EU Referendum

Media: technical illiteracy


000a Times 027-sha.jpg

Quite by coincidence, the last three blogpost we have published involve stories where the legacy media have got their facts badly wrong or where their "take" misses the point or severely distorts the position.

First, there was the "cuts" story where there simply is no reduction in public spending; then there was the supposed "cave-in" by the European Parliament over the EU budget, which turns out to be quite the reverse – a surrender by member state governments. And then there are the energy stories, the one strand telling us of imminent power cuts and the other parading our shale gas "reserves".

On this latter context, we see The Times editorial (paywall - extract above) happily chirping about the "British Geological Society's latest estimate of Britain’s shale gas reserves".

Notwithstanding that Danny Alexander did mention the "1,300 trillion cubic feet" figure, the point is that the BGS did not make any estimates of potential reserves. In fact, as it has gone to some lengths to explain in its report, it has studiously avoided making any estimates (see para 2.2. Resources vs. reserves).

In simple terms, the BGS says, the resource estimate for any shale gas play is the amount of gas in the ground (some of which might never be produced), while the reserve estimate is a more speculative measure which describes the amount of gas that you might be able to extract given appropriate technology, economics and other factors.

And because of the common confusion in the media between the terms, "resource" and "reserve", the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology recently issued a briefing note on "Resource and Reserve Terminology", making clear the difference.

Needless to say, all this passes-by the mighty "Thunderer", a newspaper that once claimed to be the paper of record. Scholars still to this day refer to its archives as a reliable record or what might have transpired.

Its technical illiteracy is shared by Sky News, by Channel 4 News, but just to prove it can be done, the Financial Times gets it right, unlike the august Wall Street Journal, which manages to confuse itself as well as its readers.

In this case, the distinction The Times fails to make demonstrates that its journalists have not read the original report – had they done so, they could not have missed the warnings. And the distinction is much, much more than academic pedantry.

Depending on the precise conditions under the ground, the recovery factor (the percentage of the resource that can be commercially recovered) can range from about 15 percent to zero. Until very recently, when the technology had improved, the recovery factor has been zero.

And until there can be some estimates as to the reserves, based on further exploration, trial drilling and technology development and proving, there is going to be no significant commercial exploitation of the resource. This might take some years.

Thus, for The Times airily to proclaim that, "the country needs companies to start drilling now" is both premature and superficial. This is "man-in-pub" commentary. If its readers want better, they have to go elsewhere.