By Sharon Lerner
There it was in black and white — or black, white, and a palette of gentle greens and blues. With a headline predicting that natural gas “will thrive in the age of renewables,” the article made the case that there are limitations on solar and wind power and that — as a subhead spelled out in aquamarine type — natural gas “is part of the solution.” Why was the Washington Post weighing in on the need for continued production of this fossil fuel in the face of climate change?
Or was it? On closer inspection, the report wasn’t coming from the D.C. paper’s newsroom. Though the link takes you to a page published by WashingtonPost.com, the story is actually a publication of WP BrandStudio, the paper’s branded content platform. In other words, the article is really an advertisement, and the copy was paid for by the American Petroleum Institute. The tagline — “Content from American Petroleum Institute” — is plain to see if you’re looking for it, though easy to miss if you’re not.
It’s not surprising that the trade group representing the oil and gas industry would want to leap to the defense of natural gas now. The notion that the energy source is a “bridge fuel” that will somehow safely deliver us to wind and solar — and past the threat of climate change — has been vaporized by recent science.
The combustion of natural gas does in fact create less carbon dioxide than the burning of coal, as the API “article” notes, pointing out that “new natural gas plants emit 50 to 60 percent less carbon into the atmosphere than new coal facilities.”
But what the piece doesn’t mention is that the drilling, extraction, and transport of natural gas also releases methane. And though carbon dioxide is the best-known greenhouse gas and stays in the atmosphere longer than methane, methane traps at least 86 times more heat than carbon dioxide before it degrades.
Nor does it reference the fact that the amount of methane in the atmosphere has increased sharply in the past few years and, scientists warn, threatens to derail efforts to limit warming. While there are questions as to which of several global sources of methane — including cows, wetlands, and coal mines — is driving the recent spike in emissions, evidence has tied it to the boom of natural gas production. And that in turn has led many scientists to assail the idea that natural gas is a “greener” fuel. In fact, depending on the leakage rate during production, natural gas may be even worse for the climate than coal.
“This idea that natural gas is better than coal is just a distraction,” said Robert Howarth, a biogeochemist at Cornell whose research has tied the particular type of methane newly found in the atmosphere to shale gas production. “If you’re serious about keeping the planet below 2 degrees of warming, you can’t do that without cutting down on methane. We need to move away from all fossil fuels as quickly as we can.”
Not surprisingly, the Washington Post piece — or rather, the American Petroleum Institute piece in the Washington Post — doesn’t include any comments from independent scientists like Howarth. Instead, it quotes Wayne Winegarden, a businessperson affiliated with climate-denying organizations such as the Heartland Institute and the Pacific Research Institute.
Fossil fuel companies aren’t the only ones using stories that appear to be part of a journalistic publication, but are actually paid for by advertisers in attempt to improve an image suffering in the coverage done by actual journalists. Native advertising, as it’s called, has spread misinformation on everything from the “superfood” moringa to Thai seafood slavery, and has raised serious questions about journalistic ethics.