by Tom Kenworthy
When it comes to academic research on the shale gas boom and the practice of hydraulic fracturing, it’s becoming increasingly important to follow the money.
As Bloomberg noted in a recent article detailing how oil and gas industry money had sponsored academic studies, the sector is using familiar tactics:
As the U.S. enjoys a natural-gas boom from a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, producers are taking a page from the tobacco industry playbook: funding research at established universities that arrives at conclusions that counter concerns raised by critics.
Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, who made the tobacco analogy, said companies and their trade associations are “buying the prestige” of universities that are sometimes not transparent about funding nor vigilant enough to prevent financial interests from shaping research findings.
A case at the University of Texas seems particularly egregious. The university professor, Charles Groat, who led the study did not disclose that he serves on the board of Plains Exploration and Production, or PXP, and that he received more than $400,000 from the Texas energy company in 2011. Groat receives 10,000 shares of PXP stock each year, and his holdings were worth $1.6 million based on a recent valuation. He also gets an annual fee — $58,500 in 2011 – from PXP, a company whose proposed natural gas development in a pristine area of western Wyoming was the subject of a recent video prepared by the Center for American Progress.
The study overseen by Groat concluded that there has been no groundwater contamination from the underground injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids — a mixture of water, chemicals and sand that are injected at high pressure to fracture deep rock formations and release natural gas and oil.
Andrew Revkin, the New York Times’ energy and climate blogger, has also delved into the Groat incident. Revkin calls it one of those “troubling instances in which an undisclosed financial ties has created after-the-fact problems for substantial research projects.”
In his blog post yesterday, Revkin quoted some comments on the Groat case that he solicited from University of Texas law professor Thomas O. McGarity, the co-author of the book, “Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research.” Coming from a university colleague of Groat’s they are worth quoting at length here:
Like many of my colleagues at the University of Texas School of Law, I was outraged to read in the press that the principal investigator and lead author of a report published under the auspices of the University of Texas’ Energy Institute, entitled “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development,” had received more than $400,000 in compensation from a shale gas development corporation, held a fiduciary position as a member of the company’s board of directors, and owned more than $1 million in the company’s stock.
At first glance, this looks terrible. The conflict of interest is not just apparent; it is obvious. How could someone with such a high stake in the success of a corporation possibly write an objective report on the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and the need for further regulation of that process when the success of the corporation might very well turn on how Congress or state legislatures resolve that question?
What makes the situation even worse is that the principal investigator, Charles G. Groat, did not disclose his interest in Plains Exploration and Production in the report. As my colleague Wendy Wagner and I have written in our book Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research, even though the vast majority of scientists would never consciously allow the potential for personal financial gain or loss to influence the outcome of their research, that potential should be disclosed to the reader so that the readers can decide for themselves whether to discount the reported results. In that regard, dozens of studies have shown strong correlations between sponsored research and favorable outcomes for the sponsors.
Professor Groat explained that he played only a small role in the actual writing of the report. The report itself indicates that the sections on environmental impacts and regulation were written by Ian Duncan and Hannah Wiseman, respectively. If Professor Groat played such a small role in the preparation of the report, one might wonder about the propriety of allowing himself to be listed as the principal investigator.
At the time that she began researching the regulation of shale gas development and hydraulic fracturing, Ms. Wiseman was a Visiting Assistant Professor with the Emerging Scholars Program at the University of Texas School of Law. She completed the draft report for the Energy Institute after joining the faculty at the University of Tulsa College of Law. I followed Professor Wiseman‘s work on fracking when she was at our law school, and have spoken to her since the recent reports in the press. And I am convinced that she was completely unaware of Professor Groat’s apparent conflict of interest. Dr. Groat therefore not only failed to disclose his conflict to readers, but also to the report’s authors (Ian Duncan has told NPR that he was unaware of any of Professor Groat’s industry connections).
Despite Professor Groat’s small part in the writing of the report, Professor Groat played a very large role in the promotion of the report. The Energy Institute’s website contains a 12-minute video clipping of Professor Groat describing the report at a press conference, and the website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) contains a video clipping of the presentation in which Professor Groat first announced the “results” of the report to the world. Although a few media sources noted the report’s conclusions that improved regulation was needed, the resulting publicity was generally positive about the future prospects for fracking, a result that might have caused the value of his stock to move up a bit.
The situation gets worse. Although this aspect of the report has not been reported in the press, the sections on regulation in the report that was presented at the AAAS meeting were marked “Draft” and were clearly not in final form. It appears that Dr. Groat rushed the report out of the door, before at least one of the real authors had a chance to complete her work, for the purpose of making a big splash at the AALS annual meeting.
Worst of all, when Professor Groat presented the report at the AAAS meeting, he announced that in addition to concluding the effects of fracking on groundwater were minimal, it also concluded that there “isn’t the need for new regulatory frameworks.” After reading the regulatory sections of the report authored by Professor Wiseman, I reached the opposite conclusion – that there is a need for new regulatory frameworks at the federal level, or at least the elimination of the major exemptions that the fracking industry currently enjoys. Ms. Wiseman’s sections of the report, which were only drafts at the time of the meeting, do not reach that conclusion, and a fair reading of the regulatory sections of the report could not possibly come to that conclusion. Those section conclude that “significant gaps remain” in regulation despite updates in some states, and they describe exemptions for fracking wastes from the Resource Recovery and Response Act’s hazardous waste requirements, from the Clean Water Act’s comprehensive permit program for discharges into surface waters, and from the Safe Drinking Water Act (which regulates groundwater pollution). They also highlight many weaknesses in several state regulatory programs.
Thus, in addition to rushing out an incomplete report with great fanfare, Professor Groat arguably mischaracterized a critical aspect of that report, all to the benefit an industry in which he was heavily invested and from which he had received compensation totaling more that twice his annual salary.
You can find Revkin’s reporting on the matter here.
Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.