ of U.S. fracking [Extracts from RT website]
My research that focused on the English language coverage of the shale boom in Tass, Russia’s official news agency, and two outlets close to the Kremlin, Pravda and RBTH (Russia Beyond the Headlines), paints a very similar picture for the study period 2012-2015.
Overall, the three news outlets invoke the environmental hazards of fracking and shame the U.S. for its use in every seventh article that dealt with shale gas exploration or fracking in particular. It was the most frequently recurring topic besides the ailing performance of the underdeveloped Russian shale industry itself. Discussions about adverse environmental effects linked to the exploitation method in Russia itself were noticeably absent.
In a jab directed not only at the U.S. but also Europe, Dmitry Kiselyov, head of the news agency Rossiya Segodnya to which Sputniknews belongs, recently said in a BBC interview that he believes “the age of neutral journalism has passed”. The Russian news coverage of fracking proves the point. The animosity towards fracking outside its own borders, however, is not only expressed in words. In 2014 Quartz Steve LeVine reported about financial flows from the Kremlin to NGOs in Eastern Europe that are suspected to bolster the opposition to local shale gas development. The move that thwarts the emergence of rivalling gas producing nations seems to come straight out of what Heather Conley calls ’Kremlin’s Playbook’.
When it comes to environmental impacts of shale explorations in the U.S. the Chinese coverage is more comprehensive and nuanced than its Russian counterpart. Still, Xinhua, the official news agency, and the high circulation papers People’s Daily and China Daily, are noticeably silent about the large-scale consolidation of existing research in the EPA report.
The Chinese coverage from 2012-2015 equally takes the significant GHG emission reductions in the U.S., evidence of local groundwater contamination and the scientifically established association between fracking and earthquakes into account. Overall, every fourth article on shale mentions environmental ramifications in the U.S. The focus on water pollution, earthquakes and air pollution underscores the link to China’s domestic policy concerns.
When it comes to covering shale development in China itself, researchers working on the topic in China told me about relatively few restrictions on the media particularly before the Shale Gas Development Plan was published in March 2012. Jaeah Lee, an independent journalist who has reported on the emerging Chinese fracking industry, reiterates: “It doesn’t surprise me that there are open signs of discord in opinions. I’ve generally found that the Chinese media (both independently owned and state-owned outlets) and Internet conversations have had relative freedom when it comes to discussing energy and the environment.” Lee cautions, though, that “when it comes to official corruption or social/environmental violations around shale gas drilling and waste management sites, I think state-owned media coverage of it will be harder to find.”
My analysis of 105 news articles confirms this prognosis. After the first official shale gas targets were publicized in 2012, the focus of the articles gradually shifts to the U.S. as articles now primarily highlight alleged reduced greenhouse emissions of shale gas and its co-benefit of improving the air quality. Noteworthy, the interest in the environmental consequences of fracking seems to ebb as of 2013 and the high water consumption and risk of water contamination linked to fracking operations is much less discussed.
A Chinese expert on the field of environmental impacts of fracking, who is familiar with my results, thinks a variety of factors coalesce behind the state of fracking news coverage in China. In her eyes, the scarcity of studies investigating the environmental impacts of fracking, the absence of (openly-discussed) environmental accidents and demonstrations explain the restrained news coverage. “We haven’t found local grassroots NGOs that are technically capable to supervise the problem [of potential water pollution]”, says Professor Yuan Xu from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who has been part of a team of researchers investigating the implications of shale gas developments on water demand. He continues: “One of the reasons could be their lack of enough understanding of the issue. Current shale gas drilling tends to happen in remote areas where people often receive less education and the enforcement of environmental regulations is poor.”
The environmental coverage of the shale boom and the fracking technology in Russia and China reveal stark differences. The Russian media’s de-legitimization of the fracking boom in the U.S. on environmental grounds coincides with the prospect of competing U.S. exports of natural gas to Europe and persistent skepticism about the commercial viability of shale in Russia itself. In China on the other hand, one finds a greater degree of introspection about possible environmental consequences of shale development especially until 2013. In light of China’s ambitions to increase its shale gas output sixfold until 2020 and its vast exploitable reserves, the coverage of the domestic, currently still nascent shale market, is increasingly shifting towards the ‘environmental benefits’ of “cleaner and more sustainable” shale gas. In the meantime, China maintains a more critical coverage of fracking’s impact on the environment in the United States.
 In 2010, Congress commissioned a review about the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water. Its scope did not include analysis of potential adverse health, economic and other environmental effects.