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:

I ask that the panel assess the impact of Dr. Charles Groat’s failure to disclose his affiliation with Plains Exploration and Production both in the report and to the university. Furthermore, I ask the panel to evaluate the impact Dr. Groat’s position as a member of the Plains Exploration and Production board of directors may have had on the substance of the report.

Leslie adds: “Dr. Groat’s failure to disclose [his affiliation with Plains] has generated controversy about the reliability of the report and I would appreciate any and all comments you may have about this, understanding, of course, that you are not expected to comment as an expert on fracking.” He goes on to list the materials he expects the panel to base their findings upon:

The university shall make available to you all information relevant to this issue. In particular, I shall provide you electronically the following:

1. The three white papers, prepared initially by Professors Matt Eastin, Ian Duncan, and Hannah Wiseman, that form the body of the report
2. The summary of the report, as published
3. The external blog posting and media stories that have appeared on the controversy
4. The editorials that have appeared in the press
5. The detailed timeline of the preparation of the three white papers and summary
6. The pamphlets that were produced in relation to the report
7. The drafts for the white papers and summary
8. Anything else that you believe relevant

Missing from this list is PAI’s review of the report that first raised the issue of Groat’s conflict of interest, as well as several others. The language tasking the panel as well as the materials listed above suggest that the panel’s purview is the impact of Groat’s affiliation with Plains on the report and the university and not “to review the scientific credibility of the report and to examine any related issues that the panel members believe are relevant,” as suggested by the press release.

While Groat’s conflict of interest was the issed most focused-on in the media, PAI reported a number of other issues with UT’s report:

  • A rough draft, not ready for public release. Though the report was introduced at an academic conference, the UT report does not appear to have been ready for public release. Two of the report’s main sections are marked as rough drafts. In the “Environmental Impacts” section, numerous citations are missing, including some that are marked in red ink.
  • Industry-friendly groundwater contamination claim rests on misleading, selective language. The finding highlighted in the press release – that hydraulic fracturing itself has not been linked to groundwater contamination – relies on a semantic sleight of hand that the student newspaper at the University of Texas, the Daily Texan, has recently criticized for contributing to “misreporting” of the issue. The claim ignores a number of contamination incidents related to aspects of fracking other than the actual fracturing of the rocks. The report itself also raises nearly two dozen significant environmental issues related to fracking that are largely ignored in the press release.
  • Inaccurate claims of peer review. The Energy Institute’s director, Ray Orbach, claimed that the report was “the first peer-reviewed analysis” of the environmental impacts of fracking in the Energy Institute’s annual report, but the report did not undergo an adequate editing process, much less conventional peer review. Similarly, UB claimed that its study was “peer-reviewed” in its press release, but later retracted that claim. Both reports, incidentally, were reviewed by representatives of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The focus of Stephen Leslie’s letter to the reviewers on the effect of Groat’s failure to disclose his conflict to the school as well as the absence of PAI’s report from the documents to be considered seems to indicate that UT’s concern is with how it was depicted in the media, rather than the substance of the report issued under its imprimatur. If this were a comprehensive review, presumably the reviewers would be tasked with examining all issues raised with the report, not just those focused on by the media.

“Contaminated Inquiry”, PAI’s full analysis of the UT report can be found here.

This is cross-posted at “Eyes on the Ties”, the LittleSis blog.

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