n. The complex of oil-and-gas-allied academics, think tanks, consulting firms, and public relations shops producing misleading and flawed research to win public and political support for hydraulic fracturing.
Beginning in 2012, PAI has compiled and released a large quantity of research on the phenomenon now known as “frackademia,” by which the oil and gas industry and its allies have funded and advanced research promoting fracking as environmentally safe and economically beneficial.
This guide is intended to serve as a resource for anyone – journalists, policymakers, activists, and members of the public – seeking additional context on these studies and their industry ties, context that is often missing from press releases and reporting. Below are links to a database of frackademic research with information about the industry ties of more than 100 studies, in-depth reports examining individual studies, professional profiles of prominent authors and their academic institutions, and outside reporting on the phenomenon. You will also find maps of some of the networks behind this research that were created with LittleSis, PAI’s power research tool for documenting and visualizing networks of influence.
Recent Frackademia News
September 2, 2015
Five new pro-fracking studies have industry ties
A new study from PAI examines five studies on fracking released in the past year that generally advocated expanding fracking. Studies pushed against proposals to tax natural gas production in Pennsylvania, argued for increased drilling in the mid-Atlantic and in the Utica Shale, railed against fracking bans and regulations, and claimed to debunk studies that found pollution to be related to fracking.
All five studies had significant ties to the oil and gas industry and only one was published in a peer-reviewed journal. The journal that ran that study ran a correction soon thereafter when it was revealed that the authors had failed to disclose that they were paid by the drilling company Chesapeake Energy.
This interactive table links to over 100 studies and briefly describes the type and degree of their ties to the oil and gas industry.
Expanding each entry will reveal details about the authors of each study on the list, notes on the study’s industry ties, other notes about the study or its authors, and links to either PAI or outside reporting on the study’s ties. You can also filter the table by Strength of Industry Ties, Type of Industry Ties, Peer Review, and Topic or search for terms in any field.
If there is a study that you feel is missing from our database, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Frackademic studies tend to focus either on the economic benefits associated with fracking or the relative environmental safety of the practice. Fracking is promoted as a pathway to increased employment and GDP as well as a bridge away from coal and toward renewable power sources. Concerns about the environmental impacts from fracking are diminished as flukes that can be disposed of through best industry practices and misleadingly divorced from “fracking itself.”
- Employment benefits
- Expanding US oil & gas exports
Perhaps the most commonly referenced benefit from fracking is the promise of jobs, both in the drilling industry itself and in other industries due to the increase in economic activity spurred by oil and gas development. As the fracking boom took off in earnest in the mid- to late-2000s, communities that had been hit hard by the global financial crisis and, in Appalachia, by the decline of the US steel industry, were promised thousands of well paying jobs from fracking by the oil and gas industry, which pointed to numerous economic impact studies as evidence.
Particularly influential in the early days of the fracking debate was a study published in 2009 by Pennsylvania State University that claimed that, unimpeded, fracking would bring 175,000 jobs to Pennsylvania by the year 2020. The study, funded by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pittsburgh-based oil and gas lobbying group, also argued that adopting a severance tax on oil and gas would doom the nascent industry. This report became the center of the first major frackademia scandal when an environmental group revealed that author Timothy Considine had failed to disclose he was funded by the industry lobby (more on this in the section on scandals below). Still, the Penn State report was widely cited, both in Pennsylvania and in other communities debating whether to permit and how tightly to regulate fracking. For example, the study was referenced in a report commissioned by the government of Broome County, New York, a report funded by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, and a 2013 study contracted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Other industry-tied economic impact reports have employed the Penn State study’s methodology, generating unrealistically optimistic predictions of economic benefits using a modeling program called IMPLAN. Using IMPLAN to reliably estimate economic impacts has been criticized, both generally and with respect to fracking studies in particular, for being easily manipulated by users to arrive at their desired outcome. For example, while the 2011 update of the Penn State study estimated employment in and spurred by the oil and gas industry at nearly 140,000 jobs rising to 256,000 jobs by 2020, the state of Pennsylvania’s current estimate (also derived using IMPLAN) is 90,000 jobs related to drilling.
In the wake of natural gas and oil price crashes spurred by the increased production attributable to fracking, many frackademic studies have concentrated on expanding US exports of oil and gas. Industry-tied reports have concluded that expanding exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) is in the United States’ economic and security interest, claiming that approval of more LNG exports will, counterintuitively, reduce the cost of natural gas for US consumers as well as improve global security by diversifying the energy supply and making it more resilient to disruption. Other studies have made similar arguments about lifting the ban on crude oil exports, making assertions that exporting crude oil again will reduce US gasoline prices, raise the country’s GDP, and create thousands of jobs.
Perhaps the most influential study advocating expanded exports was the MIT Energy Initiative’s 2011 report “The Future of Natural Gas.” Funded by a variety of oil and gas interests, including a front group created by Chesapeake Energy to cloak natural gas advocacy in environmentalism, and led by future Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, “The Future of Natural Gas” touted natural gas’s purported climate benefits and described environmental impacts as “challenging but manageable” in addition to promoting the expansion of LNG exports.
Claims that pushing more US LNG into the global market will reduce natural gas prices in the US are not generally endorsed, even by many industry-funded studies, and hypotheses about benefits to global security remain untested; however, the push for heightened LNG exports was largely successful. Since 2011, several proposed LNG export terminals have been approved by federal regulatory agencies, with five currently under construction as of July 2015.
Despite similarly untested hypotheses and a lack of consensus, even among traditional industry allies, about what benefit would materialize from lifting the crude oil export ban, industry messaging around the issue has taken a strong foothold. The Government Accountability Office issued a report, based on industry studies, advocating an end to the ban in November 2014, and in August 2015 the Washington Post ran an editorial calling for crude oil exports.
Uncontested in the discussion over LNG and crude oil exports is that an increase in both would be beneficial to the fracking industry, allowing companies to bring more fuels to the market and, in the case of LNG, obtain a higher price. Both will also lead to increased drilling and consumption, indeed increased drilling and consumption is the point, along with which comes an attendant increase in environmental impacts, including greenhouse gas emissions and toxic spills.
- Water contamination
- Greenhouse gas emissions
The most iconic image associated with fracking criticism has been the flaming water faucets of Dimock, Pennsylvania made famous by the documentary Gasland. Since then, the oil and gas industry and its allies have exerted an extraordinary amount of effort to refute claims that fracking operations have contaminated water supplies.
Industry claims that fracking has not contaminated groundwater tend to turn on interpreting the word “fracking” as referring only to the stage in oil and gas drilling where fluid is pumped into wells to break apart the shale underground as opposed to the more common usage referring to the entire oil and gas production process. Focusing on only this one step in the process, frackademics have repeatedly issued versions of the claim that “there is no conclusive evidence that fracking has contaminated groundwater.” News media tended to follow the cues of study press releases, prominently featuring the conclusion that fracking has not contaminated groundwater and attributing instances of pollution to faulty well casing or surface spills. These carefully parsed conclusions carry the implication that, contrary to environmental activists’ claims, fracking is safe and mistakes like flawed well casings and chemical spills are anomalies rather than an unavoidable reality of drilling.
The paradigmatic example of the “fracking itself” claim in action is a 2012 University of Texas at Austin report called “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Drilling.” The report, a 400-page collection of white papers examining public perception of fracking, its representation in the media, current state-level regulations, and environmental impacts, was released with the headline “New Study Shows No Evidence of Groundwater Contamination from Hydraulic Fracturing.” This was repeated in the mainstream media for months until PAI revealed that the study was not even a complete draft when released and that its principal investigator had failed to declare that he was a paid board member of a fracking company.
There have been numerous instances of water pollution attributable to fracking operations. Faulty well casings have led to methane contamination in water supplies (the cause of Gasland‘s famous burning taps) as well as contamination from toxic fracking fluid, and blowouts and chemical spills at drilling sites have poisoned streams and wells. Fracking waste has also contaminated water supplies through intentional illegal dumping.
The promise of reduced carbon dioxide emissions from replacing natural gas for coal as an energy source is another selling point used to pitch fracking. Natural gas, it is argued, emits far less carbon dioxide than coal when burned for power generation, and for this expanding gas drilling and consumption is an important component in the fight against climate change. Natural gas was billed as a “bridge fuel” that could be burned more safely than coal during the time it takes for renewable energy sources to build market share. The gas driller Chesapeake Energy, then under the leadership of former Chairman and CEO Aubrey McClendon, even established a non-profit organization, the American Clean Skies Foundation, to promote natural gas from this angle.
The purported climate benefits of natural gas won buy-in from many policymakers and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund, which both endorsed the “bridge fuel” concept at the beginning of the fracking boom. However, the Sierra Club changed positions on fracking when it was revealed that the group had taken $25 million in donations from McClendon for its “Beyond Coal” campaign.
In 2011, Cornell University researchers Robert Howarth, Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea published a study in the journal Climatic Change that concluded that, while burning natural gas produced less carbon dioxide emissions than burning coal, the entire greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater than coal’s due to the greater potency of natural gas, i.e. methane, as a contributor to the greenhouse effect. This study was widely derided by fracking proponents at first. The researchers were attacked by pro-fracking blogs and then-MIT Energy Initiative Director and current Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz appended a rebuttal of the Cornell study to the MITEI report “The Future of Natural Gas.”
A growing body of evidence, however, supports Howarth, Santoro, and Ingraffea’s conclusion. The Environmental Defense Fund, which receives significant funding from people with ties to the oil and gas industry, began sponsoring research into methane emissions from the oil and natural gas supply chain. The 16-study series has not been completed, though several studies that have been published have found that methane emissions from the natural gas industry exceed industry and Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Another study suggests that the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions the US has experienced since the fracking boom began is not due to the increased use of natural gas, but rather to reduced consumption caused by the global recession. A further study found that the use of natural gas as fuel for large trucks, also promoted as a climate change strategy, will not produce the large reduction in greenhouse gas emissions predicted.
Ties between researchers and the oil and gas industry diagrammed using Oligrapher
PAI has issued several reports and published numerous blog posts highlighting industry ties, methodological shortcomings, and misleading conclusions of a number of high-profile frackademic studies and profiling the compromised researchers behind them.
The UB Shale Play
An analysis of a study released by the University at Buffalo’s short-lived Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI) that erroneously concluded that major environmental impacts from fracking were on the decline in Pennsylvania. The study was incorrectly identified as peer-reviewed when it was first released, a claim that the university walked back. SRSI was shuttered shortly after the report’s release amid an inquiry by the SUNY board of trustees into the circumstances surrounding its founding and funding.
A 2012 report from the University at Texas Energy Institute presented at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference provided seemingly independent support for the misleading claim that “fracking itself” has not caused any cases of water contamination – downplaying instances of pollution due to deficiencies in well cementing and in other necessary steps in unconventional oil and gas drilling. PAI’s investigation revealed the study’s principal investigator had failed to disclose his seat on the board of a fracking company, which led the university to convene an independent panel to review the study. UT retracted the study when the panel concluded that it “fell short of contemporary standards for scientific work.” The principal investigator then retired and the Energy Institute’s director resigned.
Industry Partner or Industry Puppet?
PAI examined a study, led by current Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative. That study characterized the environmental impacts from fracking as “challenging but manageable” and called for the approval of liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to advance the United States’ economic and geopolitical interests. We found that the study was funded by a front group, the American Clean Skies Foundation, created by the gas driller Chesapeake Energy, and was led by an advisory group stacked with industry representatives.
Frackademia in Depth
An in-depth analysis of a set of nearly 150 studies provided by the industry lobby Energy in Depth to policymakers considering leasing public lands for fracking. The majority of studies compiled by EID – 76% – had some degree of industry connection, and only 14% were peer-reviewed. EID also included several discredited and retracted studies among those presented to legislators as supporting fracking.
Select shorter PAI reporting
“Frackademics: Timothy Considine – Analyst or Advocate?”
“Frackademics: The Ohio Shale Coalition Team”
“Penn State faculty refuse to co-author frackademic report”
“Frackademics: Shale Institute’s Jacobi hired to do seismic study for DEC”
“Petraeus joins pro-fracking choir at Harvard’s Belfer Center”
“Los Angeles Times interviews fracking expert, fails to disclose industry ties”
General outside resources
DeSmog’s frackademia reporting
SourceWatch’s frackademia page
Food & Water Watch’s frackademia fact sheet
Retraction Watch notices of retracted and corrected fracking studies
Select outside reporting
“Frackers Fund University Research That Proves Their Case”, Bloomberg (July 23, 2012)
“Natural Gas Fracking Industry May Be Paying Off Scientists”, Wired (July 30, 2012)
“A Deeper Look at Undisclosed Conflicts of Interest in ‘Frackademia’”, New York Times (August 1, 2012)
“‘Frackademia’: how Big Gas bought research on hydraulic fracturing”, The Guardian (January 9, 2013)
“Frackademics in UK pushing industry spin”, Extreme Energy Action Network (April 10, 2013)
“Shell funds shale gas research at Oxford University”, Extreme Energy Initiative (May 9, 2013)
“‘Frackademia’ By Law: Section 999 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 Exposed”, DeSmogBlog (September 3, 2013)
“‘Frackademia’: Climate Science for Sale, KCET (November 18, 2013)