Conflicts of interest in new fracking emissions study

A new study of the methane emissions associated with hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or fracking, is being published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study claims that methane emissions associated with fracking are 0.42% of gross gas production. Other studies have previously contended that leakage rates are much higher, and therefore destructive from a climate perspective.

While a full review of the methodology and results of the latest study is in order, a preliminary look at the key players involved suggests an improper degree of industry influence and an insufficient level of conflict of interest disclosure.

Most significantly, at least one author of the study has a significant conflict of interest that went undisclosed in the article. The authors of the study declared no conflicts of interest, according to the article, but one author, Jennifer Miskimins, is currently the employee of a petroleum engineering firm, Barree & Associates, and has been since 2012. The firm offers a range of consulting services related to fracking. The paper lists her affiliation as Colorado School of Mines. The lack of disclosure is a red flag that suggests that the authors of the study did not adhere to PNAS’s conflict of interest policy, and that other authors may have consulting arrangements and other industry connections that should have been disclosed in the article. According to PNAS’s conflict of interest policy, the journal may publish an erratum or restrict authors from publishing in the journal for a period of time if they are found to be in violation of the conflict of interest policy.

Beyond authorship, the industry sponsorship of the study raises conflict of interest questions, as well. While the sponsors are disclosed in the body of the article, no information is offered about how conflicts of interest were managed to assure the independence of the research. The involvement of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), is also cause for concern, given its role in endorsing flawed pro-fracking studies from the University at Buffalo and the University at Texas. Sponsors of EDF’s methane emissions work also have industry ties and deserve critical scrutiny.

This article offers preliminary information about each of these issues.

I. Undisclosed Conflict of Interest & Possible Violation of PNAS Policy

a. Authors & Industry Ties

The PNAS article states that “The authors declare no conflict of interest,” but at least one author appears to have a significant financial conflict of interest: Jennifer Miskimins is currently a senior consulting engineer at Barree & Associates, a petroleum engineering firm which offers “consulting services for companies worldwide, specializing in stimulation and well performance optimization.” The firm offers fracturing related services, including “performance optimization,” “horizontal well stimulation design,” and “fluid and proppant selection.”

Miskimins joined the firm in 2012, prior to the completion and submission of the study, but her affiliation is listed only as “Department of Petroleum Engineering, Colorado School of Mines” in PNAS. According to LinkedIn, her associate professorship at the school was not current as of 2012.

At the Colorado School of Mines, Miskimins was the director of the Fracturing Acidizing Stimulation Technology (FAST) Consortium from 2004 until joining Barree & Associates. (Miskimins still has a Colorado School of Mines website that lists her as the FAST Consortium director). The FAST Consortium is a joint industry and university research center focused on oil and gas well stimulation. Membership in the consortium costs $15,000 plus an unspecified initial buy-in, according to Miskimins’s bio, for which companies receive “access to all FAST Consortium project results through annual meetings and executive style reports.” Member companies come from all oil and gas industry sectors and include Anadarko Petrolum, BG Group, Barree & Associates, Encana Oil & Gas, and Shell.

Other authors also have industry ties, though Miskimins’ industry connection is the most significant on its face. According to University of Texas conflict of interest disclosure forms which PAI obtained through a freedom of information request, lead author David T. Allen reports some industry compensation, including travel sponsored by ExxonMobil, apparently to advise it on its “corporate strategic research” program. ExxonMobil’s fracking subsidiary XTO Energy is a sponsor of the study.

Two study authors, Matthew Harrison and Al Hendler, work as project managers for URS Corporation, a service provider to the oil and gas industry. In 2012, URS acquired Flint Energy Services, an oil and gas construction firm. On its website URS identifies itself as “a leading provider of of design, construction and production services across the upstream, midstream and downstream supply chain,” with expertise in conventional and unconventional plays, including shales and oil sands, as well as “established long-term relationships with some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies.” Hendler is a specialist in air quality monitoring and data analysis and Harrison is a senior greenhouse gas project manager according to their LinkedIn profiles.

Another study author, A. Daniel Hill, is chair of the petroleum engineering department at Texas A&M. His online profile lists a number of fracking-related “research and consulting” activities, but it does not say whether he is consulting for any industry entities. His profile also states that he holds five patents for various “oil recovery and well injection processes.”

b. PNAS Conflict of Interest Policy

The failure to disclose Miskimins’ conflict of interest and other industry ties may constitute a violation of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences conflict of interest policy. The policy states:

Authors are required during submission of their manuscripts to complete the online declaration form and to disclose any conflict of interest. The corresponding author must ensure that all authors have been asked to disclose any conflicts of interest.

PNAS’s definition of a potential conflict is broad, including everything from honoraria to personal friendships and public associations, and would appear to cover many of the relationships detailed above:

Divulging a potential conflict usually does not invalidate the research or the comments of a referee or editor; it simply provides the reader information necessary to independently assess the work. A conflict of interest includes a financial association or relationship that could influence the objectivity, integrity, or interpretation of a publication. Such conflicts of interest include relationships with corporations whose products or services are related to the subject matter of the article. These relations include employment, substantive ownership of stock, membership on a standing advisory council or committee, service on the board of directors, or public association with the company or its products. Other areas of conflict of interest could include receiving consulting fees, patent filings, serving as a paid spokesperson, or providing services in exchange for honoraria. Other examples of possible conflicts include a close personal friendship, past or present association as thesis advisor or thesis student, or a family relationship.

According to the policy, when conflicts of interest are disclosed, a footnote is added to the published article:

When a conflict of interest is disclosed either by the author or editor, a footnote describing the conflict will be included with the published article.

The conflict of interest policy also outlines sanctions for authors who fail to comply:

PNAS reserves the right to publish an erratum disclosing conflict(s) of interest related to a previously published paper. Authors, referees, or editors who have deliberately or recklessly failed to disclose conflicts of interest may receive sanctions, including being banned from publishing in PNAS for a period of time.

It seems that the disclosure of Miskimins’ consulting work would be required by PNAS’s policy, and that other relationships may have warranted disclosure, as well. The circumstances may require the publication of erratum or sanctions on the authors of this study.

II. Environmental Defense Fund

a. Role in “Frackademia”

EDF has played a significant role in two scandals, at the University of Texas and the State University of New York at Buffalo, wherein public universities lent their names to scholarship of questionable merit that downplayed the environmental impacts from fracking, while failing to disclose conflicts of interest. In both cases, EDF acted as a reviewer, offering its environmentalist brand to the seriously flawed reports.

At the University of Texas, the school’s Energy Institute published a report in February 2012 that made the claim that fracking posed no threat to groundwater. The Energy Institute claimed the study was peer-reviewed, and it was presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Later that year it was revealed that the report’s study of fracking’s environmental impacts was still in draft form, not meant for public release. Moreover, the study’s prinicipal investigator had failed to disclose, both to the school at to the public, that he was on the board of directors of Plains Exploration & Production, a natural gas company. When these issues were made public, UT convened a panel that, after reviewing the study for impropriety, slammed it for its poor scholarship and conflicts of interest. UT retracted the study in December 2012, the director of the energy institute resigned, and the study’s principal investigator retired.

In March of 2012, the Shale Resources and Society Institute at the State University of New York at Buffalo published a study that claimed fracking was becoming safer thanks to increased regulation and improved gas industry practices. This claim was not supported by the researchers data, which actually showed that the rate of environmental impacts attributable to fracking in Pennsylvania had increased in the period studied. After SUNY trustees opened an investigation, UB closed the Shale Resources and Society Institute in November 2012.

Both of these studies were reviewed by Scott Anderson, EDF’s “point person on policies related to natural gas development.” In Texas, Anderson “helped the University of Texas at Austin define its scope of work and reviewed drafts during the course of the project,” and at Buffalo he reviewed the report, though noted in a blog post that “this does not mean that all of [his] suggestions were taken or that [he] agree[d] with all of the report’s findings or conclusions.” Regardless, it seems that in both cases Anderson either missed or ignored fundamental problems with the reports that led to their later retraction. In both cases, the reports were released with the imprimatur of their respective universities and with EDF’s implied approval.

b. Oil and Gas Ties

According to the PNAS article, EDF’s methane emissions work is funded by the following individuals: “Fiona and Stan Druckenmiller, Heising-Simons Foundation, Bill and Susan Oberndorf, Betsy and Sam Reeves, Robertson Foundation, Tom Steyer, Kat Taylor, and the Walton Family Foundation.”

Several of these individuals have ties to the fracking industry:

Additionally, EDF has ties to the oil and gas industry through its board. Katherine Lorenz, the granddaughter of the “father of fracking,” George Mitchell, serves on its board, and other board members are active oil and gas investors.

III. Industry Sponsorship

The study was sponsored by a number of industry sources, in addition to the Environmental Defense Fund: Anadarko Petroleum, BG Group, Chevron, Encana Oil & Gas, Pioneer Natural Resources, Shell’s subsidiary SWEPI LP, Southwestern Energy, Talisman Energy USA, and ExxonMobil’s subsidiary XTO Energy. In addition to providing financial support, the companies gave the researchers access to the well sites and provided technical advice.

These companies, of course, have a significant financial stake in ensuring that fracking continues in the United States. Their sponsorship of and influence over the study constitutes a clear conflict interest. Disclosure of this sponsorship, on its own, does not equate to adequate management of this conflict. The non-random, industry participant-selected location and time of well evaluations and small sample size are two potential issues with the study’s gas industry sponsorship raised by the group, Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy.

Did the various players behind the study take steps to manage this basic conflict of interest, and ensure that the industry sponsors did not exercise improper influence over the study? Were industry sponsors given a first look at the preliminary results from the study?

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