The Strib began overhauling its editorial board nine months ago, so it shouldn’t surprise that certain editorial positions have changed. In general, the page has shucked its rep as a lefty lightning rod; on some days, it’s hard to find a call to action at all.
But a Sunday, June 29, editorial clearly moved away from the paper’s reliably pro-environment rhetoric. Writers pointedly accused offshore oil drilling opponents of “turning the issue into an ill-informed litmus test of environmental credentials. A knee-jerk ‘no’ has equaled a green candidate. A politician wanting to discuss the issue is derided as a pawn of Big Oil. … The snap judgment approach is unfortunate.”
Even though many economists link surging prices to fundamental supply-demand gaps, with new offshore oil years from market, the Strib breathily declared: “Just the possibility that domestic oil supplies are expanding would likely deter speculators, sending prices down.” (Emphasis mine.)
Worried about spills? “Though some environmental advocates dispute this, drilling technology has advanced over the past quarter century. Oil companies can drill more efficiently in deeper water with significantly less risk to the environment.”
But there was one unnoted fact: The company that bought the Strib last year is heavily invested in that technology.
Avista Capital Partners, which raised $2 billion in 2006, has more investments in energy (seven) than its other sectors, health care (six) and media (five). It’s impossible to tell which segment accounts for the bulk of the private company’s revenue, but the company’s offshore drilling concentration is undeniable and includes:
Blake Offshore. The Metairie, La.-based company touts itself as “the only remaining privately held Offshore Rig provider left in the United States.” Avista invested $51 million in September 2006.
Frontier Drilling. The Houston-based Frontier operates and manages “conventional drillships, semi-submersibles and floating production, storage and offloading vessels,” its website says. Avista invested $27 million in the company in September 2006.
Peregrine Oil & Gas. Another Houston firm, Peregrine “conducts exploration development and production operations in the Gulf of Mexico.” Avista is listed as one of four primary equity investors who pumped in $160 million, though its share isn’t specified.
Geokinetics Inc. A third Houston company, Geokinetics provides shallow-water cable and seismic data “between land and deep marine,” according to its website. Avista invested $100 million in September 2006.
The company’s three other energy sector holdings — Celtique Energie, Manti Exploration and Laramie Energy II — are on-shore companies.
Now, Avista’s holdings and the Strib’s editorial position could be a coincidence. Writing a pro-drilling editorial isn’t beyond the pale; however, not acknowledging the very specific corporate conflict of interest is.
Editorials are the one place in a paper where the business side formally exerts influence: Publisher Chris Harte sits on the editorial board. And while Harte isn’t an Avista Capital partner, he’s a Strib co-owner – the partners’ partner, in other words.
I emailed Editorial Page editor Scott Gillespie to see if Harte played a role in the June 28 editorial; he said he’d “pass” on the question. As I think about it, I’m not sure it matters very much, and establishing direct owner-to-writer influence isn’t really the point, either.
The bottom line is that readers would’ve been better informed had the editorial included this sentence: “Full disclosure: Star Tribune owner Avista Capital Partners has several offshore drilling investments.” Gillespie declined to offer his opinion on this, too.
Let’s face it, if Strib reporters were writing about another company or powerful pol, they’d eagerly note this level of entanglement. The Strib editorial page should hold itself to at least that standard, which doesn’t demand an actual conflict but merely its perception.
Where does it end? Does the Strib have to append a disclaimer any time it writes about oil or med-tech, or media? When the corporate interests are advanced this precisely, yes.
A couple of side notes:
The editorial preserved the paper’s long-held opposition to drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge; I couldn’t find any Avista investments in the 49th state, though some of its broader energy-equipment holdings might profit.
Also, my own full disclosure: Two ex-editorial board members, Susan Albright and Steve Berg, now write for Minnpost.com but didn’t inspire or inform this piece.