Posts Tagged ‘Inside Climate News’


Big oil, bad air, good reporting: How InsideClimate News reporter Lisa Song stuck with it (and so can you)

For three days, InsideClimate News reporter Lisa Song sat rifling through public records documents in the file-reading room of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The unwavering eyes of a government-appointed paralegal watched her every move, making sure Song did not copy or try to smuggle the papers.

“It was like having a babysitter,” Song said when we met up at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Philadelphia.

The problem was the records Song was reviewing were supposed to be public — available to anyone — but a miscommunication between her FOIA case record agent and the TCEQ led to Song flying from Boston to Austin to read the information. She could have copied the documents and returned to Boston, but would have been expected to pay $3,400, she said.

Song was looking at communications among Texas state toxicologists, in order to report on a story about the state’s recently weakened chemical guidelines and the potential ramifications on air quality.

The eventual story, a year-and-a-half-long series published in collaboration with the Weather Channel and the Center for Public Integrity, was titled “Big Oil, Bad Air.” The story exposed major air pollution within the Eagle Ford Shale, a 400-mile-long stretch of oil and gas drilling sites.

Companies are required to report certain air emissions to environmental agencies under the Clean Air Act. But Texas doesn’t require all of the production facilities to file emissions data with the state; instead, they allowed a “self-audit” policy. However, using air permits granted to some of the other companies, Song and her team discovered other sites had permission to release almost 190 tons of toxic chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde every year.

It wasn’t an easy investigation, Song recalls. Texas is an “oil and gas state,” so even government agencies are dealing with financial conflicts of interest, as agency leaders such as those at the TCEQ are appointed by the governor himself and other officials have financial incentives to support the industry.  She and her colleagues filed over fifty open records requests for investigation reports, oil and gas pollution inventories, enforcement actions, agency communications and personnel files, a dozen of which were state attorney general’s office because the TCEQ wanted the documents withheld, she said.

GROWING PROBLEM

It’s becoming a growing problem, according to Song, and not just in Texas. Regulations and disclosure rules vary among states, but environmental journalists are meeting a lack of transparency from agencies across the board. Face-to-face interviews with EPA officials are almost nonexistent, and email is the preferred method of communication; A reporter who tries to call a source at the EPA will most likely be shuttled through public information officers and media relations. FOIA requests can take a year or more to be granted. Song spent three months trying to get an interview with EPA, who in this story should have stepped in when the Texas state agency failed. And in her personal experience, the USDA and U.S. Forest Service are even more elusive.

But oil companies are the worst. Although she didn’t have to deal with the trade secret problem associated with most of these oil-and-gas stories, she faced backlash and allegations from the public relations arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Song’s colleague David Hasemyer also faced challenges. Officials from the TCEQ and the Railroad Commission of Texas (also involved in the story) refused to grant interviews. At one point Hasemyer was berated by an agency spokesperson for attempting to call TCEQ inspectors at their homes and was physically stopped from approaching a commission chairman at a public meeting.

Fortunately the journalists prevailed, even leading to an air pollution monitor being installed in nearby Karnes County, Texas, and a criminal inquiry into the actions of two inspectors named in the story. It’s a cautionary tale for other states that are eager for fracking’s rewards, Song and her colleagues wrote in a report to Investigative Reporters and Editors, who in addition to SPJ, nominated the story for an award.

One of Song and Hasemyer’s infographics was awarded a 2014 Sigma Delta Chi Award from SPJ.

Song shares how they did it:

  • Documents:
    • Campaign contribution disclosure statements from the Texas Ethics Commission
    • Civil lawsuits on fracking and air pollution.
    • State legislation that aimed to strengthen or weaken air pollution regulations.
    • Science and engineering studies about fracking and public health published in peer-reviewed journals, conference proceedings and government reports.
    • Transcripts and videos from public hearings
    • New source review air permits
  • Interviews
    • 12 trips to shale drilling regions in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana
    • Scientists and engineers from universities, consulting firms, regulatory agencies, environmental groups and industry
    • Most public officials and industry representatives refused to speak on the phone or to meet in person, and only answered questions via email
    • Residents in Eagle Ford affected by pollution
  • Data Analysis

Reporters don’t need to live in Texas to replicate this story for their own hometown or beat. Refer to your state or region’s database of emission releases and review the Clean Air Act for more information.

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.

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