REPORT

The UB Shale Play: Distorting the Facts about Fracking

A Review of the University at Buffalo Shale Resources and Society Institute’s Report on “Environmental Impacts During Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling”

Click here to read the full analysis »

The University at Buffalo’s Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI) released a report last week that concluded that the practice of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is becoming less risky.

PAI conducted an analysis of the report and identified a number of problems that undermine its conclusion: data in the report shows that the likelihood of major environmental events has actually gone up, contradicting the report’s central claim; entire passages were lifted from an explicitly pro-fracking Manhattan Institute report; and report’s authors and reviewers have extensive ties to the natural gas industry.

PAI’s analysis states: “Taken together, the serious flaws in the report, industry-friendly spin, strong industry ties, and fundraising plans raise serious questions about the Shale Resources and Society Institute’s independence and the University at Buffalo’s decision to lend its independent, academic authority to the Institute’s work.”

Click here to read the full analysis.

The executive summary and press release are below.

Executive Summary

Universities have an important role to play in examining the critical social, economic, and environmental issues of our day. The practice of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is one such issue: an extremely controversial method of drilling for natural gas that is touted by the industry as the key to the country’s energy future, and opposed by many activists who cite risks to the environment and public health.

Academic institutions should be able to step in to this debate from a neutral position to collect important data, offer unbiased analysis, and help the public reach informed opinions about the issue based on the facts.

Unfortunately, a report on fracking’s environmental risks released recently by the University at Buffalo’s Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI) falls far short of this standard of academic inquiry. Serious flaws in the report suggest that the brand-new institute is not so much a venue for the independent study of fracking-related issues as it is a vehicle for industry-friendly propaganda, taking advantage of the University at Buffalo’s independent brand in order to advance a very particular agenda.

The report, a study of environmental violations associated with natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, concludes that the rate of environmental violations associated with hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” declined from 2008 to 2011. The report’s authors attribute this to increasingly effective regulation and oversight. Subsequent press coverage hailed the report’s findings; Forbes’ headline, for instance, read “Fracking Safety Improves Dramatically, Says Independent Study.”

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:

  • Two of the report’s central claims are false. The report claims that the rate of major environmental violations declined from 2008 to 2011. According to the report’s own data, the rate of major environmental accidents actually increased 36% from 2008 to 2011. The report also claims that the total number of environmental events declined over the period studied. In fact, the total number of environmental events increased by 189%, and the number of major environmental events increased 900%.
  • A copy and paste job? The report lifts entire passages, without proper attribution, from an explicitly pro-fracking report released last year by the conservative Manhattan Institute and written by three of the four authors of the UB study.
  • A flawed methodology. The report fails to address a number of factors that may influence the rate of environmental incidents per well. For instance, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) inspectors were instructed to seek pre-approval for the filing of Notices of Violation (NOVs) in 2011 by the incoming administration in what was criticized as a politicization of the inspection process. Such a stance could affect the rate of incidence of environmental violations as measured by the study.
  • Use of biased language and industry spin. For instance, the report says that “only a fraction” of Notices of Violation (NOVs) were issued for environmental violations. That fraction turns out to be 38%, which is technically a fraction, but this kind of language is extremely misleading at best.
  • Artificial “peer review” process. The press release for the report originally claimed that the report was “peer reviewed,” but this appears to have been a media ploy designed to suggest that the study met high academic standards. The report press release has since retracted this claim, and one reviewer has distanced himself from the report’s main claims.
  • The analysis also documents the authors’ strong ties to the natural gas industry:

    The report’s pro-industry spin is not surprising, as the majority of the report’s authors and reviewers have strong industry ties. Two authors of the report, Timothy Considine and Robert Watson, authored a controversial 2009 report funded by the natural gas industry group known as the Marcellus Shale Committee but issued under the auspices of Penn State. Penn State retracted the initial version of the report because it did not disclose its funding source and “crossed the line from policy analysis to policy advocacy,” according to the school’s Dean of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

    The co-directors of the Institute, John Martin (a co-author of the report) and Robert Jacobi (a reviewer of the report) also have strong industry ties. Jacobi is currently employed by EQT, a natural gas company active in the Marcellus Shale. Martin has his own consultancy, JPMartin Energy Strategy, and has also recently been described as a senior advisor to Ecology and Environment, an environmental consulting firm active in the natural gas industry.

    University officials have been evasive on the question of SRSI’s funding, but have claimed that the report did not receive industry funding. In a UB Department of Geology Alumni Advisory Board meeting the day the report was released, Martin and Jacobi reported that the fundraising process had been proceeding slowly, and that “sponsors have not committed yet.” The meeting notes do not identify the pending sponsors. The Institute’s website states that it is seeking $1.14 million in startup funding, and touts UB’s lack of “institutional conflicts” in a section titled “Why host SRSI at UB?” which details the rationale for housing SRSI at the University at Buffalo.

    Taken together, the serious flaws in the report, industry-friendly spin, strong industry ties, and fundraising plans raise serious questions about the Shale Resources and Society Institute’s independence and the University at Buffalo’s decision to lend its independent, academic authority to the Institute’s work.

    ***

    For Immediate Release: May 24, 2012
    Contact: Kevin Connor, 718-916-0925, kevin@public-accountability.org

    New Analysis Identifies Critical Errors in University at Buffalo Fracking Study

    Data in UB Report Contradicts Its Own Conclusions About Fracking’s Environmental Risks * Entire Passages Copied from Pro-Fracking Think Tank Report * Report Authors Have Extensive Ties to Natural Gas Industry

    Buffalo – Significant errors and distortions in a recent University at Buffalo study of fracking’s environmental risks undermine the report’s central conclusions, according to a new analysis from the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI).

    The analysis raises questions about the university’s new Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI), which issued the study, and its independence from industry influence. The report, “Environmental Impacts During Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling,” concluded that fracking in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale has become less environmentally risky since 2008.

    The PAI analysis identified significant problems with the study. The SRSI report concluded that major environmental risks associated with fracking have decreased since 2011. In fact, data in the report shows that major environmental risks have increased over that period.

    PAI also identified key passages that were copied directly, without attribution, from a pro-fracking Manhattan Institute report authored by several of the same individuals. Two of these authors, Timothy Considine and Robert Watson, have also produced studies directly funded by the natural gas industry.

    “The report’s inaccurate and biased analysis and the authors’ conflicts of interest suggest that the University at Buffalo is being used as an academic front for gas industry misinformation, rather than as a venue for independent, informative analysis,” said Kevin Connor, director of the Public Accountability Initiative.

    “This is an unfortunate example of industry spin being given much greater weight than it is worth, and the University at Buffalo is implicated in this deception.”

    ***

    About the Public Accountability Initiative

    The Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) is a non-profit, non-partisan research and educational organization focused on corporate and government accountability. PAI specializes in investigative, public interest research on power and corruption at the intersection of business and government. PAI’s research has been covered in major media outlets such as the LA Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.

    ###

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    40 Responses to The UB Shale Play: Distorting the Facts about Fracking

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    4. Larry says:

      Without reading the whole SRSI report and tracing their sources, I’m wondering how they arrived at the numbers for their hard data. According to a recent Cleveland Plain Dealer story, less than a third of PA wells are inspected.

      http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2012/05/gas_drilling_inspectors_needed.html

      This counts all wells, not just horizontal ones. I don’t know how PA prioritizes site visits, so assuming they’re randomly distributed, less than a third of horizontal wells are inspected. Even if it’s skewed to new horizontal wells, it’s surely not 100% of them.

      So carrying this over to the SRSI study, they show the total number of wells drilled and number of violations. But is this number of violations based on just 30% or so of wells being inspected? If so, it’s fair to extrapolate that the absolute number of violations needs to be more than tripled to get a true ratio of violations to total wells drilled.

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    17. John says:

      If fracking is really safe, why did the gas industry need so many exemptions from so many environmental laws? Simple logic would indicate there must be something fundamentally flawed with the process.

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