An Underdog Pulitzer Winner Exposes Shortcomings In Environmental Reporting

InsideClimate Dug Deep On A Tar Sands Spill The Media Overlooked

BP oil spill, Kalamazoo spill, and Arkansas spill. Will Keystone XL spill as well?Nearly three years ago, as reporters shifted their focus away from the Gulf oil spill, they managed to overlook a pipeline spill that happened just 10 days after the BP well was capped. Their oversight was a boon to a non-profit with only seven full-time employees, which recently beat leading national newspapers in the race for the national reporting Pulitzer Prize for its investigative reporting on that spill.

The non-profit InsideClimate's award-winning report on the oil spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River, titled “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside The Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of,” noted that the national press was uninterested in the spill:

Despite the scope of the damage, the Enbridge spill hasn't attracted much national attention, perhaps because it occurred just 10 days after oil stopped spewing from BP's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, which had ruptured three months earlier. Early reports about the Enbridge spill also downplayed its seriousness. Just about everybody, including the EPA officials who rushed to Marshall, expected the mess to be cleaned up in a couple of months.

The pipeline that leaked in Michigan was carrying bitumen extracted from tar sands and diluted with liquid chemicals, including the known human carcinogen benzene. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry the same type of crude. InsideClimate reported that officials initially were not aware that the pipeline was carrying diluted bitumen, or dilbit, and the characteristics of this heavy crude -- namely that it sunk to the river floor rather than floating like conventional light crude -- compounded challenges for the clean-up crew. Officials had to learn how to clean it up as they went along, helping make it the most costly pipeline spill on record.

Just last month, another pipeline carrying dilbit spilled in Arkansas, and this Saturday will mark the 3rd anniversary of the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which led to the largest offshore oil spill in history. A Media Matters study found that even after the recent Arkansas spill, media have continued to overlook the risk that the Keystone XL pipeline could spill dilbit into the large aquifer or the sensitive ecosystem it will cross. Pew Research found that less than a month after the BP oil well was capped, only 3 percent of news coverage focused on the spill, even though 44 percent of Americans said that they were still following the story more closely than any other issue.

These repeated plunges in coverage belie the impacts of oil spills, which are ongoing. Three years later, the BP spill is still harming many species critical to the Gulf's food chain. And as a The New York Times editorial stated, “The toll on the gulf and its marine life may not be known for years. The herring population of Alaska's Prince William Sound did not crash until three years after the Exxon Valdez spill.”

The dearth of long-term investigative reporting on oil spills also obscures the need for policy reform, which reports like InsideClimate's have exposed:

  • Should We Require Companies To Notify Officials If They're Transporting Dilbit? InsideClimate's report pointed out that federal regulations do not require pipeline operators to disclose the specific type of crude that their pipelines are carrying, as organizations such as Pipeline Safety Trust have advocated. This contributed to confusion as officials cleaned up the Kalamazoo River spill and decided whether benzene levels were too high for human safety.
  • Should We Increase Funding For The Oil Spill Liability Fund? A commission gathered after the BP oil spill recently reminded Congress that it has still not followed through on several of its recommendations. One of those recommendations was to raise the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund's limit on the funds available to federal agencies responding to a spill. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) has lobbied for legislation to end a tax loophole created in a 2011 Internal Revenue Service ruling that allows companies importing dilbit to avoid contributing to the fund.
  • Should We Increase Funding For The Agency In Charge Of Pipeline Safety? The New York Times reported in 2011 that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is “chronically short of inspectors and lacks the resources needed to hire more, leaving too much of the regulatory control in the hands of pipeline operators themselves.” President Barack Obama's 2013 budget would increase funding for the agency. Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's budget does not specify how much PHMSA should receive, but it recommended slashing funding for the Department of Transportation, which encompasses PHMSA.
  • Should We Study Dilbit Before Building New Pipelines? InsideClimate's Pulitzer-winning report stated: “Some environmental organizations say dilbit is so acidic and abrasive that it's more likely to corrode and weaken pipes than conventional oil. The oil industry disputes that hypothesis. It says dilbit is no different from conventional crude. No independent scientific research has been done to determine who is right.” InsideClimate publisher David Sassoon later stated in an August 2012 New York Times op-ed: "[W]hile [pipeline safety legislation recently passed by Congress] does require a study of how dilbit affects pipeline corrosion, the scientists conducting that study met for the first time only last month, and their work is not likely to be completed before new pipelines are built or old ones are repurposed."

Covering how underdog InsideClimate won a Pultizer Prize, US News reported that the website looks for “gaps” in the media:

Publications like InsideClimate focus on the “gaps” - a term used by both [publisher David] Sassoon and [Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism associate director] Jurkowitz - created by the massive staff cuts at newspapers across the country, be it geographical or in niche topics like climate change.

“They're not trying to replicate what the daily news publications do,” says Jurkowitz. Instead by picking a specialty, even staffs as small as theirs can dig into the deep reporting that daily newspapers are doing less and less of.

“We think old-fashioned, shoe leather investigative reporting is the life blood of our democracy. We want to keep that alive,” says Sassoon.

Mainstream media outlets should look hard at these gaps to examine why, for instance, The Wall Street Journal has not won a Pulitzer for news reporting since Rupert Mudoch took over in 2007. InsideClimate's Pulitzer hints at some of the culprits: a press corps with dwindling environmental reporters, a short attention span, and a propensity for stenography over investigative reporting.