Knock, knock. Who’s there? It’s the “landman,” offering quick cash to extract natural gas on your property using a technique called hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” Please take a look at this colorful brochure.
It’s a scene that has played out above gas-rich shale formations across the United States. Long before the environmental and public health risks of fracking attracted widespread media attention, thousands signed over their land, a decision some are trying to take back. In the last year, the farmlands of upstate New York have been a particular hotbed for debate.
The state’s de facto ban on fracking, implemented in 2008, has curtailed drilling while the Department of Environmental Conservation researches fracking’s pros and cons. Arguments, and coverage, have intensified as the department has moved closer to a decision, recently inviting public input on the proposed regulations.
For the startup news website Innovation Trail, the timing was right to make fracking a primary focus in its reporting. The site, a collaboration between five upstate public radio stations, launched in 2010, just as the subject was taking off in the New York media. Rachel Ward, Innovation Trail’s editor, says its mission is to cover emerging local industries like biotech, information technology, and energy. One of the site’s first energy stories informed readers that it was “gearing up to do some reporting about the macro and microeconomic effects of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.” The rest was history.
“We didn’t realize how much we were going to wind up covering fracking,” says Ward. “But we quickly understood how important of an issue it was and how much people care about it.”
Hydraulic fracturing uses a combination of sand, chemicals, and water to break up rock, releasing the natural gas inside. It promises jobs for some and a payday for landowners (often struggling farmers). But opponents cite the alleged environmental fallout: contaminated water, which has been confirmed in parts of Pennsylvania and upstate New York where the method has been used.
The fracking story is fraught with legalities and emotion. The New York Times reported in September that at least 400 New York leaseholders are suing the gas companies they signed with. The reasons landowners are trying to get these leases nullified vary. Some want to renegotiate for more money, some say they changed their minds when they learned more about the risks, and others say they were misled by charming “land men” and assurances about fracking’s safety. [Update: The New York Times published a long review of the activities of landmen nationwide in a front page article published November 2 entitled, “Learning Too Late of Perils in Gas Well Leases.”]
Why were people caught so off-guard? A review of New York media news archives using the search tool LexisNexis shows little coverage of hydraulic fracturing in the state prior to late 2008 and early 2009. Coverage picked up in 2010, when smaller state newspapers started covering the basic arguments for and against the process. But the practical, news-you-can-use about applicable regulations and contract negotiations wasn’t there when prospectors and landowners were drawing up leases.
Take, for example, the Oneida Daily Dispatch, which published two stories about fracking in 2009, both from the Associated Press. One focused on a Pennsylvania company that was forced to stop drilling, the other about New York issuing gas drilling rules, but there was no local focus. At Binghamton’s Press & Sun-Bulletin, six stories ran in 2008, three of which were editorials. At the Star Gazette in Elmira, New York, there were three mentions of hydraulic fracturing at the tail end of 2008. Auburn’s The Citizen ran nine stories about fracking between 2008 and 2010, five were from the AP, and three written by its staff. Likewise, fracking coverage flowed out at a trickle in 2008 at the Ithaca Journal, Plattsburgh’s Press-Republican, and Geneva’s Finger Lakes Times, until editors opened the tap in 2010.