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Frackademia: How the Fracking Industry Tries To Bully Or Buy Scientists

by Puck LoCorpWatch Blog
January 18th, 2013

Cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Range Resources, a Texas company, bullied the federal government into dropping a scientific report on environmental contamination caused by fracking, a new investigation by the Associated Press has just revealed. This comes on the heels of two major pro-fracking academic reports that had to be withdrawn in 2012.

Fracking - which is short for hydraulic fracturing - is not entirely new. Since the 1940s engineers have attempted to drill the deep underground reserves of gas and oil reserves – which are estimated to be sufficient to power the U.S. for decades, some experts say. Advances in technology during the 1980s led to new horizontal hydraulic drilling techniques, which involves boring a mile deep into the earth and then pumping in millions of gallons of water, sand and hazardous chemicals to fracture rock and extract gas contained inside.

In 2007, when oil companies began aggressively drilling in the Marcellus Shale that underlies Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio, fracking became a national issue. Gasland, a 2010 documentary on how fracking has changed life for residents who live near drilling sites, brought to national attention the now iconic image of a man in his home, lighting contaminated tap water on fire.

Something remarkably similar happened to Steve Lipsky who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, when his family's drinking water began "bubbling" like champagne back in 2010. Lipsky was able to get the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue an emergency order against Range Resources which was drilling in the area. An independent study determined “that the gas in the drinking water could have originated from Range Resources' nearby drilling operation.”

Then the EPA “changed course” – according to the Associated Press - when Range Resources told them that “so long as the agency continued to pursue a ‘scientifically baseless’ action” it would withdraw from an ongoing national study on fracking and “would not allow government scientists onto its drilling sites.”

The EPA also recently backed away from reports on the environmental impact of fracking by EnCana Oil & Gas USA in the town of Pavilion, Wyoming, after industry attacks.

But the fracking industry is not content to just challenge the EPA in small towns – it is now spreading money around to pay academics to publish favorable studies on the controversial drilling practice. In the last year two major studies published by so-called “frackademics” that gained widespread publicity were shown to have ties to oil companies.

University of Texas

In December 2012, Raymond Orbach, head of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, was forced to resign from his post following revelations that a report titled “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in the Shale Gas Development” published earlier in the year by the institute was based on an investigation led by Charles “Chip” Groat, a director of Plains Exploration & Production Company, a Houston-based oil and gas company that operates fracking and deepwater drilling sites in Texas, the Gulf Coast, and California.

Groat was identified as a University of Texas professor and former assistant director of the Energy Institute, but the report failed to acknowledge that he also held a position on the Plains Exploration board since 2007, owned $1.6 million in company stock, and is paid $58,500 a year.

Shale gas has lots of stories to tell," Groat told the press at the February 2012 American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the report was unveiled. "It’s a great resource for this country and many other parts of the world. It's a game-changer in terms of the energy balance."

The report said that many of the problems attributed to fracking were common to all oil and gas drilling operations and were due to mismanagement, not the practice itself. It claimed that an assessment of media representations of fracking nationally found that coverage was “uniformly about two-thirds negative,” while a survey of 1,500 Texas residents found a “generally positive attitude toward hydraulic fracturing”

“Negative perceptions and political consequences have led to the prohibition of shale gas development in a number of instances, at least temporarily,” the report stated.

The university widely publicized the study last February. Many news outlets trumpeted its industry-friendly findings at the time.

“It is straight down the middle - done without industry funding and with the participation of the Environmental Defense Fund, a well-known watchdog organization,” the Houston Chronicle editorialized. “In a world where clashes between advocates for industry and the environment are frequently bitter and deeply rooted, such an approach is doubly welcome.”

The tide turned against Groat when the Public Accountability Institute (PAI), a New York-based investigative research organization, released a report in May 2012 that criticized the study.

“Its central claim– that fracking does not cause groundwater contamination – relies on a highly-specific and misleading definition of fracking,” PAI stated. “The university’s press push around the report significantly mischaracterizes and oversimplifies its findings.”

The PAI study prompted the University of Texas to commission an independent review of the study, conducted by a three-person panel of scientists and administrators from industry. The reviewers were not charged with assessing the scientific merits of the study but rather to review the university's process of producing and publicizing the report.

The panelists declared in late November that the lack of disclosure by the university about Groat's ties to the oil company constituted a “clear conflict of interest.” The university says it has since updated its disclosure policies, and Groat has since agreed that he should have mentioned his industry connections in the report although he defended his role. “I had no responsibility to either review the report or comment on their findings or influence them in any way,” Groat told the New Orleans City Business newspaper.

The review committee disagreed.

“In studies of controversial topics, such as the impact on public health and the environment potentially stemming from shale gas hydraulic fracturing, credibility hinges upon full disclosure of any potential conflicts of interest by all participants and upon rigorous, independent reviews of findings. This study failed in both regards,” the independent panelists stated in their review.

The panelists also criticized the relationship of the Energy Institute and the University of Texas to the oil and gas industry and took issue with the fracking report's title.

“It should be stressed that the term 'fact-based' would not apply to such an analysis in the sense characterizing scientific research since there were relatively little scientific data presented or, according to the authors, available to be presented,” they added.

The committee lambasted the Energy Institute's “inappropriately selective” use of material that “seemed to suggest that public concerns were without scientific basis and largely resulted from media bias—hence requiring no significant modification in the current regulatory and enforcement regimes.”

At the independent panel's recommendation, the University of Texas agreed to withdraw the study. It announced in a December 2012 press release that former Energy Institute head Orbach had resigned, and Groat had retired. Orbach has remained a tenured faculty member at the University of Texas.

State University of New York

In April 2012 the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB) announced it was opening a research institute to study hydraulic fracturing. "We're really trying to provide fact-based, objective information," John P. Martin, an energy consultant and director of the institute, said in a press release. "We're guided by science."

Two months later the institute was shut down amid scandal. It's first and only report, “Environmental Impacts During Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling,” was denounced by PAI as “industry-friendly propaganda.” The institute's study claimed that environmental violations declined from 58.2 percent to 30.5 percent between the years 2008 and 2011 at hydrofracturing sites in Pennsylvania.

“The Marcellus industry has cut its incidence of environmental violations by more than half in three years, a rather notable indicator of improvement by the industry and oversight by the regulators,” the report stated. “In conclusion, this study demonstrates that the odds of non-major environmental events and the much smaller odds of major environmental events are being reduced even further by enhanced regulation and improved industry practice. Moreover, the environmental impacts of most of these events have been almost completely mitigated by remedial actions taken by the companies.”

Forbes magazine ran with the results and wrote an article titled: “Fracking Safety Improves Dramatically, Says Independent Study.”

But according to data provided in the UB report, the number of accidents actually increased by 36 percent during that period, said PAI. Nor was the study independent. PAI criticized what they saw as strong industry ties between the fledgling institute and the oil extraction industry, noting that the institute had not yet publicized the sources of its funding. Although the university told the media initially that the study was funded “with no industry support,” a University at Buffalo spokesperson later said the study had been funded by the University at Buffalo Foundation, which does not have to disclose funding sources.

“The report contains a number of significant errors and problems which seriously undermine its central claim: that fracking is getting safer and causing fewer environmental violations. While masquerading as independent, academic research, the report’s errors all point in the direction of heavy pro-industry bias and spin,” the nonprofit researchers wrote in their report, “The UB Shale Play: Distorting the Facts about Fracking.”

PAI found that the entire sections of the report seemed to be copied and pasted, without attribution, from an industry-funded, pro-fracking report published in 2011 by the right-wing think tank, the Manhattan Institute.

The Shale Resources and Society Institute also announced in its press release that the report was peer reviewed when it had not been. The university eventually removed the “peer reviewed” designation from the report.

On November 19, 2012, after months of controversy and student protest, Satish Tripathi, the president of UB, said he was closing the institute because of ongoing questions over its credibility and inconsistency in disclosing its funding.

“It is imperative that our faculty members adhere to rigorous standards of academic integrity, intellectual honesty, transparency and the highest ethical conduct in their work,” Tripathi wrote in a letter to students and faculty.

Watering down the Science

Next year, the EPA is due to publish the results of the now delayed national study on fracking. Environmental groups are not holding their breath. "In its inability to find a single company willing to test water quality before and after drilling and fracking, the EPA is being thwarted in perhaps the most important part of its study of fracking's impacts," Earthworks spokesman Alan Septoff said in a statement. "Computer simulations are not enough.”

Back in Texas, Lipsky is still fighting a huge legal battle with Range Resources. He is also spending $1,000 a month to pump clean water to his house. "This has been total hell," Lipsky told the Associated Press. "It's been taking a huge toll on my family and on our life."