By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Last February, when Raymond Orbach, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, announced the release of a major study by UT researchers on the effects of hydraulic fracturing, he noted that public policy should be based on “the very best science.”

The policy issues around fracking for natural gas, Orbach told members of the  American Association for the Advancement of Science, “have become clouded by innuendo, by concerns and by issues that need addressing to form the backdrop for good policy.”

Who knew that one of the “clouded issues” would turn out to be a super cloudy conflict of interest involving the professor who led the study?

Dr. Charles "Chip" Groat, associate director of the Energy Institute at UT-Austin.

Professor Charles “Chip” Groat, associate director of UT’s Energy Institute and overseer of the study, was revealed earlier this month to have significant industry ties. He holds $1.62 million in stock  in Plains Exploration and Production (PXP) (based on the price on July 20) and was paid $413,900 in 2011 as a board member of that company — a fee that far exceeded his UT salary of $173,273, according to an investigation by the Public Accountability Initiative.

Plains Exploration, or PXP, engages in hydraulic fracking for natural gas, a practice that has allowed gas drillers to access previously unattainable deposits of methane gas thousands of feet beneath the surface. Fracking has raised hopes that the U.S. will have ample domestic natural gas supplies for decades. At the same time, it has rankled community groups worried about the air pollution, heavy consumption of water and potential pollution of ground water supplies near and by fracking operations.

The UT study purported to address a key concern around fracking: whether or not it contaminates water near drilling operations.

Groat, Orbach and the Energy Institute repeatedly touted the study as being independent from industry interests, underscoring that it was funded by the university and not natural gas money.

That was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. The characterization served to obscure Groat’s compromised position, which officials said he had not disclosed to superiors. UT is investigating.

The central finding of the Energy Institute study, “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development,” was that no evidence has been found of groundwater contamination from fracturing shale rock to extract natural gas. Instead, reported problems of contaminated water could be traced to “natural sources” and “probably was present before the onset of shale gas operations,” according to the study findings.

Ironically, a news release about the study quotes Groat as saying, “What we’re trying to do is separate fact from fiction.” That’s what UT will now have to do with regard to his role and who knew what, if anything, about his industry ties when he was named principal investigator for the study.

In a summary of the report called “Separating Fact from Fiction in Shale Gas Development,” the Energy Institute highlights its findings, which include these:

  • Media coverage of hydraulic fracturing is decidedly negative, and few news reports mention the scientific research related to the practice.
  • Overall surface spills of fracturing fluids pose greater risks to groundwater sources than from hydraulic fracturing itself.
  •  The lack of baseline studies in areas of shale gas development makes it difficult to evaluate the long term, cumulative effects and risks associated with hydraulic fracturing.

Say what? There may be some truth to all of those statements, but the broad scope of these conclusions raises a question about how extensive this study really was.

Take the review of media coverage, for instance. Are scientists employed at the Energy Institute in the best position to even assess such a matter? In the study, they say they’ve analyzed the “tonality of articles and broadcasts” in the Marcellus, Haynesville and Barnett shale areas. But do they even have the proper qualifications for this pursuit, or would this academic line of inquiry best be undertaken by professors in UT’s School of Communication?

Or consider the key question of whether fracking fluids, a mix of water, lubricants and several chemicals including typically some carcinogens like benzene, can migrate from the fractured shale fissures.  Is enough really known about this process and the potential upward migration toward the water table to declare that “surface spills of fracturing fluids pose greater risks to groundwater sources than from hydraulic fracturing itself”?

Taken together these far-reaching statements, combined with gaps in citations flagged by the Public Accountability Initiative, raise questions about whether this UT report, so proudly put forth, doesn’t rest on shaky scholarship.

We’re not claiming to be equipped to judge that here — that’s what peer review is for — but that was the conclusion of the Public Accountability Initiative.

In layman’s terms, the UT report looks like a rush to judgment fueled by Big Gas money.

That’s not to say that there’s no rush to judgment on the other side of this issue. The portion of the public that’s alarmed about fracking has been known to spout unsupported conclusions.

At the same time, the public deserves better from those who are paid to seek answers, particularly when they’re using public money. That’s what funded this study, remember?

Groat has responded to the controversy by email to State Impact, which has been reporting diligently on this issue. He told them in an email that he only organized and coordinated the study, which was determined by the “individual investigators, not me and I did not alter their conclusions.”

His ties to the drilling company “had no bearing on the results of study.” He said.

Orbach has said that Groat should have disclosed his ties to the university, which requires such disclosure when an outside affiliation could directly affect research, and that his name should have had an asterisk by it on the report.

Not sure that an asterisk would have been enough. But it would have at least alerted reporters to a conflict of interest that’s clearly toxic.

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