The New Energy Beat

It's global as well as local, environmental as well as financial. Can embattled newsrooms see the big picture?

On a Monday morning in January, less than a week after his inauguration, President Barack Obama signed two memoranda designed to improve automobile fuel efficiency. “These are extraordinary times,” Obama told an audience gathered in the White House’s East Room, that call “for swift and extraordinary action. At a time of such great challenge for America, no single issue is as fundamental to our future as energy.

Although he acknowledged that his predecessors had “sounded the alarm about energy dependence for decades,” the new president undoubtedly recognized that he sits atop a rare confluence of political, industrial, and social will to dramatically alter the ways this country gets its juice. Despite that will, Americans remain reluctant to reduce their consumption of the cheap fossil fuels that were largely responsible for raising standards of living during the twentieth century. After several years of stories about the threats posed by melting ice caps and rising seas, global warming has lost some of its ability to inspire people to change their ways when it comes to energy consumption. Indeed, President Obama’s speech took place against the backdrop of a Pew Research Center poll, which found that “global warming” and “the environment” had plummeted to the bottom of a list of twenty public priorities. Energy, on the other hand, ranked sixth—below Social Security and above health care.

So it was no accident that Obama couched that January speech in terms of immediate threats to “national and economic security—compounded by the long-term threat of climate change.” His goal was to reframe the question of energy reform, downplaying the moralistic, save-the-planet appeal that some voters had grown weary of in favor of one that emphasized national security and economic growth.

Obama’s decision to recast the connection between climate change and energy reform had been hashed out in July 2008, while he was still chasing the Democratic nomination. Even then it had become clear that environmental stewardship and the mitigation of global warming were not the best selling points for a low-carbon economy. “This stuff needs to pop more,” he told his aides on the way out of a meeting with a group of energy and utilities executives and economic and scientific experts, according to a piece in The Washington Post in May by Steve Mufson and Juliet Eilperin. “The Chicago meeting marked a turning point in his thinking,” they wrote.

It was a turning point for the press, too. As the presidential campaign dragged on that summer, Obama and the other candidates replaced climate with energy references in their speeches and comments. The press did the same in its articles and broadcasts. With gas prices soaring to record highs, the war in Iraq marking its grim five-year anniversary, and the housing market in free fall, the country’s attention was once again trained on oil and the influence it exerts over both the economy and national security. Stories about “energy independence” and renewable energy plants creating employment in old manufacturing towns were on the rise.

The press had rediscovered the energy beat. And now journalists, too, must make the subject “pop.”

The emergence of the modern energy beat began in the 1970s in response to oil crises—and gas shortages—in which concern about dependence on foreign oil struck the American political and consumer consciousness. The Carter administration and Congress established the Department of Energy in 1977. Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof and pushed for development of alternative energy sources. But when the Reagan Revolution rolled into town, the solar panels came off the White House and the wheels came off the energy story.

“Energy went fallow after the Carter administration,” recalls John J. Fialka, a longtime energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau before becoming editor of ClimateWire, a specialty Web news service. “It was marginalized and almost disappeared” even if it was periodically resurrected over the years by the “ups and downs of gas prices.”

The Obama administration’s push to develop alternative energy sources echoes some of the Carter era promise (and lost opportunities), and the political, business, and environmental landscapes are once again awash with optimism about the future of clean energy. While the global financial crisis has dampened that enthusiasm, this time there is the added urgency of making up for lost time. The president and the Democrat-controlled Congress are making the issue “pop” by pouring money, via the economic stimulus plan, into the creation of “green jobs” and backing the American Clean Energy and Security Act, passed by the House in June. The bill cloaks a controversial cap-and-trade scheme to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions under the mantle of energy security.

This is reflected in the media coverage as well. An analysis of The New York Times and The Washington Post bears out the strong emphasis on energy, particularly political stories related to the administration’s agenda and economic stories related to costs and various energy sources. A Lexis-Nexis database search found that from October 1, 2008, to March 31, 2009, the combined stories in both papers that mentioned “energy” in their headlines or lead paragraphs were about three-and-a-half times more frequent than those mentioning “climate change” or “global warming,” and three times more frequent than those mentioning “environment.”

For the press, the reemergence of energy as a public priority offers many opportunities. It is an umbrella for stories about the economy, national security, and climate. For the public, as well as for cautious editors, energy is a more tangible story than any one of those categories alone. Not every town has a Goldman Sachs, a research university, or a major energy company, but they all have local suppliers and consumers of electricity, natural gas, and liquid fuels. About half of American energy consumption is for transportation and residential use. And nothing grabs the public more than pocketbook energy stories.

But the energy beat presents significant challenges, too. For instance, those pocketbook stories need to push beyond price fluctuations to help consumers understand the complex nature of energy. “I see these gas-price stories that just drive me up the wall,” says San Francisco Chronicle energy reporter David Baker. “Reporters will get the latest update from AAA and they’ll just go out to the gas station and fill up a story with nothing but pissed-off-motorist quotes. We need to tell people why they’re paying what they’re paying.”

Doing that requires expertise in subjects as diverse as investment banking, lobbying and legislation, and materials science. The only way to cover energy comprehensively is to collaborate, both across beats within the newsroom and with specialty news outlets that can broaden and deepen a newsroom’s expertise and resources—especially at a time when those resources are under pressure as never before.

To assess the press’s recent efforts to master the energy beat, we use three snapshots that provide instructive examples of the challenges this crucial story brings: California, because it has led the nation in renewable energy policy; coal, because it is the nation’s most abundant, but dirtiest source of electricity; and wind, because it is the nation’s fastest growing source of clean energy, but is struggling to achieve large-scale distribution.

California Dreaming

Like climate change, energy is a highly partisan issue. Many Democrats embrace a panoply of renewable energy sources while Republicans tend to favor developing coal, oil, gas, and nuclear energy. But geographic bias affects coverage as well. Californians are more likely to encounter stories about solar power than about coal, and vice versa for Virginians. The trouble with such fragmented coverage is that as policymakers and the energy industry push forward with the development of clean-energy strategies, it will be incumbent upon journalists to connect what is happening in their part of the country to much broader national and international goals. Such goals include revitalizing domestic manufacturing and the nation’s export economy, providing relief from foreign oil imports, and weaning us off fossil fuels to a degree that is environmentally meaningful. So the press must reconcile coordinated, nationwide targets for change with not-in-my-backyard fights related to wind farms and transmission lines in one place; dependence upon mining and drilling jobs tied to coal, oil, and gas in another; and a lack of public transportation in most of the country.

No state has done more to give the clean-energy story “pop” than California. Its long battle to win a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency that would allow it to raise its fuel efficiency standards above federal levels, as well as its landmark 2006 law to limit carbon-dioxide emissions, pushed the federal government to take such regulatory and legislative initiatives seriously. Silicon Valley’s investment in clean energy start-ups and the birth of activist Van Jones’s green-jobs campaign in the San Francisco Bay Area also helped to make the Golden State a gold mine for energy reporters. “There aren’t any energy stories here without national implications,” says Margot Roosevelt, the Los Angeles Times’s environment reporter. Indeed, California is a ubiquitous theme in coverage from coast to coast, but too much of that national coverage exhibits a certain cognitive dissonance, explaining the ambitious goals of the various energy initiatives without including an all-important status report. As a result, the reality check is left mostly to California news outlets.

“Meeting state energy targets has been a huge driver of the green-tech industry out here,” says the Chronicle’s David Baker. “But it’s also been a huge headache for utilities, and when banks stopped lending, a number of projects shut down.” In July, for example, a $1.5 billion plan to build a six-hundred-mile, high-voltage transmission line to deliver solar, geothermal, and wind power to fifteen municipal providers across northern California collapsed under an array of economic, aesthetic, and health concerns. A dismaying setback for meeting state and district renewable energy targets, it was news from Mount Shasta to the Mojave, but hardly showed up on the national media’s radar. That oversight leaves news consumers outside of California with an oversimplified sense of what is happening in a place where our twenty-first century energy realities are being put to the test first.

Of course, local reporters are also learning as they go. Oregon, much like California, is something of a national repository for our environmental hopes and dreams. But last summer, Oregon Public Broadcasting set out to challenge the state’s “vaunted green reputation” with an energy series called The Switch. Reporter Christy George says that she and her colleagues developed a series of metrics—renewability, cost, contribution to the total power supply—with which to evaluate the state’s energy economy. “It forced us to do some honest, side-by-side comparisons of the different energy sources,” she says, “and led in our very first story to the shocking—to most of us—realization that Oregon gets about forty percent of its power from coal.” That fact challenged a misconception in the state, as the first story in the series explained, that most of Oregon’s power comes from “nice, clean hydroelectric from the Columbia River.” As with coal, the true figure for hydropower is about 40 percent.

Coal’s Mark

The importance of coal may have surprised Oregon’s journalists and readers, but elsewhere it is a way of life. Nationwide, coal accounts for almost a quarter of total energy consumption, about half of our electricity use, and more than one-third of our carbon-dioxide emissions. The environmental impact of that dependence has received a fair amount of media attention recently, including coverage of the pollution in Tennessee and Alabama resulting from the rupture of waste ponds that stored heavy-metal-laced coal ash residue, as well as the latest installments in the long-running battle over regulation of mountaintop mining. Ken Ward Jr., an environment reporter at the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, says that such stories are important and complement coverage, from Utah to Pennsylvania, of coal’s mark on the planet. What’s often missing, he says, is a more direct evaluation of coal’s present and future importance to our power supply: connecting the dots between environment and energy.

Although there is some indication that America is moving away from coal—most new power plants will use natural gas, according to the federal Energy Information Administration—its consumption is expected to grow in the U.S. for the foreseeable future (and skyrocket in China and India). Coverage of this nascent shift away from coal has been more dependent on political drama than on data. Stories crop up each time a proposal to build a new coal plant is rejected or a representative of the coal industry says that such rejections threaten jobs. Enterprising reports that provide more depth on each side’s position, and what could be done to resolve the disputes, are rare.

The fight to get the American Clean Energy and Security Act through Congress has been emblematic of this problem. The legislation’s passage in the House in June depended largely on a compromise with Democrats from coal-, oil-, and gas-producing states. When the lead negotiator for this faction, Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, introduced a key amendment that would, as he told The Bluefield Daily Telegraph, “create the opportunity for increasing coal production,” many national and regional outlets followed the story. But as the Gazette’s Ward put it, the story line was often: “ ‘Conservative, Blue Dog Democrat from coal country uses his political muscle to get what he wants.’ There was much less about what Boucher really wanted and why.”

What Boucher wanted, among other things, was federal support for carbon capture and storage (CCS), a controversial technology that, in theory, would eliminate the heat-trapping emissions from coal plants by burying them deep underground. This is the idea behind so-called “clean coal.” Boucher wants CCS because the United Mine Workers wants it, a point that Ward has tried to flesh out at the Gazette. It is not that the union necessarily denies the science behind global warming or the need for clean energy, he says. Rather, the union is simply trying to protect coal jobs and still meet national emissions targets (should they become law).

Of course, there is nothing simple about it. The technological feasibility of large-scale CCS, which is highly uncertain, is something that the press has largely overlooked. “We need to tell our readers very clearly what the uncertainties about a piece of technology are, what the time frame is for resolving those uncertainties, and what our alternatives are if that technology doesn’t work,” Ward says.

That last point is especially relevant to the national media, which are fixated on reporting the latest cost-benefit analyses of the strategies for weaning the nation off fossil fuels. Many of those estimates—from governmental organizations, think tanks, and special interest groups alike—foresee a “manageable” economic burden, but they all also assume that technologies like CCS and biofuels will be widely available. Those are bold assumptions, but the media rarely challenge them or ask what the environmental and economic implications would be if any one of them doesn’t pan out. In that respect, coverage of wind and solar power is somewhat simpler—we know that the technology works. According to a recent (and little-covered) National Academies of Sciences report, the main barriers to expanding wind and solar power are their high cost, a lack of transmission capacity, and sustained policies (such as production tax credits) that encourage wider deployment. In other words, the challenges are primarily political and economic rather than technological. Still, explaining all that is a big challenge for journalists.

Blowing in the Wind

Press coverage of technologies such as wind often relies more on pronouncements from politicians and the business community than on hard truths from technical experts. A case in point is billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens’s campaign to promote homegrown clean energy as a way to wean the U.S. off foreign oil. Since unveiling “The Pickens Plan” in July 2008, he has benefited from mountains of free media in addition to the tens of millions he has reportedly poured into advertising. A centerpiece of the plan was his highly touted—and heavily covered—commitment to build the world’s largest wind farm in the Texas panhandle. But when Pickens quietly shelved the plan—at least temporarily—with $2 billion in wind turbines already on order, the coverage was far more cursory. An AP story last November, in which Pickens mentioned at a conference that he was putting the wind farm project on hold, received little attention. Anniversary stories this summer on the Pickens plan noted the wind farm’s demise, but provided little substantial coverage of what killed it: the financial and technical problems of getting new transmission lines to link his remote West Texas wind turbines to the Texas electrical grid. For that matter, why weren’t there stories along the way about this large and very plausible obstacle to the Pickens plan?

Transmission lines are not the only problem with the development of wind power. There’s the long start-up time, the high capital investment costs, and debates over environmental and aesthetic concerns, particularly in places like Cape Cod, where local groups have fought a proposed offshore wind farm for eight years. There’s a selective-numbers issue, too. On the up side, “wind power accounted for 42% of all new electrical generation added to the U.S. grid last year,” as Bryan Walsh noted in a piece in Time magazine in June called “Can Wind Power Get Up To Speed?” But it has a long way to go. “Wind still makes up less than 3% of America’s total electricity generation,” Walsh wrote. “Even at current rates of growth, that figure is unlikely to change soon.”

Without both numbers, the coverage is overly optimistic. Take the Des Moines Register’s reporting on President Obama’s Earth Day trip in April to Trinity Structural Towers, a wind turbine manufacturing plant in Newton, Iowa. Obama touted his ten-year, $150 billion clean-energy plan, predicting that an estimated 250,000 jobs and as much as 20 percent of the country’s electricity would come from wind by 2030. The Register quoted these numbers but failed to add the president’s own caveat about the tiny percentage of power that wind currently provides. The emphasis was on the boon for Iowa and a state official’s enthusiastic comment that, “Iowa companies will have opportunities wherever the wind is.”

Energy is a major local story for the Register, whose sole Washington reporter specializes in agriculture, energy, and climate, while a local reporter covers the agriculture and energy business in Iowa. The two collaborate on a blog called Green Fields, which deals with everything from the G8 summit to local commodity prices. “Renewable energy is big business,” says Dan Piller, the local reporter. “I try to focus our coverage on profit and loss.”

By approaching energy primarily as a business or politics story, however, the paper risks inhibiting big-picture coverage. What seems to be falling between the cracks is a more comprehensive examination of the economic, environmental, and technological hurdles in Iowa to meeting Obama’s ambitious clean-energy targets.

In Delaware, the state’s largest newspaper, The News Journal, has benefited from a more coordinated approach to the energy story that emanates from the top. “Energy is the hub of environmental coverage because spokes out of that wheel impact climate change, fuel our industry, homes, and vehicles and directly affect our quality of life,” says executive editor David Ledford. He has made energy and environment coverage a newsroom-wide priority, adding resources to create a new All Green To Me Web site in February and improving coordination between the paper’s environmental, energy, and political reporters and editors.

The paper’s coverage of the proposed Bluewater offshore wind farm, which could become one of the nation’s first operational projects, is a good example of how the News Journal attempts to put energy in a broader context. The coverage has examined not only the dollars-and-cents of wind energy but also the long-term public health and environmental tradeoffs between conventional coal-burning plants and wind and solar energy. Ledford believes that his paper’s multifaceted coverage helped generate public support for the project: “We helped connect the dots,” he says, “and demonstrated that it would be good for the health of the people and the state to decrease emissions (from coal-fired electricity) and bring more green energy into our grid.”

Doing It Better

As these examples illustrate, if energy news is to engage and inform the decisions of politicians, industry executives, and the public, the media must think more strategically about what they cover, how they cover it, and which reporters they assign to cover it.

First and foremost, news outlets must expand energy coverage beyond the business desk where the energy reporter typically resides. A good model for strategic coverage can be found at The New York Times. In January the paper created an environment “pod” under editor Erica Goode, which absorbed
Matthew Wald, the paper’s science and technology reporter, as well as seven other reporters from the foreign, national, metro, and science desks. The Times’s energy “cluster” is still at the business desk under the direction of assistant business editor Justin Gillis. But he and Goode coordinate coverage of most energy-related content in the paper, as well as the environment pod’s sustainability blog, Dot Earth, and the business section’s energy and environment blog, Green Inc.

But even a paper as large as the Times does not have the staff and expertise to go it alone. One promising trend is the use of content-sharing agreements between traditional news organizations and specialty outlets to expand the newsroom’s energy expertise. The Times, for example, publishes a significant number of energy politics and business stories online from Energy & Environment Publishing LLC, a subscription-based service that began as a weekly print newsletter a decade ago and has about forty reporters and editors, bureaus in the U.S. and Europe, and a suite of Web sites, including Greenwire and ClimateWire.

Though it probably makes sense for many outlets to cover energy through their business desks, the dollars-and-cents mindset that tends to infect business-desk coverage can be limiting, and coordination with political, environment, technology, and consumer reporters is a must. A number of reporters interviewed for this story say that such communication often takes place on an informal basis, but that it would behoove editors to take a more active role in coordinating coverage across the newsroom.

Arguably a more significant concern than where the energy coverage is based is the need to bolster the scientific expertise in newsrooms. Given limited resources, reporters who can cover energy and environment, as well as the costs of energy legislation and technological feasibility of meeting its targets, are valuable assets. “If you don’t have basic economics and science, then you’ll be playing catch up for a long time,” says ClimateWire’s John Fialka. “Washington is knee-deep in reporters who reduce everything to politics.”

But perhaps the most important thing for journalists to bring to this new energy beat is the right mindset. The shift from fossil fuels to clean energy is not a series of isolated stories. It is a national story and a global story. What happens in Texas, for instance, doesn’t stay in Texas—it is part of a vast western and U.S. energy problem, and it is intimately connected to what happens in China and India. (Indeed, the international stage is where much of the energy story is currently happening, and that creates different challenges for newsrooms. National papers have stepped up coverage of China and India’s energy agendas in anticipation of the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen this December, where world leaders hope to draft a treaty limiting worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions.)

It is a story, too, that will require patience and perseverance as the social currents surrounding it and political leadership driving it change. The world cannot afford for America to abandon energy reform as it did in the 1980s. “It is one of the most important things that we all need to be covering right now,” says the San Francisco Chronicle’s David Baker. “And we’ll need to stay on top of it for years and years to come.” If the Clean Energy and Security Act becomes law—even if its provisions are not as robust as environmentalists would like—the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy will require a profound socioeconomic change that will play out over decades. News outlets will be responsible for analyzing and reporting its impact on everyone and everything from ExxonMobil to small businesses, from the Department of Energy to the local public utilities commission. At every level, there will be opportunities to investigate whether all the effort is, in fact, creating jobs, promoting energy security, and protecting the environment.

Energy is the quintessential twenty-first-century story, and covering it well will require newsrooms to think strategically and creatively about how to use the resources available to them, both within and beyond their newsrooms.

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Curtis Brainard and Cristine Russell are CJR contributors. Brainard is the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.