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NYT reporter describes how deep he has to drill to cover natural gas boom

Covering the natural gas drilling boom for The New York Times isn't just about the hydrofracking controversy and the environment, said investigative reporter Ian Urbina, speaking on campus Oct. 4. It is also about the economics of production and just how much gas is likely to be produced by fracking.

Urbina, whose "Drilling Down" series focuses on natural gas drilling and its environmental, economic and political impact, spoke to an overflow audience in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall.

"To a large degree this topic has been covered as an environmental story," he said. "But the more I looked at it, the more I thought that it's a much larger story."

For example, he said that he wanted to raise questions about what once seemed like unconditional support for natural gas.

"Natural gas has enjoyed an unusual consensus," Urbina said. "If you go back to 2008, the exuberance around natural gas was off the charts. Wall Street was excited about it. Washington was excited about it. ... The one area Obama cited where Democrats and Republicans could work together was natural gas. There hasn't really been a time when the country's been so exuberant about an energy option, and there hasn't been a lot of cross-examination of that exuberance."

To back up his stories, Urbina said that he dug up original documents, which are available to readers on the Times website.

"A story that could have turned up in the paper in two months probably wasn't in the paper for three-and-a-half to four months" because of the need to obtain documents, Urbina said. "Getting the information is ridiculously difficult. There's so much of it out there. The problem is that it's not easy to find, and the type of information you need is often not what's out there."

With such high stakes, he said, a reporter needs to make sure the evidence he presents is 100 percent accurate.

"If you have a thousand pages of documents, and an industry that will go over every page to force a correction, you have to be really careful," Urbina said. "So far, we have no corrections."

Another challenge has been to convince readers to actually view the documents.

"In the beginning, it was bleak," he said, noting that the document page had only a handful of visitors, and each one stayed on the page for an average of 40 seconds. But as time went on, Urbina said, "we realized that that 40 seconds went to 40 minutes, and the numbers grew."

Those documents, he said, have made the series have a substantial impact.

"We could have run a story: 'Studies have been done and this is what they found,'" Urbina said. "I doubt a phone would have been picked up. But because the presentation was right there, a lot came of it."

For example, the documents have also begun to play an important secondary role as evidence.

"Investigators didn't want to read our stories," Urbina said. "But they were going to the document reader, and they were going through every page."

Urbina's talk was the annual Kops Freedom of the Press Lecture.

Elisabeth Rosen '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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