University of Texas reviewers blast fracking report and recommend its withdrawal

The panel chosen by the University of Texas to assess a study on fracking issued by the university’s Energy Institute has released its review, finding the study “falls short of the generally accepted rigor required for the publication of scientific work” and recommending that it be withdrawn. The review, titled “A Review of the Processes of Preparation and Distribution of the Report: ‘Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development,’” was in response to a report PAI issued in July that found significant problems with the report, including the fact that its principal investigator sits on the board of the gas company Plains Exploration.

UT’s review follows shortly on the heels of the University at Buffalo’s decision to close its Shale Resources and Society Institute, which had issued a similarly troubled report on fracking.

The reviewers found that the University of Texas had an inadequate and ill-enforced conflict of interest policy that led the study’s principal investigator, Dr. Chip Groat, not to disclose his financial interest in Plains and that the literature surrounding the study’s release largely ignored the content of the white papers that comprised the study:

The design, management, review and release of the study that led to the report, “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development,” fell short of contemporary standards for scientific work. Primary among the shortcomings was the failure of the Principal Investigator to disclose a conflict of interest that could have had a bearing on the credibility a reader wished to assign to the resulting work. This circumstance was exacerbated by the University policy on conflicts of interest then in force that was poorly crafted and even less well enforced. (The policy has since been revised.) Further, the subject report summary, press release and presentations did not reflect in a balanced fashion the caveats presented in the body of the report itself.

Regarding Dr. Groat’s conflict of interest, the panel said:

Both conflict of interest and disclosure policies were largely ignored in the preparation of the subject report due to inadequacy in the formulation and implementation of the University policies that existed at the time of the study and the lack of oversight by participants and administrators.

The reviewers noted that Dr. Groat did file a disclosure in 2009 regarding outside time commitments and that Dr. Groat indicated that he did not file a disclosure related to this study because the University at Texas policy only requires faculty to disclose when their work is funded by outside sources and “further, he had contributed no original work nor had he changed the body of the document.” However, the University made no follow-up “to ascertain why individuals contributing to a project bearing the University’s name had not submitted conflict of interest forms.”

Outside the scope of their initial charge, the reviewers added:

Beyond shortcomings in the oversight in disclosing the potential conflict of interest of the Principal Investigator, there was also inadequate consideration given to a discussion of the relationship of the Energy Institute and the University of Texas to the oil and gas industry. Both the Energy Institute and the University have substantial interests in the industry through philanthropy and research support; the income from the Permanent University Fund and direct shale gas production on the UT-Arlington campus; and substantial representation of the industry on both the Advisory Board of the Energy Institute and the University of Texas Board of Regents.

Turning to the content of the study, the reviewers concluded that “[t]he report summary failed to reflect either the tentative nature of the conclusions reached in the white papers [comprising the report] or the often strong caveats conveyed by their individual authors.” They called the oral presentations of the report “inappropriately selective in the use of material from the white papers…to suggest that public concerns were without scientific basis.” Later, the reviewers said that the summary of the researchers’ findings “fails to reflect accurately the magnitude of concerns” raised by the white papers and “uses statements such as ‘there is no evidence’ to counter public concerns, when, in fact, the white papers themselves stressed quite the opposite viewpoint” that the dearth of actual data demanded “serious consideration.”

“It should be stressed,” the reviewers said, “that the term ‘fact-based’ would not apply to [the report's analysis] in the sense characterizing scientific research since there were relatively little scientific data presented or, according to the authors, available to be presented.”

The reviewers also found that “[t]he project was hampered by the absence of knowledgeable senior leadership that should have been provided by the Principal Investigator.” Incredibly, the report noted that “Dr. Groat indicated during an interview with the Review Committee that he did not read the white papers prepared by the Senior Contributors.”

The review concludes with a series of six recommendations for the university, most notably that “[g]iven the conclusion that current draft of the report generated by the subject study falls short of the generally accepted rigor required for the publication of scientific work, the Review Committee recommends that the current report…be withdrawn.”

The committee’s six recommendations are summarized below:

  1. The University of Texas should maintain and enforce rigorous policies governing conflict of interest and financial disclosure consistent with those adopted by leading national research organizations.
  2. The Energy Institute should embrace and enforce the University policies relating to conflicts of interest in all of its activities.
  3. The UT Energy Institute should develop and implement more effective methods for project design, management, and review, with clear assignment of responsibility and accountability.
  4. The UT Energy Institute should develop and implement a rigorous quality control framework for all public relations and media activities.
  5. The role and contribution of all participants in projects should be accurately and thoroughly documented in all reports, projects, and presentations.
  6. Publications resulting from the Energy Institute’s project on shale gas should be withdrawn and the document “Separating Fact from Fiction in Shale Gas Development” should not be further distributed. Authors of the white papers should be allowed sufficient time and opportunity to finish their work for submission for independent review. The summary paper should be redrafted to accurately reflect these revised white papers.

The University of Texas announced today that it “received and agreed with” these findings and that the “board, chancellor, and UT Austin president are studying the report and its recommendations carefully to determine what additional measures might be taken to further mitigate the possibility of an incident like this occurring again.”

UT’s press release added that a search is underway to recruit new leadership for the Energy Institute as Dr. Groat retired from his position at UT Austin and the Institute’s former director Raymond Orbach resigned last month.

The following is PAI’s statement in response to the news:

The University of Texas has now joined the University at Buffalo in sending a strong message to the oil and gas industry: our universities are not for sale. This is another major blow to gas industry pseudoscience and a victory for academic integrity in the debate around fracking.

The review panel’s findings echo those contained in PAI’s original report on the matter, but are ultimately much more damning. The review sheds some much-needed sunlight on problems with the editorial and public relations process surrounding UT’s fracking report.

The University of Texas deserves credit for taking a difficult but important stand for transparency and integrity by releasing this review and pursuing these recommendations.

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