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Deconstructing the New York Times

Robert McChesney gives a reasonable definition of the two indispensable functions that journalism should provide in self-governing societies. The first is the "watchdog" role over those in power. The second, of more interest here, is explained this way—

... the media system must (1) provide reliable information and (2) a wide range of informed opinions on the important social and political issues of the day. No single medium can or should be expected to provide all of this; but the media system as a whole should provide easy access to this for all citizens [numbering, italics added]

There is little doubt that the current and future state of the world's oil production is "an important social and political issue." Given the warning signs of a looming crisis and the large associated uncertainties, it is hard to think of an issue more critical to industrial economies than maintaining a reliable oil supply in the coming decade and beyond.

In its recent coverage of the world's oil supply, the New York Times has failed to meet either of McChesney's criteria for covering this paramount social issue. Although no one media outlet is responsible for examining all aspects of an issue, as McChesney points out, the NY Times considers itself the "paper of record" and, therefore, it should be held to a higher standard than other media sources. The Times' failure to provide balanced, accurate coverage is apparent in recent articles by energy reporter Jad Mouawad. A close reading of his work reveals that the Times consistently covers the oil supply from the point of those who promote a narrowly optimistic view of it. Examples include selected representatives of the International Oil Companies (IOCs), Nansen Saleri of Saudi Aramco, and Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA).

The most egregious example is Oil Innovations Pump New Life Into Old Wells, published on March 5, 2007. Mouawad's article purports to demonstrate that new oil technologies are raising reservoir recovery factors. The clear implication is that the application of such technologies makes it unnecessary to worry about the future oil supply —

Within the last decade, technology advances have made it possible to unlock more oil from old fields, and, at the same time, higher oil prices have made it economical for companies to go after reserves that are harder to reach. With plenty of oil still left in familiar locations, forecasts that the world’s reserves are drying out have given way to predictions that more oil can be found than ever before.

The technology advances in question consist of steam injection for the recovery of viscous heavy oil at the Kern River field in California and CO2 injection for stranded recovery at the Means field in Texas. Neither of these methods is new. Gas injection — whether it is H2O or CO2 — has been around for decades. As the Times' own graphic (below, left [click to enlarge]) shows, steam injection began at Kern River in the mid-1960's. The Times' graphic also clearly shows that a production rate Kern_river of only 140 thousand b/d was achieved at Kern River after using this technique for almost 20 years there. This mainstay U.S. Lower 48 field is now producing only about 90 thousand b/d. Contrast this with another large field, Dalia in the deepwater offshore Angola, where a field estimated to hold 1 billion recoverable barrels of light oil will yield a peak flow of about 240 thousand b/d. The Kern River field is past its prime and is now in irreversible decline. Similar remarks apply to Indonesia's Duri heavy oil field, also mentioned by the Times, where steam injection began in 1984.

Using McChesney's criteria, is the Times' reporting reliable? The story's slant is how technology increases the recovery factors. While it is often true that enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques allows operators to pump more of the original oil in place, such success depends on a number of factors. For example, using carbon dioxide injection to recover stranded oil depends on the suitability of the reservoir for miscible CO2 flooding, the availability of the gas and the oil price, which must be high to make such EOR economic. Finally, even where carbon dioxide is successfully applied, recovery rates are slow and thus production must take place over a long period of time. For many of these reasons, the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD) rejected using CO2 flooding on Norway's continental shelf.

What about steam injection for recovering heavy oil at the Kern River? An underlying concern, unstated by the Times, is that much of the new oil being produced globally is becoming heavier over time, as in offshore Brazil. The Times neglected to mention that low API gravity oil (between 10° and 22.3°) is harder and more costly to produce. Heavier crudes have less commercial value because they yield fewer high value liquids when they are refined, as even Time Magazine understands. Consequently, the nature of the oil supply is changing — and not for the better.

An uninformed reader of the Times article could easily come away with the misleading message that there is no reason to worry about the oil supply. Mouawad glosses over the complex issues involved in increasing reservoir recovery factors. Indeed, the entire science of petroleum engineering is reduced to a reassuring lesson that "all is well." What about McChesney's criteria for presenting a wide range of opinions? Mouawad's Oil Innovations article provides the usual quote from CERA chairman Daniel Yergin, who reminds us yet again that “it’s the fifth time to my count that we’ve gone through a period when it seemed the end of oil was near and people were talking about the exhaustion of resources.” Yergin's sound bite echoes the article's theme that as prices rise, technology and the magic of the markets will make enough oil available to meet future demand. By contrast, Mouawad provides "equal time" to the peak oil hypothesis.

There is still a minority view, held largely by a small band of retired petroleum geologists and some members of Congress, that oil production has peaked, but the theory has been fading...

“I am very, very seriously worried about the future we are facing,” said Kjell Aleklett, the president of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas. “It is clear that oil is in limited supplies.”

... Many oil executives say that these so-called peak-oil theorists fail to take into account the way that sophisticated technology, combined with higher prices that make searches for new oil more affordable, are opening up opportunities to develop supplies.

Leaving aside the question of whether the peak oil hypothesis is fading, Mouawad falsely characterizes the "so-called" theorists studying pending oil supply problems — a diverse group of people worldwide, many of whom are veterans of the oil & gas industry. So, it is reasonable to ask who he is getting his information from. In the past, CERA has also narrowly identified "peakists" as a fringe group of geologists. Moreover, Aleklett's remarks are not presented in any context in which they might make sense to the reader. Mouawad sets up Aleklett as an easy target to be knocked down by Yergin, Saleri and other selected experts.

Information omitted by the Times might have provided a partial context for Aleklett's remarks. Digging a bit deeper, Mouawad fails to note that real declines are happening in many large supplier nations and there are only 15 countries left that have the ability to increase production in the future, as Yergin told the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on March 22, 2007. Obviously, there are worrisome geopolitical concerns associated with many of them, including Iraq, Iran, Venezuela and Nigeria.

Another article by Mouawad, Nowadays, Angola Is Oil’s Topic A, published on March 20, 2007, raises an obvious question — why is Angola, the best success story the IOCs have to offer lately, topic A? The Times quotes George L. Kirkland, a senior executive at Chevron, who comes right to the point. Kirkland is referring to the advantages of importing oil from a geographically diverse set of countries.

It’s a good story for consumers. The greater the diversity, the less your risk — not just political, but also technical and commercial. [emphasis added] "

One proper function of journalism regarding important social issues is to alert the public to situations  that may affect them adversely. Responsible reporting does not engage in cheerleading. Perhaps it would be more newsworthy if Nigeria, another West African producer, were Topic A. According to EIA data, oil output there declined  from an average of 2.627 million b/d in 2005 to 2.440 million b/d in the last year due to rebel activity by MEND in the Niger delta, despite new production from large offshore fields such as Bonga. As it turns out, the Times' Mouawad did cover Nigeria in Shell Expects Full Output From Nigeria. Using the single IOC source quoted below, the article takes an optimistic tone —

“We see this year as a year when we start clawing back our production,” Basil E. Omiyi, Shell’s managing director for Nigeria, said in an interview on Tuesday in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. “I don’t see anything standing in our way of restarting our production.”

Nigeria's oil production is still down and remains precarious, with pre-election violence clouding future output. Unlike Angola, however, Nigeria's woes would not be a "good story for consumers."

To be fair, the Times' Elisabeth Malkin took on Mexico's falling production in Output falling in oil-rich Mexico, and politics gets the blame (reprint from the International Herald Tribune). As the title indicates, geologically determined declines at Cantarell set the stage but are not the main story. The Mexican government, which takes much of Pemex's revenue and thus prevents Pemex from making sufficient investments in new oil exploration and production, gets the blame. While there is a lot of truth to Malkin's story, the failure of nitrogen gas injection to prop up Cantarell's production any longer is not even mentioned in the article. No one at the Times seems to be able to connect the dots  — in Mouawad's Oil Innovations article, gas injection technology will save the day. However, such enhanced oil recovery eventually failed to sustain production in Mexico — Cantarell is in permanent decline now and output is falling fast.

The persistent pattern of selection bias in the Times' articles on the global oil supply makes its reporting on this subject suspect. Furthermore, there is direct bias in the use of loaded language to characterize peak oil issues and those studying them, e.g. it is a fading theory. Anonymous IOC sources state that so-called peak oil theorists do not take old oil recovery technology — which is presented as new — into account. This accusation is simply false. Neither of McChesney's criteria for competent, responsible reporting are met in recent New York Times articles on the future global oil supply. Their journalism in this area does a disservice to a public who they are supposed to inform. 

Editorial Notes: Dave Cohen has a weekly column at ASPO-USA. Previously he was a prolific contributor to The Oil Drum. He notes that this week's online Peak Oil Review from ASPO-USA features an article by Tom Standing called "Commentary: A Depletion Story—How the Best and Brightest Oil Fields in Texas Faded into Obscurity," along with long and short topics related to peak oil. -BA

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