From securing access to interview an oil executive to maneuvering through complicated scientific arguments, reporters covering energy, utilities and mining need to be aware of the challenges of covering the beat. Below are a few of the top hurdles.
What goes up, goes down
Historically, commodity markets experience alternating periods of abundance or scarcity. The length of these periods varies, but generally what comes up, eventually comes down.
During boom periods, many observers of energy prices seem to think in apocalyptic terms. But technological innovation can play a surprising role in the availability of new resources. For example, in recent years oil companies have learned how to tap deep-water and tight-rock reservoirs once though unattainable, and now they’re heading to the Arctic, which the U.S. Geological Survey says contains vast amounts of oil and gas.
Navigating through scientific controversy
Reporters writing about energy in particular will have to wade through scientific arguments in the course of their beat – so they should be comfortable to engage with academic actors, read up on the topic, and keep the salt shaker at hand. A prime example is the controversy about natural gas shale: many environmentalists, backed by prestigious universities, say that extracting gas through hydraulic fracturing, which involves breaking up tight rocks with jets of high-pressure water, can result in the pollution of water resources near natural gas wells. Oil companies deny this, arguing in many cases that the natural gas seeps naturally into reservoirs. To write fairly and authoritatively about this requires a lot of in-depth and fair reporting.
Reporters should be mindful of hype, follow scientific trends closely, and look at every angle of a story.
When quoting non-governmental organizations taking a stance on one issue or another, reporters should follow the money: see if a pro-fracking association is funded by the energy industry, or if an anti-fracking study is funded by the coal industry (producers of a competing fuel) or environmental activists. Financial backing doesn’t invalidate opinions or arguments, but readers should know whether they come from interest-backed groups.
Oil and mining companies built fortunes on keeping secrets: where they are going to drill or mine is information that their competitors can use to buy leases next door.
To break through the ice, reporters must become experts on their beat – take a tour of the companies’ facilities, meet their executives, understand their business. That will enable you to ask intelligent questions, and most importantly, understand the answers.
Also be ready to pore into the fine print of financial statements – that usually contains good nuggets of information related to operational performance or new lawsuits faced by the companies.