The Backstory: Adam Federman

Reporting on a slow-moving catastrophe

Type Investigations reporting fellow Adam Federman has spent the last few years reporting on government policy on oil and gas development on public lands — particularly how it has affected the Arctic. For his latest piece, “The Big Thaw,” produced in partnership with Sierra Magazine, Adam traveled to Alaska and spoke to scientists and residents about the ‘slow disaster’ of climate change induced permafrost thaw and how its already affecting life in Alaska.

In this conversation, we discuss how he started reporting on the government’s role in fossil fuel development, the importance of emphasizing the human impacts of climate change, and the difficulty of communicating complex science.

Paco Alvarez: A lot of your reporting in the past few years has been about the Department of the Interior and its role in facilitating the expansion of the oil and gas industry on public lands, especially in the Arctic. How did you start reporting on the Interior Department?

Adam Federman: It was sort of an interesting evolution. I didn’t have any experience covering a federal agency before 2017. It was after Trump was elected, and we sort of realized and knew that there was going to be a significant shift in the approach to public land management, especially as it relates to oil and gas development. So Interior is an interesting agency because it’s composed of many different bureaus, each with its own mandate and mission, from the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to Bureau of Land Management, which is the agency that oversees oil and gas development onshore. So it was really with Type Investigations basically strategizing about how to approach what we knew was going to be a significant shift to some extent in policy related to oil and gas development on public lands. So that was the beginning.

Alvarez: And you often investigate both the policy changes and the impacts they have on people on the ground. How have you gone about developing sources both within the government and in the communities directly affected by those changes?

Federman: Yeah, I mean, it was a steep learning curve for me because as I said, I hadn’t covered a federal agency and I didn’t have any kind of a blueprint in terms of how you go about cultivating sources. The obvious way and the way that I sort of approached it was to find individuals who had served in the agency under the previous administration or who had retired, and to start there and then figure out how I could find and approach people who were still working at the department.

And over time, that was effective. And I was able to find different—I mean, as I mentioned before, DOI is strange in some ways because it is composed of these bureaus with very different missions and mandates. So in terms of cultivating sources, you really do have to cast a wide net and each agency has its own culture. I’ve done a lot of reporting, for example, on the US Geological Survey, which is very much a sort of a pure, for lack of a better word, science agency that doesn’t really get involved in policymaking. But under the Trump administration, with the amount of interference in science, and climate science in particular, the US Geological Survey became sort of hugely politicized and there was a lot of dissatisfaction within the agency so a number of people ended up communicating with me, and a lot of my reporting focused on what was happening there at the agency.

But as you mentioned, these stories are always connected to issues that affect people’s lives. So in some ways, that’s easier in the sense that you’re on the ground and you find people in these places who are being impacted by land, oil and gas development or—I did a story on a proposed lithium mine in Nevada, for example, and traveled there to do the reporting for that story. So you ultimately just have to find the people who are usually active in either opposing or in some cases promoting these development projects and sort of take it from there.

Alvarez: And what was it like covering these issues during the Trump administration? And has it been different since Biden took office?

Federman: Yeah, it’s a good question. In a lot of ways under Trump, it was pretty exciting on the one hand because things were moving so quickly and the stakes were high. For example, with the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, it was a high priority for the Department of the Interior, and the refuge was open to development through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which was passed in 2017. So it was like right out of the gate they were determined to get this done. And this is an area that’s been contested for four decades and protected. So covering that in real time and trying to get the story out, which was how the administration was handling the environmental review process, was fast paced and it was compelling. And it also felt like it could potentially make a difference.

Things are quite different. I mean, in a lot of ways it’s harder to get information out of the department now. I think the Biden administration is much more disciplined and tight-lipped, and it’s harder to find people who have access to information that I’m interested in, for example. Especially as it relates to oil and gas leasing, which is still a huge issue and an area where things have not perhaps changed as much as people might have hoped or expected with the change in administrations.

Alvarez: Your newest story is about the slow disaster of thawing permafrost in the Arctic and especially how it’s affecting Alaska and the Alaska Native population. How did you first become aware of the problems permafrost thaw is causing in Alaska?

Federman: Most of Alaska is on permafrost, which is something I didn’t quite appreciate, even though it’s in the Arctic, but something like 80 to 85 percent of the state is actually on top of permafrost. And I think just paying attention to environmental issues in Alaska, it’s something that comes up a lot, both in terms of how it affects everyday life from whether your house might be sinking or collapsing because of thawing permafrost or in terms of bigger picture questions like how is thawing permafrost going to ultimately impact future warming with the emissions that are going to come with the thawing permafrost.

So I mean, that’s not a very satisfactory answer, but I think it was just something that was in sort of in the back of my mind, something I’d been paying attention to at a distance and realized that it often gets talked about in somewhat abstract terms. You know, is there a carbon bomb that’s going to go off as permafrost thaws? Or the Arctic is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the planet, we’ve got wildfires raging in Siberia and record temperatures, etc. But I felt like the way the issue was being presented in the mainstream media didn’t usually connect those threads to people who live in the region and the Arctic is remote and it is sparsely populated. But you’ve still got millions of people living in towns and cities scattered across this vast region. So I think my hope was to try to connect those dots.

Alvarez: Yeah. And related to that, your story does a great job of balancing kind of like the science-y aspects of climate change induced permafrost thaw and the human aspects that are already happening in Alaska. You ended up traveling to the Alaska Native village of Selawik and speaking to residents there. Why did you pick Selawik? And were people in Selawik open to speaking with you?

Federman: Yeah Selawik was not a place that I had heard of until I started talking to some of the permafrost researchers in the early days of reporting the story and one in particular, a guy named Torre Jorgensen, who used to be a professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and has done a lot of work on permafrost in Alaska, mentioned Selawik to me. It’s a relatively small village in the northwestern part of Alaska, relatively close to the Chukchi Sea so it is impacted by the increase in melting of sea ice, and it’s also on permafrost so it’s dealing with all of the related impacts. And it’s also a place that has gotten a certain amount of attention from other public health researchers and scholars interested in this question.

So almost 10 years ago, there was a very comprehensive, well done report on the impacts of climate change in Selawik. So part of the reason why I wanted to focus my reporting there was that I knew that there was an understanding of the issue in this particular place and sort of a baseline against which I could measure how much things have changed basically since this this report came out raising the alarm about the impacts of thaw in Selawik and suggested that the village could even become sort of a model for addressing impacts of climate change in the Arctic. So it seemed like for all of those reasons like a place that would be worth revisiting.

And to your second question, the people there were just hugely open to talking about the issue and other related elements. So we arrived and it was June and the place is accessible only by aircraft, so there are no roads actually in the village. They have a rather extraordinary maze of elevated boardwalks that people ride around on ATVs on to get from one place to another. And that’s because of the fact that it’s on permafrost and you can’t build paved roads in a place where the ground is going to be sinking. It’s a remarkable place. And I think it’s sort of an excellent example of what’s happening and what we’re going to see more of across Alaska and the Arctic more broadly.

Alvarez: So you also spoke to a lot of scientists about their research into the effects of permafrost thaw. How did you make those connections? And how do you think about the challenge of presenting complicated scientific information in a way that’s compelling and accessible to a general audience?

Federman: I mean, it’s a pretty tight knit community of researchers. So once you make contact with a couple, the introduction is there to many others. I mean, I should add, though, that I was focusing on Alaska and the Arctic is a big place and I don’t want to pretend that I covered the whole region because Siberia, for example, I think, makes up about 70 percent of the Arctic landmass. And there are a handful of Russian scientists at University of Alaska-Fairbanks, including one of the leading permafrost researchers, Vladimir Romanovsky. So they’re very familiar with the bigger picture of course. And eager to talk about it because they want this information out there, they want to be able to communicate with the public about what’s happening, absolutely. And I think the researchers that I spoke with are recognizing that the changes that are coming and sort of already in motion are going to be much more significant perhaps than they anticipated, especially as it relates to impacts on infrastructure and sort of everyday life.

And then the second part of the question, I mean, that’s something that I think that all journalists who write about complex scientific issues have to figure out how to tell the story without obviously getting sucked into the minutia and the jargon that goes along with it. So that just takes time and obviously finding the storyline. Another part of the Selawik story that I was drawn to was the fact that there was this massive, they call it a thaw slump where a huge chunk of basically the river bank collapsed in the early 2000s, 2004, 2005 and this was up river one hundred and seventy miles or so, but had had an impact both on the ecosystem, on the water quality in the village, et cetera. And this phenomenon is increasingly common across the Arctic, these massive thaw events. So, finding those elements that are going to be both compelling and also help you tell the story through the science, that was sort of something that I was thinking about as I reported the piece.

Alvarez: And so my last question is, what was the biggest challenge you encountered while reporting the story from?

Federman: I mean, in some ways, it relates to what you just asked about, how to communicate the complexity of something like this. I mean, permafrost thaw is just—I mean understanding how it works or what’s happening. Part of the challenge is actually that a lot of the questions remain unanswered. I did do a sidebar piece with this story on the question of methane emissions and CO2 emissions from thaw, which is something that scientists are scrambling to better understand right now because obviously it will have an impact on future warming. So you’re dealing both with questions that scientists have not yet been able to answer and also with a set of issues that’s highly complex. So I think that that probably was the greatest challenge other than getting out to Alaska during a pandemic and all the rest.

About the reporter