Summer 2004

Introduction

By Melissa Ludtke, Editor

To a journalist’s ear, the words “energy” and “crisis” belong together, in part because coverage of energy issues has been fueled largely by episodic coverage of difficulties people confront when sources of energy diminish—such as gasoline price hikes and shortages—or they vanish, as in electricity blackouts. To some degree this approach is changing as better-trained journalists pursue stories about energy and keep watchful eyes on a wider range of critical energy issues.

For three decades Edward Flattau wove reporting about energy issues into his nationally syndicated columns about the environment. In a 1973 six-part series, he focused attention on a new concept called “net energy” and the lifestyle changes Americans might need to make because of it. This resulted in one-third of his newspaper clients canceling his column. Today Flattau writes that he finds “much more awareness of energy’s importance in our daily existence [but] energy pervasiveness is all too often still not appreciated, even by those who report regularly on it.”

As Washington bureau chief for a daily newsletter, Platts Oilgram News, Gerald Karey does detailed reporting about oil news, the kind most news organizations don’t give their audience. This daily beat provides him a good perspective on how mainstream reporting of these issues might be improved, and he offers suggestions for how some oil issues in the Congressional energy debate might be covered. Margaret Kriz, whose Washington, D.C. beat includes coverage of energy issues for the National Journal, describes how politics and energy policy intersect—and how this intersection is sometimes covered—and she provides a list of energy stories to watch.

In West Virginia, energy is equated with coal, and its mining drives the state’s economy. To investigate whether companies were adhering to environmental laws regulating the removal of mountaintops to mine coal, Ken Ward, Jr., who has covered the environment for The Charleston Gazette for more than a decade, dug through documents to develop a database of mining permits. His reporting revealed many flaws in the regulatory system that allowed companies to avoid their post-mining responsibilities in restoring the land. Ward says he and his newspaper have taken “a lot of heat” for his reporting but, as he writes, “This is where the months I spent reading mining regulations and studying dozens of mine permits paid off. I was armed with the facts, and that made my reporting stand up to all levels of criticism.”

Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, who is global environment and energy correspondent for The Economist, examines how well journalists navigate through the claims and counterclaims (what he calls “the hydrogen hoaxes”) made about the hydrogen fuel cell’s potential as an energy carrier. In showing why skeptics’ concerns don’t hold up, Vaitheeswaran contends that “reporters taking a global view would see that the question of hydrogen cuts right to the heart of the great debate over sustainable development itself ….”

Joseph A. Davis, who edits the WatchDog, a newsletter about First Amendment issues for the Society of Environmental Journalists, explains the consequences to reporters of a change in regulations made by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and aimed at protecting information about the nation’s energy infrastructure from terrorists. The rule “applies not merely to information about existing facilities, but to proposed facilities that might be built if FERC licenses them.” This means neither journalists nor the public can gain access to information that until recently was made available to help people assess the risks and dangers posed by various energy facilities. At the Mobile (Ala.), Register reporters had difficulty obtaining key studies and documents from FERC regarding the siting of a potentially dangerous liquefied natural gas terminal in its city. Bill Finch, the paper’s environment editor, writes about the Register’s persistent coverage of this issue despite government officials repeatedly sidetracking or refusing “virtually every request we’ve made to obtain documents, even when documents had been distributed for review to scientists or legislators.”

From California and Cleveland, Ohio comes coverage of electricity issues, including an article by Elizabeth McCarthy, editor and publisher of California Energy Circuit, who writes how secret dealmaking by companies and government officials made it difficult for reporters to help the public understand why the lights were going out and how much the energy deals were costing them. Rick Jurgens, a reporter with the Contra Costa Times in California, covered his state’s yearlong energy crisis. To do so, the paper’s team of reporters had to learn about the way deregulation works. Now, with the crisis over, Jurgens believes the challenge for his newspaper and others remains to “figure out how to be consistent and effective watchdogs” of a deregulated marketplace. The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer’s business editor, Debbie Van Tassel, explains why her newspaper—which had thoroughly reported on problems of the nearby utility FirstEnergy Corp. since the late 1990’s—was well prepared to lead the nation’s investigative reporting after the massive electricity blackout in the summer of 2003. She also shows how Plain Dealer reporting revealed serious problems at FirstEnergy’s Davis-Besse nuclear plant and lax oversight by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In covering this same blackout story, Mark Clayton, a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor, found a way to get inside a New York generating plant. He shared with readers a reconstructed narrative account of how power was restored in this old yet critical plant.

Randy Gragg, who writes about architecture and urban design for The Oregonian, describes some new challenges in writing about “green” buildings. As more developers and marketers make claims about energy innovations, he writes that “part of an architecture critic’s job is to figure out if the message is truly captured by a building’s design.” A vigorous debate about a possible wind farm siting in Nantucket Sound off Massachusetts is being covered by Doreen Leggett, an environment reporter for The Cape Codder. Despite her weekly paper’s small size, her editor sent her to Denmark to report on that country’s experience with large wind farms as a way to better inform the residents of Cape Cod. She writes about this reporting trip—what she learned and the reaction her article had back home.


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