Entrance to the New York Times building, NYC. (photo: niallkennedy)
Those with a nose for dead trees might recall a scandal from the summer of 2009 that sullied the reputation of the Washington Post. Back then, the Post Company sent out fliers touting exclusive dinners at the home of Post publisher Katharine Weymouth that “offered corporate underwriters access to Post journalists, Obama administration officials and members of Congress in exchange for payments as high as $250,000.” When word got out, the Post cancelled the dinners, initially blaming the company’s marketing department (though later reporting showed Weymouth and WaPo’s executive editor Marcus Brauchli knew more about the confabs than they initially let on). The White House also claimed that it had not authorized any officials to participate in these “salons.”
Remember? If you were a critic of the “leftwing media,” this was proof positive of the cozy relationship between the new Democratic administration and the Beltway’s company newsletter; if you were suspicious of the establishment media for its close corporate ties and naked attempts to curry favor with political elites, these planned dinner parties had it all, from aperitifs to the final bill. It really was a fetid swamp, even for swampland.
Flash forward a few years, grab a Metroliner north, and behold this:
U.S. Secretary of Energy, energy economist Daniel Yergin and former Petrobras CEO Jose Sergio Gabrielli de Azevedo are among the speakers at tomorrow’s (Wednesday’s) The New York Times Energy for Tomorrow conference. The conference has been created in collaboration with Richard Attias and Associates.
More than 400 corporate and political leaders, as well as NGOs, academics and energy experts will debate the most pressing issues and opportunities facing the energy sector today. GE is the founding sponsor of The New York Times Energy for Tomorrow, with BMW and Louisiana Economic Development as supporting sponsors.
Gerald Marzorati, editor for The New York Times who is responsible for creating The Times’s conferences, said: “With rising prices, energy is at the top of the agenda – both economically and politically – around the world. The supply picture is changing in the United States, with new sources of oil and natural gas.
“There is also the debate over the environmental impact of energy extraction and production, and the role of efficiency in making sure there will be enough energy to meet growing global needs.”
(That was last Wednesday, April 11, by the way.)
This was an invitation-only event. What, you weren’t invited? Well, then, who was?
Yes, there was Obama’s Energy Secretary, Dr. Steven Chu–he got to have a special chat with Times columnist and human carnage unit Thomas Friedman. And Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Yergin was there, fresh off his role as a member of the Presidential Shale-Gas Advisory Commission (spoiler alert: Yergin concluded that fracking’s environmental problems can be managed and that shale gas drilling is here for the long run). And Jose Sergio Gabrielli de Azevedo, who was the head of Petrobras (the name sort of says it all, but if you are still wondering, it is a Brazilian energy giant–the largest company in the Southern Hemisphere), but is now chief planning officer for the state government of Bahia, Brazil. . . but who else?
To be fair, here’s the entire public list:
Lester R. Brown, founder and president of Earth Policy Institute;
Carol Browner, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and former ‘energy czar’ to the Obama administration;
Lee Edwards, president and chief executive of Virent, Inc.;
Marvin Fertel, president and chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Institute;
Jochen Flasbarth, president of the German Federal Environment Agency;
Robert A. Hefner III, founder and owner of the GHK Company;
Amy Myers Jaffe, director of the Energy Forum at the Baker Institute;
John Krenicki Jr., vice chairman of GE, and president and chief executive of GE Energy;
Michael Levi, Senior Fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and director of the CFR program on energy security and climate change;
Dave McCurdy, president and chief executive of the American Gas Association;
Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy;
T. Boone Pickens, chairman of BP Capital Management;
Jim Prendergast, executive director of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE);
Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace;
Jim Rogers, chairman, president and chief executive of Duke Energy;
and Manuel Camacho Solis, Mexico’s former secretary of Urban Development and the Environment, and former mayor of Mexico City.
Impressive, no? Impressive, yes. . . if you are into energy industry bigwigs. Why, there’s the head lobbyist for the nuclear energy industry, Marvin Fertel, and there’s his good pal, John Krenicki, CEO of GE Energy. Then there’s Jim Rogers, the head everything at Duke Energy, the North Carolina-based utility that is responsible for something like 36,000 megawatts of electrical generation, mostly from its fleet of aging coal and nuclear plants. (I wonder how he, the leader of America’s 13th largest air polluter got on with Carol Browner, who was head of the Environmental Protection Agency when it brought suit against Duke for its coal plants. Probably not so bad, seeing as Browner was until recently the director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, and they were fine with Duke building two new nuclear reactors in South Carolina–the license for which was just granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.)
And look over there–why it’s Amy Myers Jaffe, big proponent of oil and gas for the James Baker Institute at Rice University. And there’s the president of the American Gas Association, and there’s the head of GHK, the oil and gas company that proudly touts itself as a pioneer in deep gas well drilling in Oklahoma. And ooh, oil man T. Boon Pickens, who now likes to talk wind, but not without talking about the real estate needed for the transmission lines. . . which also would do quite nicely for moving water, by the way. . . oh, and he still likes oil, too.
By the way, that Lee Edwards, the one at Virent, a big player in biogasoline, that’s not the Heritage Foundation Lee Edwards, that’s the Lee Edwards who used to be at BP.
But it was not an all pro-gas, pro-oil, pro-nuke, hydrofracking hydrocarbon love fest. No! Look closely, there are two–not one, but two–conference attendees that can squarely be called environmentalists: the esteemed Lester Brown of EPI, and Phil Radford, who has headed Greenpeace for the last three years. Both those men are solidly anti-nuclear and openly concerned about climate change. . . and there are two of them!
But these people probably get to see each other all the time. The New York Times wanted to mix it up with some of their staff–you know, reporters and columnists. To that end:
New York Times moderators will include:
Richard L. Berke, assistant managing editor;
Helene Cooper, White House correspondent;
Thomas Friedman, Op-Ed columnist;
Clifford Krauss, energy correspondent;
Joe Nocera, Op-Ed columnist;
Ashley Parker, Metro reporter;
and Jeff Zeleny, national political correspondent.
Now if all of this sounds to you a little like, oh, say, the World Economic Forum–you know, Davos–that is probably not a coincidence. Richard Attias–the guy that put this Times conference together–he used to run the events company that organized Davos. . . and the Clinton Global Initiative. . . and the Dalian Economic Summit in China. . . the list goes on.
But more importantly–maybe–it sounds an awful lot like the Washington Post’s mixers of industry powerbrokers, government officials, and newspaper reporters. No, it is not “off the record,” as the Post’s parties were advertized, and instead of soliciting payment for a seat at the table, the Times just pulled together major corporate “sponsors”–so perhaps it feels less hush-hush, less pay-to-play–but this was not a public party by any means. It was by invitation only. . . and you were not invited.
That special feeling
But don’t feel left out. You may not have gotten to have lunch with the giants of energy on Wednesday–but for $2.50 (or $3.75/week if you prefer the digital subscription), you could read the special Energy section in that day’s New York Times. And really, isn’t that just like being there?
Well, sadly, kind of.
The inclusion of the special section on the same day as the Times Forum was not some lucky coincidence. Instead, it read like a 10-page welcome mat for the energy executives and policymakers who made it up to Times Center. It was as if to say, “Your time here will not be wasted. We hear you. Behold, the power of synergy!”
Though reporting on the content of the forum has been surprisingly scant–what there is focuses on Secretary Chu’s story about manure and the conference’s general support for the Obama “all of the above,” uh, well, it is called a “strategy”–the Wednesday special section is chockablock with tasty stories, with headlines such as: “Fuel to Burn: Now What?” and “Natural Gas Signals ‘Manufacturing Renaissance,’” and who can resist “Renewable Sources of Power Survive, But in a Patchwork”?
But of special interest here is Matthew Wald’s piece, “Nuclear Power’s Death Somewhat Exaggerated.”
Now, Matthew Wald is not mentioned in the press release about the Times‘ Energy for Tomorrow Conference, so it is not clear if Wald got to have coffee with the powers behind our power, but his presence was hardly necessary–Wald already writes like he lives in Marvin Fertel’s hip pocket:
The [nuclear power] industry’s three great recent stumbling blocks, the Fukushima accident of March 2011, the exceptionally low price of natural gas and a recession that has stunted demand for power, mock the idea that dozens of new reactors are waiting in the wings. But in an era of worry over global warming, support is plentiful for at least keeping a toe in the water.
“Even if global warming science was not explicitly invented by the nuclear lobby, the science could hardly suit the lobby better,” complained a book published last month, “The Doomsday Machine,” a polemic on the evils of splitting the atom. In fact, the industry continues to argue that in the United States it is by far the largest source of zero-carbon energy, and recently began a campaign of upbeat ads to improve its image.
According to the authors of “The Doomsday Machine,” Martin Cohen and Andrew McKillop, “In almost every country — usually for reasons completely unrelated to its ability to deliver electricity — there is almost universal political support for nuclear power.”
That is probably an exaggeration, with Japan leaving almost all of its 54 reactors idle at the moment because of the Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown, and Germany promising to close its fleet. But China and India, two countries with enormous demand for electricity and not much hand-wringing over global warming, are planning huge reactor construction projects.
Admittedly, there is much to debate in Cohen and McKillop’s book (and debate it we will when I chat live, online with the authors of The Doomsday Machine during a Firedoglake Book Salon I am hosting on Sunday, April 22, at 5 PM EDT/2 PM PDT), but to quickly dismiss it as a “polemic” is to ignore hundreds of footnoted, glossaried and indexed pages on the history of the nuclear industry’s many near-death and rebirth experiences. It is, in many ways, the kind of story that fits quite nicely with Wald’s narrative, for while Cohen and McKillop are clearly not fans of civilian nuclear power, it is hard not to take from The Doomsday Machine a grudging admiration for the industry’s powers of mythmaking and influence peddling.
Take, for example, Wald’s unexamined–and oft-repeated–regurgitation of the nuclear sector’s claim that atomic power is “zero-carbon energy.” As is spelled out in The Doomsday Machine, and as has been detailed on this site, as well, nuclear power is quite the opposite–from uranium mining to fuel refining, from transport to waste storage, nuclear power models a carbon footprint that brings to mind Bambi Meets Godzilla. While many will likely be uncomfortable with the Cohen-McKillop approach to climate change (again, more on this during the April 22 book salon), Wald’s work itself stands as testament to the nuclear narrative’s ability to morph from “too cheap to meter” to “zero-carbon energy.”
As if to underline this point, Wald writes, without any apparent irony, that the reason America is now burdened with a fleet of 104 aged nuclear reactors that have not been upgraded since the 1980s is because “competition from other sources of electricity is strong.”
One wonders, too, about Wald’s take on climate change when he characterizes China and India as doing “not much hand-wringing over global warming.” Does Wald believe that the reaction in most of the rest of the northern industrialized world is just so much hand-wringing?
The blips about Japan and Germany are not smart or informative explanations, either. The tradition in Japan is that local governments have a say on whether reactors can restart, and while, yes, 53 of Japan’s 54 reactors are now offline as a result of either the Tohoku quake, the ongoing Fukushima crisis, or other maintenance concerns, the government of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is pushing hard to ignore precedent and bring nuclear plants back online over the objections of local residents.
In Germany, as has been observed here many times, the particulars of their parliamentary system left the previously pro-nuclear government of Angela Merkel looking for a new coalition partner in advance of the coming national elections, and the bargaining chip to potentially bring the Green Party into the next government was a change in nuclear policy. This is not a bad thing, mind you–the commitment to phasing out nuclear power in the next decade has allowed Germany to seize the moment and rocket to the forefront of nations gearing up for the next technical revolution (the post-hydrocarbon, renewable-energy revolution)–but it is not the same as the simple refutation in Wald’s story.
And the problems in Wald’s reporting extend beyond a mischaracterization of one book’s argument. Running throughout articles like this one, and throughout the New York Times’ energy coverage, in general, is the “gone native” taint of access journalism.
Boldfaced names impart authority, not just to the point in the story, but also to the journalist who got the quote. The higher up the food chain, be it in government or the corporate world, the more impressive the “get.” Having a senior administration official or a top industry spokesperson or CEO lends a shorthand gravitas to the story, and lends even more to a journalist’s “rolodex.”
To take the piece in question as one example, why waste precious column inches on explanations from any number of available engineers, experts and activists on why the AP1000 reactors just Okayed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would actually not have prevented a Fukushima-like disaster, and, quite possibly, could have made things worse? Instead, just get Jim Ferland, the recent president and chief executive of Westinghouse Electric, to say, “If an AP1000 had been there [in Japan], we wouldn’t be having this discussion today; that plant would be back on line.”
In fact, as readers of this space learned last year, the most exciting thing about the AP1000 reactor to the nuclear industry is that is uses less concrete and rebar, and lots of theoretically “off the shelf” parts, so that construction promises to be cheaper than it was for previous generations of light water reactors. The “passive” safety of the design is a nice story, but it has no real-world case study to add to the narrative. (Indeed, fears about what might happen to the skimpy containment of the AP1000 during a quake or explosion long ago earned it the nickname “the eggshell reactor.”)
That the real excitement here comes from cost savings and not safety is actually backed up by the penultimate paragraph of this same Times article. Wald again goes to Ferland, who says that because similar reactors have already been built in China, it will now be easier and faster (and, thus, cheaper) to build them here.
Funny enough, that very argument is debunked, and at great length, in The Doomsday Machine. Maybe Wald didn’t get that far, but the book details how France attempted to standardize and routinize its nuclear plant construction, and not only were no savings seen, the price of the facilities–and the price of the electricity they delivered–actually went up.
But again, that is another wordy explanation for why nuclear continues to fail to fulfill its promise, and not a pithy quote. Much more impressive, it would seem, are the assurances of a current member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission:
“It seems like every time something happens, you always get these prognostications this is the end, the nuclear industry has come to a halt,” said William D. Magwood IV, one of the five members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a former assistant secretary of energy in charge of promoting nuclear power.
. . . .
Mr. Magwood argues that the situation is not so dire, though, because the “renaissance” was never as big as some people assumed. He said he calculated in 2008 that of the 23 or so projects that were under discussion, only 12 were actually under development, and of those, only 10 faced no real licensing or technical hurdles. But only five of those had clear sources of financing. He assumed three would be in the first wave; now it is two. The industry insists that even its small-scale rebirth is a step forward. Those two pairs of reactors could lay the groundwork for more.
Wald does point out Magwood’s position on the NRC, and his former role as a promoter of nuclear power in the Department of Energy. It would probably break up the flow of the article to mention that Magwood has been embroiled in a power struggle with the Chairman of the NRC, Gregory Jaczko, in part because Jaczko has expressed slightly more concern that US nuclear facilities make safety upgrades to reflect lessons learned from the Fukushima crisis. (Magwood and three other members of the NRC have consistently opposed Jaczko on mandating any post-Fukushima reforms.)
But, as “bold” a “get” as Magwood might be, his argument, as relayed by Wald, folds in on itself. Forget that Wald starts this article with Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander’s call for 100 new reactors, and forget that the much pooh-poohed “polemic” by Cohen and McKillop recounts the history of promises many times this size (not to mention current assertions that hundreds, if not thousands, of new reactors are “essential” to either meet growing demand or mitigate climate change), Magwood’s own quote pretty much spells it out: the industry talks big, but they have little to really deliver. They call it a “renaissance,” but they hope that getting a pair of reactors up and running (in five to seven years, and at a cost of $14 billion or more, mind you) will “lay the groundwork for more.”
Hating the game–and its players
There is a funny parallel between the stories of two second-millennium industries trying hard to stay relevant in the third–how can they change to meet evolving needs, overcome economic challenges and adapt to technological revolutions? The difference, of course, is that while news reporting has served us well in the past and can continue to be necessary and important if done right, nuclear has only been a burden–ecological and economic–and has yet to demonstrate what “done right” actually means.
Working as a reporter in the post-millennial media environment is in many ways an unenviable task–demands for content rapidly increase while bureaus and support staffs are cut way back. You want to hate the game, and not the player, but it is hard when the players blur the distinctions between the sports.
Rubbing elbows at exclusive, industry-sponsored “forums” might make sense for corporate bottom lines, and it might make life a little easier–or at least a little more fun–for stressed-out scribes, but it does nothing, really, for the consumer. And that would be for the consumer of the energy product or the news product.
Perhaps access journalism seems like a natural consequence of the corporatization of media, but there is still enough good reporting out there to say that it doesn’t need to be. Inserts like the New York Times‘ special “Energy” section, however, are a logical outgrowth of corporate/government/fourth estate salons like Times Forum. Corporate underwriters want something for their investment of money, just as corporate and government big shots want something for their time. To the writers at a place like the Times, it might not feel like arm twisting or pay-to-play, but it is human nature to warm to those in the noblesse who convey a bit of oblige.
The dire problem here, of course, is that when it comes to matters as urgent as energy and climate–or as hazardous and costly as nuclear power–one reporter’s warm fuzzy becomes thousands or millions of people’s overheated and pointedly dangerous world.
If inviting everyone at every level to the highbrow hobnob might make it, shall we say, too “hot, flat, and crowded” at Times Center, then it is up to those lucky enough to be on the inside, those like Matt Wald, to stray beyond their comfort zone and question the powers-that-be a little harder about what they plan to use for power. Bite the hand that feeds you–as hard as that might seem when you are all sharing a box lunch.
As for a corporate media megalith like the Times, maybe this is what they do now–maybe, like the scorpion that can’t help but sting the frog, it is in their nature. But the consumer–of both news and energy–would be the frog in that analogy, and so it is all of our responsibility to make some pointed demands before blithely trusting that articulate arthropod. We want to be invited to the party, or at least get to see what goes into the cake before we are told to eat it.