Coverage of the energy sector falls short if it ignores climate change: Don Pittis

Long ago, greenhouse gases were relegated to environmentalist checklists and were rarely considered a part of mainstream business coverage. But not anymore, Don Pittis writes.

Journalism on the energy industry can bring together the need for fossil fuels and costs of climate change

Potatoes get a cooling drink on June 16 as authorities announced a drought risk for summer. An increase in climate events is an economic factor in any story about the fossil fuel industry, Don Pittis writes. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

An otherwise excellent Canadian energy story published earlier this week contained a glaring omission.

And so did a second one, also a perfectly good report, with the same conspicuous gap. And then there was a third.

All three stories left readers uninformed about a key consideration for making business decisions: They didn't make any mention whatsoever of climate change.

Long ago, greenhouse gases were relegated to environmentalist checklists and were rarely considered a part of mainstream business coverage. But not anymore.


In the current context, leaving the effects of fossil fuels on climate, even if just peripheral, out of any substantial report on the energy industry is simply bad economics. Anyone trying to make good investment decisions who repeatedly runs across articles that find the subject unmentionable should likely seek more complete sources.

The most credible oil experts, including old-style Texas-based petroleum geologist and petroleum analyst Art Berman, made no bones about it on Twitter not too long ago.

The Houston oil and gas analyst is by no means some sort of environmentalist naysayer against the petroleum industry. Taking a political advocacy position is not necessary to fill the gap in reporting.

But there is a danger if the divided nature of thinking evident in social media is perpetuated in respected sources of news.

On Twitter, Berman is a bit of an exception. Generally, tweets divide between the pro-green supporters of climate change action and the pro-fossil fuel rejectors of climate change as untrue or overblown. By selecting the voices one prefers, it is possible to get a distorted view of any issue.

Clearly, some publications take a pro- or anti-green editorial position in their news reporting, and that is their right. But it is notable when news stories from relatively objective sources become similarly divided, separately warning about the dire effects of a warming planet in some stories, while elsewhere, perhaps in the business pages, celebrating the rise of oil and gas output.

Orwellian doublethink

The risk is some sort of "doublethink," the ability to hold two completely conflicting points of view at the same time as proposed by George Orwell in his dystopian book 1984.

The stories of note that make the case this week are from The Canadian Press, Globe and Mail, and Wall Street Journal. Many others that make the same omission are easy to find.

An liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker on its way into a Japanese port in this file photo from Nov. 13, 2017. (Issei Kato/File Photo/Reuters)

CP's story looked at a coming spike in oil prices. In March, I suggested that such a bounce back was likely as the recent price war drove some producers out of business.

Many excellent reports do their best to take an independent overview, recognizing both the near-term need for fossil fuels, the long-term costs, and bringing the two together. They observe that an increase in climate events and the resulting political backlash must be considered when discussing our energy future. Stories calling for lower carbon emissions acknowledge their economic impact.

But the CP story made no mention of the carbon impact, no nod to how a jump in consumption would raise greenhouse gas output, nothing on how a sharp price spike might boost the trend toward greener cars or thus ultimately reducing long-term demand.

The second story was a Globe and Mail report on the Canadian natural gas sector pushing for a federal provincial plan to develop the hydrogen economy that contained no mention of the enormous carbon footprint of making hydrogen from fossil gas.

Neither does the third story, from the Wall Street Journal, which examined the collapse of the international trade in liquefied natural gas, or LNG.

Readers can't expect to get all their information from any one story. Indeed, journalists find themselves battling strict word counts, only to hear from readers about what they feel was an indispensable part of the story that was left out.

But in a divided world where it is so easy to coast in a bubble of groupthink — or, perhaps worse, sever our own reasoning with doublethink — good reporting can help us face up to a discordant reality.

Polls repeatedly reveal that most Canadians recognize that climate change is real, is human made, is bad and should be stopped. Many Canadians also believe that adding to oil and gas production is a good thing for the economy. And these are not necessarily mutually exclusive groups.

But as political and economic decision-makers, and also as business-minded investors, it is vital that at least some of us step out of our bubbles, push those repelling poles together and reach a synthesis.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

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