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short of the generally accepted rigor required for the publication of scientific work” and recommending that it be withdrawn.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:

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PAI Statement on UB’s Closing of Shale Institute

Statement of Kevin Connor, director of the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) on the closing of UB’s Shale Resources and Society Institute*

The University at Buffalo took an important stand for principles of academic integrity and transparency with its decision to shutter the Shale Institute today. The decision sends a strong message to the oil and gas industry: SUNY is not for sale. Sham science that peddles industry myths has no place in the fracking debate, and it does not deserve the imprimatur of the University at Buffalo or that of any other credible academic institution. This is a major victory for faculty, students, staff, and SUNY trustees who led the fight against this corporate takeover.

The problem of “frackademia” extends far beyond Buffalo, and the Shale Institute is now a cautionary tale for universities around the country passing off industry-sponsored propaganda as academic research, from Penn State to the University of Texas and beyond. This is an important chapter in a much larger fight for academic integrity and transparency.

* Background: In May, UB’s Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI) issued a controversial study in May claiming that fracking is getting safer in Pennsylvania. PAI responded with a report that identified serious flaws in the study, including basic math errors that threw its central claim into question, passages copied from another report, false claims of peer review, and serious, undisclosed conflicts of interest. PAI’s report was covered by numerous media outlets and helped lead to a groundswell of opposition to SRSI, including the formation of the UB Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research (UB CLEAR), a group of faculty, staff, and students advocating transparency at SRSI. As a result of the controversy, SUNY trustees asked UB to report on SRSI’s founding and funding in September. PAI responded by highlighting problems with UB’s response to the trustees, including significant gaps in its disclosure. Today, with a SUNY trustees meeting looming in two weeks, UB President Satish Tripathi announced that he was closing SRSI.

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The Scope of the University of Texas Fracking Review

Last week, the University of Texas at Austin announced that “three nationally renowned leaders in science, public service and higher education” would review the industry-friendly report issued in February by its Energy Institute that has been the center of a controversy over the gas industry’s influence on academia and, by extension, public policy. That day, PAI revealed that review panel chairman Norman Augustine has his own industry ties, formerly serving on the board of directors of fracking company and UT benefactor ConocoPhillips and currently receiving payments from the company for $3.1 million of deferred stock awards.

According to last month’s press release announcing the review, the panel was convened “to review the scientific credibility of the report and to examine any related issues that the panel members believe are relevant,” a point Andrew Revkin reiterated in the comments of his New York Times blog post on panel chairman Norman Augustine’s industry ties: “Keep in mind this is not an ethics review, but a review of the findings in the report, as the university stated in July.”

A look at the letter Leslie wrote charging the panelists in their review reveals that they were not asked to evaluate the content of the report, but rather to evaluate the effect of lead author Chip Groat’s financial stake in Plains Exploration and Production:
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UT Austin Chooses Oil & Gas Industry Insider to Review Fracking Report

The University of Texas at Austin named a panel of three experts to review its troubled fracking report today. There’s a problem with the panel: it’s being chaired by a longtime oil and gas industry insider. This is the statement we released today in response:

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University of Texas Promises Review of Fracking Study in Response to PAI’s Criticism

The publication this week of the Public Accountability Initiative’s report “Contaminated Inquiry”, together with a lengthy article by Jim Efstathiou Jr. for Bloomberg (“Frackers Fund University Research That Proves Their Case”) and further press coverage, has elicited a response from the University of Texas at Austin. The statement below, attributed to provost and executive vice president Steven Leslie, was released late Tuesday:

The most important asset we have as an institution is the public’s trust. If that is in question, then that is something we need to address. We will identify a group of outside experts to review the Energy Institute’s report on the effects of hydraulic fracturing. We hope to have that group identified and the results back within a few weeks. We believe that the research meets our standards, but it is important to let an outside group of experts take an independent look.

Dr. Groat has been reminded of his obligations to report all outside employment per university policy. If the university had known about Dr. Groat’s board involvement, the Energy Institute would have included that information in the report.

It remains to be seen, of course, how the university will follow through on this commitment. Yet the willingness to even acknowledge impropriety, for a start, is to be commended in contrast to the University at Buffalo’s refusal to review or provide greater transparency into the funding of its own fracking research, after PAI had raised important questions in a May report (“The UB Shale Play”).

Meanwhile, Chip Groat of the UT Energy Institute, who directed the fracking study and whose undisclosed financial stake in the oil and gas company Plains Exploration & Production (PXP) was a key aspect of PAI’s report, has brushed off all criticism. Groat told Bloomberg’s Efstathiou that disclosing his position on PXP’s board “would not have served any meaningful purpose relevant to this study,” but otherwise did not address specific critiques made by PAI beyond this blanket dismissal provided to an Austin-based journalist:

The professor would not agree to an interview, but in an email to StateImpact Texas he says the Public Accountability Initiative report is “a mixture of truths, half truths, and unfounded conclusions based [on] incorrect interpretations of information. I don’t want to discuss it.”

One of the most thoughtful responses so far to the issue of Groat’s industry ties and role in the UT study comes from David Wogan, a writer for Scientific American who was once Groat’s student. While acknowledging the need for collaboration between industry and universities in conducting research, as long as ethics and disclosure standards are scrupulously adhered to, Wogan evaluates the UT situation and is forced to conclude that Groat and the university fell short of those standards: “At the very least, Dr. Groat should have removed himself from the study.”

Selected media coverage of the PAI report and its ramifications:

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University at Buffalo rejects call for transparency at Shale Institute

The controversy surrounding the University at Buffalo’s shale institute continued to grow yesterday, with the university’s administration rebuffing a new coalition’s calls for transparency at the institute.

Last month, PAI released a report identifying significant errors and distortions in a report released by the University at Buffalo’s brand-new Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI). The report claimed that hydrofracking was becoming safer, but misread its own data in making the claim, copied entire passages from a pro-fracking Manhattan Institute report, and showed clear signs of pro-industry bias and poor scholarship.

A new coalition of UB students and faculty, the UB Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research (UB CLEAR), formed in response to the problems surrounding SRSI and the report and yesterday staged a press conference calling for an investigation into the founding, funding, and hiring process at the recently-launched institute. From the Buffalo News:

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