A public policy analyst, oil expert, and narrative storyteller, Juhasz believes that understanding the impacts of economic power begins with examining oil corporations and the environmental exploitation that they carry out across the globe. Since she began investigating “the devil’s excrement” (as, Juhasz explains, Venezuelan Oil Minister and OPEC co-founder Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo described oil in the 1970s), as an independent investigative journalist in approximately 2000, Juhasz’s work has elevated the stories and voices of those who’ve suffered injustices at the hands of the oil giants.
Her first book, The Bush Agenda: Invading the World One Economy at a Time (William Morrow 2006), tells the story of corporate influence on and relationship to the Bush administration and the oil industry’s ties to the Iraq War; The Tyranny of Oil: the World’s Most Powerful Industry and What We Must Do to Stop It (William Morrow 2008) offers a powerful overview of the political history of oil and how certain companies came to hold so much power; and Black Tide: the Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill (John Wiley and Sons 2011) breaks down what happened to those on the Deepwater Horizon rig, as well as the people and ecosystems of the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of the spill. She’s reported in both long and short forms about oil and the environment for publications such as Newsweek, Rolling Stone, CNN.com, The Atlantic, and The Nation, among others; has been a finalist for the Reed Environmental Writing Award; and has been nominated for a GLAAD Media Award. Her June 2015 story for Harper’s, “Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea,” will be featured in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
When Juhasz and I spoke over Skype in April, she’d had a typically busy few weeks: She investigated the Koch Industries-owned oil refinery in Minneapolis, Minnesota which refines Canadian tar sands oil; she was then in Houston, Texas to write a piece for Rolling Stone on the six-year anniversary of the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico; she spoke about fracking at the University of Colorado, Boulder in honor of Earth Day, and appeared on Democracy Now! in Denver, Colorado to discuss the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement. Juhasz’s energy and commitment to her work is evident in her words; she does not pretend to not have an opinion, and this is what endows her work with such a strong sense of environmental justice.
From her apartment in San Francisco, Juhasz spoke about the arc of her career as a writer, how she approaches the research and investigation process, the infrastructure of her life as a journalist, and how her work has evolved with the oil industry.
I was interested in the quote you have as part of your email signature. “Do you know what they will find when they reach Mars? They will find Americans out there in the desert hunting for oil.” I’m curious about how you chose that quote and how it fits in with the work that you do.
When I was writing my second book, The Tyranny of Oil, I was doing a lot of investigation into the oil industry and came upon that quote [by King Abdel Aziz of Saudi Arabia], and for me, it’s just very telling: going all the way back to 1938, there’s a view of Americans as oil hungry and there being absolutely no limits to it.
One of my areas of research is how companies are now looking to mine other planets. There are international agreements being written on mining space and how to divvy up rights to meteors and planets and who gets the rights to those resources, and so that quote is not that far off. Mars is being analyzed right now for its mineral content, and it’s not at all beyond reason to think that when the fossil fuel industry has succeeded in trashing this planet they don’t see that as the end. They see that as the next opportunity to go onto the next planet.
A slide that I use a lot in presentations includes two quotes, one from a Chevron executive saying (roughly), “In the future we’re going to need to use every drop of oil that can be found everywhere, every molecule of oil,” and then a person from the group Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit organization, saying (roughly), “To get to the last oil you have to kill people, you have to kill wild things.” And that’s the sort of struggle that we’re at. I think it’s important to get that historical view: that we’ve basically been pursuing the same agenda for a very long time and unless we significantly change course, we’re going to end up with oil companies “mining Mars” rather than accepting that what is needed is not only ending our use of fossil fuels, but changing the way we consume natural resources.
You started off working for the federal government after getting your Masters in Public Policy from Georgetown. What was that like and how did that influence your transition to journalism? What was the timeline of that?
Both my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in Public Policy. I went to work on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant in D.C. and came to realize fairly quickly that I couldn’t do the work I went there to do to achieve the goals I wanted to achieve, the primary reason being something that I hadn’t understood before: the overwhelming influence of corporations on government policy making. And so I left Capitol Hill to focus on researching and advocacy on corporate power and that quickly led me to the top of the food chain, which is the oil industry. I started doing research and advocacy on the oil sector and the more writing I did, the more I was asked to write for newspapers and magazines, and the more I realized that there hadn’t been a critique of the oil industry—a real critical look of the industry—done as a book since the mid 1970s. We needed to understand this industry better, and so I decided to write my second book, The Tyranny of Oil, just focused on the oil industry.
In-between each book I wrote, my work sort of transformed from policy analysis to fresh, on the ground reporting, and I was increasingly asked by news outlets to write and report for them. That particularly came with Black Tide, where I was basically embedded in those communities most impacted by the BP Oil Spill—from fisher folk to environmentalists to oil workers and policy makers. I was generating a lot of original reporting at that time and being asked to do more, and that really made me see that I should be turning my policy analysis hat more towards investigative work and investigative journalism.
I was offered a fellowship with the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, and that funded my investigations in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which I wrote about in Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic. I was increasingly invited by magazines to do investigative reporting and I received funding from foundations to support my work, so I’ve been able to really dedicate myself to independent investigative journalism and writing. It just sort of unfolded that way. I think that my work has filled a need. For many, many, many years, the only reporting on the oil sector was exclusive to the financial press, and occasionally you would see an oil spill, for example, that would sort of wander into the work of an environmental reporter, or a political reporter would come upon oil money influencing politics, but it would be secondary. These areas were still seen primarily as silos—environment, economics, politics—in reporting.
When you’re approaching a story now, as you’ve shifted more towards on-the-ground-reporting as your primary focus, where do you start? Do you usually engage people in the sharing of stories or start with data and research, or where do you begin when you’re looking at a story or situation?
When I write, there are two types of writing that I do. Some of the writing is just information that has to get out. I want to provide an analysis of something that’s happened, and it’s really informational. The other type of writing is narrative storytelling, and for my narrative storytelling, there’s always a character, a subject, a compelling person who carries the reader through the story, who is the person that we care about and empathize with, or are concerned about, or are angry with. That person is our guide. For me, in most of my writing, it’s somebody whom we empathize with and want to learn more about.
For me, there’s also a really important statistic that came out in 2014 identifying that less than 15% of those quoted or interviewed in major print, broadcast, and cable outlets in the U.S. about the UN climate talks were women. That is a fairly typical phenomenon that’s pretty typical to the media, and what’s interesting is, that lack of coverage means women are absent from stories, and it has continued even though the percentage of women journalists and editors has risen. Women who are doing journalism aren’t changing the coverage of women in stories. Learning that statistic solidified for me something that already I’d been doing and a gap that I’d already seen, which is that women’s stories weren’t being reported. So typically you will see women as the main characters in my stories because those are voices that just aren’t being heard proportionally.
Another reason I write this way was supported by a recent study I read of how the brain works. It showed that readers have to stay with a story for 30 minutes before they empathize with the character in the story. This is something I had intuitively understood already, and it leads me, when I can, to longform. It is one of the reasons why I lean towards longer articles.
In reading your writing, Black Tide and other articles you’ve written, there is a blend that’s so artfully done between the science behind oil and the hard facts of what’s happening, but then you also have an amazing way of humanizing these stories. Your piece for Ms. Magazine is centered around the activist work of four different women in particular. I was interested in how you chose those voices and those particular stories.
The Ms. article was a response to two things that I experienced at Paris [the Paris Climate Agreement negotiations]. One was, I did six articles for Newsweek as part of my Paris reporting, but what I was really struck by in reflecting on the whole event was that the Paris Climate Agreement is important, there are some good things that are achieved with it, but there are a lot of problems with it as well. It’s very much not the end story. It’s not: “The Climate Agreement is signed and now we can all go home and not worry about climate change anymore.”
What was even more compelling was this movement that I saw in Paris, this incredible energy and spirit and organizing of activists that had come together of all different stripes from all over the world, who committed their time and energy and money to be in Paris and to meet other activists so that when they went home, they could be part of this much bigger global movement.
Inside the climate negotiations it was a very male world. Most of the negotiators are men, the vast majority of the government representatives are men—it was a very male-dominated space. And then you went outside to these endless amazing teach-in events and press events and protests and art events and theater and you name it that the activists are holding, and it was a very female-dominated space.
I wanted to capture that difference and really show readers what was happening in Paris, which was all of these amazing women coming together to build answers to the climate crisis and that they were women of all different walks of life. In the article I show an age range of 18 to, I think, almost 50—women from Bahrain, Ethiopia, Los Angeles, Oklahoma.
Many of your stories unfold over the course of years and months, and they necessitate a lot of time. I know from reading Black Tide that you spent a lot of time down in the Gulf of Mexico, and I think about the relationships you developed with the people you were writing about and working with to tackle these topics, such as Dr. Samantha Joye (a prominent scientist specializing in biogeochemistry who led the first research trip into the Gulf after the 2010 spill), over years and years of conversations.
She’s wonderful, yes. She’s a very special person to that reporting; I’m glad you picked her out. I only met her because I was writing the book and she was someone everyone led me to as in, “You have to talk to Dr. Joye.” As I wrote that book, the key people I decided to cover, I stayed in their homes, I spent time with their families, I tried to imbed in their lives and they and Dr. Joye allowed me to do that. That’s a really important part of getting to know the characters and humanize them. Then, even more excitingly, because I had built up that relationship with her, several years later when she had the opportunity to lead a scientific research mission into the Gulf of Mexico and she could invite one reporter with her, she invited me.
That’s not to say that she necessarily agreed with everything I wrote, but she respected how I wrote. Getting close to characters doesn’t mean that you’re then writing for them—you’re still writing for the audience. You’re still writing for your outlet. And you’re still a journalist. And so that can also create challenges because you want to get close to someone to write well about them, but your responsibility is not to that person. It’s to the story and to the investigation.
I can imagine that these long investigations become characters in and of themselves, too, over time. I’m thinking particularly of the BP oil spill in 2010 and all of your reporting on the story since then. Recently for Rolling Stone, you wrote about the largest environmental settlement in U.S. history over that spill. Following and chasing these stories across the U.S. or across the globe, what does that look like in practical terms, and what are some of the frustrations and challenges that come along with that? It’s an extensive amount of time and life energy.
I’ve been covering the BP Oil Spill for six years. It’s not something I planned to do and it became a huge part of my life; it continues to be. Basically, I have to be prepared to be able to go where a story takes me. I’m in a very unique position as an independent journalist that I essentially get to choose the stories I write and, in large part, who I get to write for, which means that I’m not an assignment writer who at the drop of a hat is off to this place this day, this place the next day, at my editor’s beck and call. That said, though, because of what I cover, I try to be very responsive to events and things that I think I need to show up for and understand.
What that means is that my life has to be designed to be very flexible and it means that in my regular life I have fewer ties because I have to be able to go cover these stories. And that is definitely hard. It’s hard to find the balance, as it is I think for most people, particularly most women. I really like to give an enormous amount of my emotional energy to the people I’m covering and to my stories, and that doesn’t always leave a lot. I think it’s very, very satisfying work and I continue to choose to do it, but I think to do my writing the way I do it and to do it well requires a great deal of emotional time, energy, and commitment.
This makes me think about a line from Black Tide. You’re writing about going out into the Gulf of Mexico with a fisherman, the only person who was willing to take you out there because there was this risk of felony charge (because of health risks and because BP didn’t want people to see the sheer amount of oil out there). You wrote, “When I did find myself in the water within a few feet of the boom, I had to think briefly about whether it was worth going to jail for. My answer was always a reluctant yes.” In terms of the sacrifices you have to make, how you see that as being worth it in the end? Are there things you wish you could write about that you can’t?
My writing has gotten so focused. There are definitely areas I would want to write about that now I feel like I can’t really because I’m so expert in one area that it almost seems strange to start writing in other areas. But I also really enjoy what I’m writing about, and there’s an endless supply of things to write about that have to do with oil, unfortunately.
I think there have been difficulties in the things I’ve sacrificed, but I think probably the most important thing is that the people I’m writing about are people who have sacrificed so much more every single day. I did this story for Newsweek on fracking in North Dakota. I came back and I was horribly sick, likely because I was standing as close as I possibly could, for as long as I could, to well heads that were flaring. I think I got so much gunk in my lungs that it took me several weeks to get it out. But I had the opportunity to go home and let my body cleanse itself. Not Kandi Mossett, whose story I went to North Dakota to tell. That’s the experience of her family every single day.
And so I think that puts the sacrifices in perspective. When I go to the Amazon to cover the stories of women who are fighting, literally, a day-to-day battle, a life and death battle over the oil sector—I get to have that experience and then go home. But also, I’m inspired by those women and men. I’m inspired by the stories I tell and I’m inspired by the activism I report upon. I’m inspired by all of the people I see who are going through these struggles, who are having children and having families and doing amazing things with their lives at the same time as they’re facing this struggle. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to be in those environments and meet those people and tell their stories.
I get tremendous feedback from readers and audiences when I speak. I get emails from sixth graders who somehow are learning about Black Tide in their classes, and college students and professors who teach the book. I got this incredibly beautiful handwritten letter from a Vietnam War veteran who had read The Bush Agenda that’s up on my refrigerator, thanking me for the book. I’m so unbelievably grateful for how people tell me my writing and my work impacts their lives. I’ve figured out that this is what I’m good at. This is what my contribution is. And that’s been very satisfying.
How have you seen dialogues about oil change since you’ve been reporting on it? I think about the lecture you gave to our program (International Honors Program Climate Change students of the School for International Training) about the oil industry, and about how oil prices have dropped so much recently. I can imagine studies about oil are constantly revealing new insights and information; your angle potentially is changing and evolving over time. How do you balance and weigh those changes, and how do you keep an open mind while you’re reporting on oil?
I’ve been focusing on the oil sector since about 2000, really since the Bush administration, and there’s been a lot that has changed dramatically, especially in the last year and a half. I love learning about it, so that’s part of it. I read everything. I get excited by stock price information, and I get excited by charts that show prices’ rise and fall. I also love trying to figure out how to digest it and have it make sense for someone who doesn’t read that everyday. I find that challenge exciting—how to distill the information into something that makes sense and is interesting and makes people want to learn more or do something about it.
But then, I spend a lot of time reading and following the activities of activists—Greenpeace and 350.org—and all the media in between those two places. And then I have contacts within the oil industry and experts I know, sixty-year oil industry veterans who are retired and will now talk to me. I try and just get information from many different places and have relationships with people from many different perspectives, and that helps me keep an open mind. That said, I have opinions and a perspective that I bring to my writing and nobody, at this stage with what I’ve learned and what I’ve experienced, is going to convince me that a really great thing that could happen would be if someone figured out that I live on top of an oil field and wanted to frack outside of my building. No one at this stage is going to convince me that that’s a good thing.
I try to be open minded: I need to get all the information, I need to understand all the different sides and different perspectives, I need to provide readers with the best analysis and information that then tells a true story. But part of that truth is the knowledge that I bring and my capacity to make sense of information. That’s part of the job for me as I define it. I’m not claiming not to have an opinion or a perspective.