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Inside Story: Beat Reporter’s Coverage Calls Out Natural Gas Proponents
“A rare mastery of science, politics, economics and law” — that praise greeted a series of stories on natural gas in the West from Sammy Roth of the Los Angeles Times, coverage that won him third place for Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large, in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 20th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. Judges said of Roth’s project: “He can transform potentially dry topics into eminently readable prose — always a challenge when it comes to utility firms. … He found that providers pushing gas over electricity have tried to align themselves with communities of color, even as those residents typically are most affected by gas emissions.”
SEJournal Online recently caught up with Roth to discuss his work on the beat. Here is the conversation.
SEJournal: How did you get your winning story idea?
Sammy Roth: Efforts to reduce natural gas consumption are at the leading edge of climate policy in California — and gas industry pushback offers a preview of the battles to come as climate advocacy in other parts of the country shifts from coal to gas. Southern California Gas Co., in particular, captured my attention because it's the nation's largest gas distribution utility, and because it's worked hard to cultivate a reputation as a force for civic good while also fighting climate action. As an energy reporter in California, I felt strongly that SoCalGas and the influential groups it's associated with should be a focus of my reporting.
SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the pieces and how did you solve that challenge?
Roth: Generally speaking, my biggest challenge writing about gas plants, gas appliances and gas utility regulation has been making the stories resonate for readers who aren't already invested in these wonky, technical topics. I think the key to bringing these stories to life has been staying focused on the climate imperative, and zeroing in on particular moments that illustrate the tactics being used by fossil fuel proponents to try to prevent gas bans — moments like the head of a union of SoCalGas employees threatening to hold a protest that could spread COVID-19, and a SoCalGas executive asking a Latina environmental justice activist how people would warm up their tortillas in a world without gas stoves.
I was definitely surprised by how some agencies and
politicians with a strong reputation for climate action
were comporting themselves with regard to natural gas.
SEJournal: What most surprised you about your findings?
Roth: I was definitely surprised by how some agencies and politicians with a strong reputation for climate action were comporting themselves with regard to natural gas (although maybe I shouldn't have been). The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, for instance, hid a methane leak at one of its gas-fired power plants for at least a year. And New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who signed a 100% clean energy law, quietly joined a fossil fuel industry-backed group working to promote liquefied natural gas exports. I think it goes to show how natural gas has largely managed to escape the same kind of scrutiny as other fossil fuels, at least until recently, because of its relatively lower emissions profile.
SEJournal: How did you decide to tell these stories and why?
Roth: As I mentioned previously, covering the natural gas industry feels like a crucial part of my job as an energy reporter in Southern California. The region is home to the nation's largest gas utility, as well as a powerful municipal electric utility (the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power) that gets much of its supply from gas plants. We also had the record-breaking Aliso Canyon methane leak a few years ago, which stemmed from a Southern California Gas storage field. And with California having mostly phased out coal power, stories about the role of gas in driving climate change have moved to the forefront.
SEJournal: Does the issue covered in your story have a disproportionate impact on people of low income, or people with a particular ethnic or racial background? What efforts, if any, did you make to include perspectives of people who may feel that journalists have left them out of public conversation over the years?
Roth: Yes, definitely. One of my stories was headlined, "The Fossil Fuel Industry Wants You To Believe It's Good for People of Color," and it focused on efforts by natural gas companies and their supporters to convince policymakers and the public that phasing out fossil fuels would actually harm disadvantaged communities. This story highlighted the perspectives of environmental justice groups including Pacoima Beautiful, which had previously taken SoCalGas money and supported the company's priorities; more recently, the group had stopped taking SoCalGas money and started calling out the company for actions it saw as harmful. I also wrote about how the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's decision to hide a methane leak at one of its gas-fired power plants was especially harmful for the heavily polluted, largely Latino neighborhood in which the plant was located.
I'm always reminding myself not to
lose sight of the technical, economic and
social challenges involved in reducing emissions.
SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your reporting?
Roth: I continue to cover the natural gas industry, and I'm learning all the time how important it is to take all perspectives seriously. As California increasingly moves toward all-electric heating and cooking, for instance, I've heard from chefs who love induction stoves; I've heard from other chefs who think induction is terrible and don't want to ditch gas. Gas industry workers concerned about their jobs need to be heard out, as do electric utility leaders who still aren't sure how they'll keep the lights on 24/7 without gas. Confronting climate change is the overarching imperative, but I'm always reminding myself not to lose sight of the technical, economic and social challenges involved in reducing emissions.
SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar coverage, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?
Roth: My main advice would be to find some good experts who can talk you through technical subjects like electric grid reliability, connections between the electric and gas grids, the process of natural gas liquefaction for export, etc. I rarely include those kinds of technical details in stories, but I find that understanding them, at least somewhat, helps me explain broader political, economic and social phenomena in an accurate and compelling way.
Sammy Roth covers energy for the Los Angeles Times and writes the weekly Boiling Point newsletter. He previously reported for the Desert Sun and USA Today, where he focused on renewable energy, climate change, electric utilities and public lands. He grew up in Los Angeles.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 35. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.