When Agendas Meet Science in the Gas Drilling Fight

Jul 24, 2012 Posted by

Dot Earth - New York Times blogJuly 23, 2012, 5:15 pm
By ANDREW C. REVKIN

It’s time to dig in a bit on how transparency and peer review matter in considering the merits of the science deployed by both the “ban” and “bonanza” factions in the war over expanding hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as a means of harvesting America’s natural gas bounty.

I’ll be posting Tuesday on peer review, or the lack thereof, in research related to environmental and health impacts of  gas drilling. The piece will focus on a new and as-yet-unpublished (but much publicized) study of fetal risks related to gas drilling by Elaine L. Hill, a doctoral candidate in Cornell University’s department of applied economics and management.

But first, let’s look at the importance of transparency when conveying out findings on contentious and consequential issues like the environmental impacts of America’s gas rush.

The University of Texas Energy Institute used a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last February to roll out what it called an authoritative report separating the “real and perceived consequences of shale gas development.

The news release from the science association at the time included a quote from the lead author of the report, Charles G. “Chip” Groat, that was clearly aimed at signaling neutrality and academic integrity:

“The research project discussed at the symposium was not supported by energy industry companies, Groat added. Instead, the money came from the university’s own funds.”

At the time, I described the package of related background material from the university as “invaluable” in a passing mention in a post. I still think much of the material provides valuable background and analysis on environmental impacts of drilling.

But what Groat and the university never mentioned in the report, news releases or other output related to the gas-drillling analysis was a suite of potential conflicts of interest deriving from Groat’s gas-industry affiliations, income and investments.

By not being open from the start, they left it up to journalists and watchdogs to reveal. (A university official has said the school was unaware of Groat’s ties, see below. Groat has not responded to e-mails seeking comment.)

Particularly notable is a detailed Bloomberg article today by Jim Efstathiou, Jr., on Groat’s finances and the University of Texas gas study and other examples of academic research with unstated industry connections.

The Public Accountability Initiative* has raised important questions about Groat’s financial and industry background in “Contaminated Inquiry- How a University of Texas Fracking Study Led by a Gas Industry Insider Spun the Facts and Misled the Public.” Here’s an excerpt from this group’s report:

Groat serves as a director of an oil and gas company engaged in fracking, Plains Exploration and Production (PXP), and also has a significant financial stake in the company. The directorship and financial stake are not disclosed anywhere in the UT Energy Institute study, on the Institute’s website, or in the various presentations Groat gave on the study.

Groat joined the board of Pogo Producing, a Houston-based oil and gas driller, in November 2005, just five months after resigning as director of the U.S. Geological Survey (amidst a scandal and Congressional investigation, described below).34 When Pogo was acquired in 2007 by Plains Exploration & Production (PXP), Groat became a director there, and has remained on the PXP board since.

Since 2007, Groat has received over $1.5 million in cash and stock compensation from PXP (an average of $380,000 per year). As a result, the value of Groat’s current stake in the company is $1.62 million (based on PXP’s closing stock price on July 20, 2012, $40.34). This level of compensation dwarfs the $173,000 salary Groat earns from the University of Texas as of 2012.

In any other arena, like medical research, such disclosures are a standard element of scholarship. Read the statement on conflicts of interest by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors to get the idea. As many watchdogs in medical science will readily note, that system is hardly perfect, but being up front about finances and backers sure is a helpful way to retain credibility — whether you’re a journal editor or a researcher.

Big drug companies have contributed greatly to scientific understanding, but knowing which studies or scientists they back is a vital starting point.

As I noted on Twitter this morning, the lack of proactive transparency by the university and Groat is a serious issue.

Until there is clarity here, no matter how sound the report’s conclusions (and many are, including its criticisms of industry resistance to revealing ingredients in fracking fluid), the school and Groat have left themselves open to legitimate criticism, including those leveled in a blog post calling this practice “Frackademia.”

In a phone conversation this evening, Raymond L. Orbach, the director of the University of Texas Energy Institute, reiterated what he told Efstathiou in the Bloomberg story, saying he was unaware of Groat’s financial involvement with the gas industry until now.

He added: “We didn’t know, and we should have. It would have been very sensible to put an asterisk to indicate Chip’s board membership.”

Orbach insisted he sees no signs that the report was torqued in any way as a result. “There’s zero evidence of any influence whatsoever,” he told me. “Had there been any influence people would have pushed back strongly.”

Nonetheless, he agreed that transparency is vital, and was not provided in this report. “We are putting together a second edition and we’re putting together a reference to this,” he said.

Of course, this is too little, too late.

We welcome your comments!