Uninspected wells: Finding local dangers in a sea of federal data

A team of Associated Press journalists across the states worked together to break an exclusive national story and help member news organizations leverage data to produce unique, local reports tied to AP’s findings. In this memo to staff, AP Vice President and Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains:

In this June 9, 2014 photo, a petroleum industry worker stands on an oil and gas rig on a well pad, in New Castle, a small farming and ranching settlement on the Western Slope of the Rockies, in Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

In this June 9, 2014 photo, a petroleum industry worker stands on an oil and gas rig on a well pad, in New Castle, a small farming and ranching settlement on the Western Slope of the Rockies, in Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

The report from the Government Accountability Office was intriguing: The government had failed to inspect thousands of oil and gas wells on federal and Indian lands classified as potentially high risk for water contamination and other environmental damage.

But the details were missing. Where were these wells? And did the lack of inspections contribute to any environmental damage?

The Bureau of Land Management was reluctant to provide details, but Washington-based reporter Hope Yen, who broke the story on the GAO report, pressed the agency over the course of several weeks, citing the public’s right to know.

The GAO’s findings came as the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been increasing around the country. While fracking has produced major economic benefits, it also has raised fears among environmentalists that chemicals used in the process could spread to water supplies.

When BLM finally released the data to AP, it was in the form of nearly a dozen spreadsheets. Phoenix-based Interactive Editor Dan Kempton, a member of the data journalism team, consolidated them into two master files, allowing calculations to determine which wells on federal and tribal lands were considered higher risk for water contamination and other environmental problems, and whether or not they were inspected by BLM within the given time period, 2009-2012.

Kempton identified, and BLM later confirmed, that its data had duplicate entries and other inconsistencies. Kempton consolidated the duplicates and merged the missing entries to create the most complete and accurate list available of well inspection data. The consolidated spreadsheets were then distributed in advance to AP bureaus and members in states with drilling operations on public and Indian lands, so they could start working on localized stories to accompany Yen’s national overview.

But the data alone was dry. Absent was the human impact. What was the reaction of people living near these uninspected wells?  With Colorado among the top states with uninspected wells, Denver reporter Thomas Peipert and photographer Brennan Linsely literally knocked on door after door to gather reaction and get photos to illustrate the story.

The story was used on the front pages of more than a dozen newspapers from Denver to Akron, Ohio, to Williamsport, Pa., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. It was featured as a Yahoo showcase, and in the 24-hour period following its release, it was tweeted out nearly 600 times. It was also one on the most widely viewed stories on AP Mobile. About a dozen AP bureaus produced state separates, and many members did their own stories using data provided by AP (The Salt Lake Tribune, Times Leader).

It was yet another example of how data journalism offers AP an opportunity to work with its members to provide the tools for local, granular coverage of national issues.

For their enterprising and exclusive journalism, and for furthering AP’s efforts to help members localize our coverage, Yen, Kempton, Peipert and Linsely win this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Q&A: Uncovering the dirty cost of green energy

The Associated Press today published a major investigative report by Washington bureau journalists Dina Cappiello and Matt Apuzzo showing that the ethanol era has proved far more damaging to the environment than the government has acknowledged.

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they touched off a cascade of unintended consequences, including wiping out millions of acres of conservation land, polluting water and destroying habitat.

Ted Bridis

Ted Bridis

Here, Ted Bridis, the lead editor on the months-long investigation, describes what went into reporting the hidden, dirty cost of this green energy source:

What prompted AP to explore the topic of ethanol?
This year, among other stories, the Washington investigative team has been exploring some of the little-known costs and consequences of green energy. This project developed out of reporting by and conversations with Dina Cappiello, our excellent environmental reporter, who was “loaned” to our investigations team in the newsroom away from her everyday specialty beat responsibilities to work on some longer-term reporting efforts.

What were the most striking findings?
We were able to conservatively quantify how many acres farmers had set aside for conservation purposes but, driven in part by Washington’s biofuels mandate, had been converted to crops. The figure was at least five million acres _ more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined _ that have vanished on President Barack Obama’s watch.

We also conducted by computer a satellite-imagery analysis to show how many more acres of pristine grassland in the Corn Belt had been plowed into cornfields or soybeans since 2006, the year before the ethanol mandate passed. Insiders revealed to our reporters how the government’s analysis of ethanol’s carbon dioxide footprint was flawed and influenced by input from the industry. But in many ways no one in government is keeping track of its environmental toll.  

I also think one of our findings was how friendly and accommodating we found farmers and others in the Midwest when our journalists visited and explained the story we were investigating; many farmers, especially, explained they were genuinely conflicted by economic forces, chasing corn profits at the expense of continued conservation.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in reporting this project?
The tale of U.S. ethanol policy is complicated for many different audiences: farmers, motorists, policy makers, politicians, environmentalists, farmers, scientists and others. Turning months of reporting about agricultural and energy policies, scores of interviews and hefty data analyses into a narrative that readers will find compelling and informative is always a challenge.

How did you draw on AP’s resources — around the world and in the 50 states — to do it?
This project represents the efforts of dozens of AP journalists, photographers, video producers, data experts, editors and others who helped in its production

See the AP reporting here, which includes companion photos, video and a detailed interactive. Join a conversation about the AP’s reporting on ethanol today at 3 p.m. ET on Reddit.