The past six months have not been friendly to oil and gas drillers that rely on hydraulic fracturing to exploit shale and other unconventional petroleum sources. As natural gas and oil prices continue to fall, drillers are laying off tens of thousands of employees and taking rigs offline to pare down expenses.
At the same time, new studies are adding to a growing evidentiary case that increasing reliance on fracked natural gas does not entail the climate benefits it was once thought to. A study published in July 2015 in Nature Communications found that, for the most part, it was the global recession, and not the shift from coal to natural gas for electricity production, that drove the reduction in US fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions from 2007 to 2013. Further, recent studies in a 16-part series sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund, and backed by several oil and gas corporations, have found that estimates of methane emissions from oil and gas operations are significantly higher than official estimates.
Other recent reports have found that fracking wells are not always as drilled as deep as they are portrayed (contributing to concerns about water contamination through faulty well casing), that living near fracking sites is correlated with increased hospitalization rates, and that (at least in California) fracking disproportionately occurs near communities of color.
Amid this spate of bad press, industry advocates have advanced several new studies that they say support fracking. This report examines the industry ties of five studies that were sponsored by the oil and gas industry and its proponents and which have generated positive media coverage for the industry in the past year. We classified the studies based on the methodology we developed for our February 2015 report Frackademia in Depth, judging the strength and the type of industry ties for each study as well as whether they were peer-reviewed.
Of the five studies profiled here, four had ties we classified as ‘strong’ and one had ties we classified as ‘medium.’ Only one of the studies was peer-reviewed. The methodology section below describes in greater detail how reports were classified, but generally reports were considered to have strong ties if they were funded by the oil and gas industry or an advocacy group working for the industry. Reports that were authored by industry consultants or were advised by industry representatives were classified as having medium industry ties.
This report is part of PAI’s ongoing work to provide crucial context to the sometimes dubious science used to promote fracking to the public and to policymakers. Since the tobacco industry pioneered the use of compromised scientists to sow doubt about the harmful effects of smoking, corporations have employed a complex of industry-funded academic institutes, public relations outfits, lobbying firms, and independent consultants to provide seemingly independent support for their lines of business. In the fracking debate, this complex has come be known as “frackademia,” and PAI has reported on various frackademic studies since 2012, exposing undisclosed conflicts of interest, shoddy science, and false claims of peer review.
This report can be found in PAI’s Frackademia Guide, which brings together PAI’s in-depth reporting on the phenomenon and outside investigative journalism with a frackademia database, where users can obtain information about influential industry-tied fracking studies. We will continue updating the guide and database as new studies emerge. If there is any information missing that you feel should be included, please contact PAI at [email protected].
The methodology to classify these five reports is the same that PAI employed in preparing Frackademia in Depth. We assessed the relative independence of the studies by determining whether they were peer-reviewed and analyzed studies’ relative independence by researching their industry ties.
PAI analyzed the financial and employment ties to the oil and gas industry, categorizing studies as having strong, medium, weak, or no industry connections based on the following classification system:
Strong – Studies directly funded by oil and gas firms or trade groups; studies with authors who work for the oil and gas industry; studies that were issued by oil and gas companies or trade groups.
Medium – Studies released by organizations with oil and gas funding; studies released by organizations that contracted with oil and gas consultants or groups for research; financial analyses from banks for which investing in and financing oil and gas operations is a significant component of their business.
Weak – Studies produced only in part by an oil and gas industry contractor or studies where the author had past or indirect ties to industry.
Of the five studies analyzed in this report, we found that four had strong ties and one had medium ties to the industry. One of the five studies was peer-reviewed.
In the frackademia database, industry-tied studies are further coded by the type of connection. The coding classification is as follows:
‘F’ – funded directly by industry or industry advocacy groups.
‘A’ – written by authors employed by the oil and gas industry at the time of the report.
‘C’ – written by individual consultants or consulting firms with an energy industry focus or client base.
‘M’ – issued or prepared by a trade group or association with an oil and gas membership base.
‘I’ – issued and/or prepared by organizations that receive indirect or partial funding from industry. This includes think tanks that receive industry donations as part of their operating budget.
‘O’ – authored by individuals with past, attenuated, or indirect links to industry or were studies that relied disproportionately on industry information.
Studies may have more than one code.
Finally, the connections between the various people and organizations analyzed in preparing this report can be seen on LittleSis, PAI’s open database of who knows who in business and government. LittleSis (the opposite of “Big Brother”) tracks powerful people and organizations and the relationships between them. Using LittleSis, researchers can track and analyze complex sets of connections, such as those documented in this report.
“Economic and Environmental Impacts of Oil and Gas Development Offshore the Delmarva, Carolinas, and Georgia”
Industry ties: Strong (F, C)
This report, authored by Timothy Considine, an economist at the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources, argues for opening the Atlantic seaboard to offshore drilling. Considine concluded that oil and gas drilling from the mid-Atlantic to Georgia would add between $11 billion and $60 billion in economic value to the state economies and generate between $2 billion and $12 billion in tax revenues.
While this report did not generate much national media coverage, it was covered by the Houston Chronicle‘s “FuelFix” blog. Several regional media outlets also ran op-ed pieces authored by affiliates of the Interstate Policy Alliance, which funded the study, touting its conclusions.
The Interstate Policy Alliance is a project of the Employment Policies Institute, one of a number of front groups established by the public relations firm Berman and Company. Berman and Company’s founder Rick Berman is famous for his disinformation campaigns and for using a network of front groups to attack opponents of his anonymous corporate clients.
Though Berman and Company does not disclose the identities of its clients, the firm and its network of front groups have recently begun attacking fracking opponents and climate change regulations, suggesting it has been retained by the oil and gas industry. In 2014, Rick Berman gave keynote presentations to at least two conferences held by oil and gas lobbying groups, the Western Energy Alliance and the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York. At the Western Energy Alliance conference, Berman advised the gathered attendees to “win ugly or lose pretty,” and to exploit people’s fear, greed, and anger to win their favor.
The report’s author, Timothy Considine, has figured prominently in PAI’s research into frackademia as the author of a variety of industry-funded reports lauding the economic benefit of fracking and arguing for a number of policy positions from opposing a severance tax in Pennsylvania, to advocating fracking on federal lands in Wyoming, to encouraging offshore oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic.
In 2010, a study Considine authored was retracted and reissued by Penn State after an environmental group revealed that he had failed to disclose that it had been funded by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an oil and gas lobbying group based in western Pennsylvania. That study was the first in a series that Penn State canceled in 2012 due to a lack of Penn State faculty members interested in co-authoring with Considine.
Industry ties: Strong (F, C)
Under new Governor Tom Wolfe, Pennsylvania is again considering implementing a severance tax on gas production. This report predicts devastating effects for the Pennsylvania economy should the state adopt a severance tax.
Timothy Considine also wrote this report, commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute. Similar to his 2009 report on the economic impact of fracking in Pennsylvania, published with the Penn State logo and censured by the university’s Dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences for crossing “the line between analysis and advocacy” for recommending that the state not adopt a tax on natural gas produced at the wellhead.
“Methane Concentrations in Water Wells Unrelated to Proximity to Existing Oil and Gas Wells in Northeastern Pennsylvania”
Industry ties: Strong (F, A, C)
In March 2015, the journal Environmental Science & Technology published a study led by Syracuse University hydrologist Donald Siegel that concluded that proximity to oil and gas wells was not correlated with higher methane concentrations in Pennsylvania water wells. This study purported to rebut earlier studies, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by a team of researchers from Duke University.
Siegel and his co-authors’ conclusions were hailed by pro-fracking websites such as “Natural Gas Now” and “Energy in Depth,” and repeated in the news media. The Weather Channel ran a story on Siegel’s study titled “Study: Methane in Pennsylvania Drinking Water Unrelated to Fracking” and Science Insider, a blog published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, posted a story with a similar title, “Methane in drinking water unrelated to fracking, study suggests.”
Soon after publishing the study, Environmental Science & Technology issued a front page correction as it turned out that lead author Siegel had failed to disclose that, in addition to providing the data upon which his conclusions were based, oil and gas driller Chesapeake Energy had also funded the study and paid Siegel directly.
From the correction:
The authors thank the Chesapeake Energy Corporation for access to their baseline groundwater data set for NE Pennsylvania and for providing funding for the authors through their organizations of employment, and privately in the case of the senior author, to do basic research to explore and evaluate this very large data set. (Emphasis added).
Further, one of Siegel’s co-authors, Bert Smith, is a former Chesapeake employee who now works for Enviro Clean, a firm that consults for Chesapeake Energy. While Smith’s employment at Enviro Clean was noted when the study was published, the fact that his employer works for Chesapeake Energy was not.
In fact, the authors explicitly declared “no competing financial interest” in the version of the study accepted for publication.
While the authors’ industry funding does not damn their study in itself, failing to disclose the extent of Chesapeake’s involvement with the study gives the appearance that they were trying to conceal it. Nonetheless, Syracuse found that Siegel was not in violation of its conflict of interest policy.
Siegel is a long-time ally to the oil and gas industry. In addition to producing pro-fracking research, Siegel has written for Energy in Depth’s blog and has been retained by fracking companies Anschutz Exploration and Crestwood Midstream Partners as an expert witness in lawsuits against the companies. In the case of Siegel’s testimony on behalf of Anschutz, DC Bureau’s Peter Mantius reported that Siegel earned $225 per hour for their work.
Industry ties: Medium (C)
Harvard Business School’s U.S. Competitiveness Project released a report in June 2015 touting unconventional energy – including oil and gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing – as “perhaps the single largest opportunity to improve the trajectory of the U.S. economy.” The report chides the US for its “unproductive, divisive, and often misinformed debate about our energy strategy,” and slams both the Department of Interior, for its regulation of fracking on federal lands, and New York State, for banning the extraction method outright. By embracing fracking and lifting the ban on crude oil exports, the authors argue, the US will return to its pre-recession economic performance.
The report also lauds two industry-led efforts to minimize fracking’s environmental impacts, STRONGER (the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations) and CSSD (the Center for Sustainable Shale Development), that appear to be closer to “greenwashing” campaigns to make drilling appear environmentally friendly than robust regulatory regimes. PAI has published two reports on CSSD’s ties, both disclosed and undisclosed, to the oil and gas industry.
With the imprimatur of the best known Ivy League university, the report enjoyed broad distribution. Reuters newswire ran a widely syndicated story on the report, titled “U.S. should ditch ‘outdated’ oil export ban: Harvard,” and New York Times columnist David Brooks cited it in an op-ed excoriating Pope Francis for his anti-climate change encyclical. Neither piece mentioned the report’s significant ties to the oil and gas industry.
Two of the three authors of “America’s Unconventional Energy Opportunity” work for Boston Consulting Group, a large firm that has done work for an oil and gas lobbying group. Further, the report was led by a steering committee stacked with industry representatives and allies.
David S Gee and Gregory J Pope are a managing partner and principal respectively at Boston Consulting Group, a massive international consulting firm. In the report’s conflict of interest disclosure, BCG hints at having clients with an interest in the report’s findings while declining to name any specific companies. From the disclosure:
BCG either may provide or does provide services to, has partnerships with, or has other relationships of a commercial or non-commercial nature with organizations cited in this report, either in the past or the future.
One of BCG’s interested clients, though not one cited in the report, is the Western States Petroleum Association, an oil and gas lobbying group based in California. WSPA’s 2012 tax return discloses a $648,875 contract with BCG for “advocacy.” It’s not clear what this advocacy entailed, though it is noteworthy that WSPA’s other advocacy contract that year was with the lobbying firm Kahl Pownall.
Report author David Gee, a BCG managing partner, has worked for the energy industry for more than 30 years, with stints at Baker Hughes, PG&E, and AES Corporation.
The report authors also acknowledge the contributions of a 12-person steering committee, “convened to solicit deeper guidance and stress-test our analyses and recommendations,” which was overwhelmingly comprised of individuals with a stake in continued and increased fracking. Additionally, two steering committee members are directors of CSSD, the industry-led certification group commended in the report.
In addition to three Harvard Business School professors, the report steering committee comprised:
- R A Walker, Chairman, President, and CEO of Anadarko Petroleum, a drilling company
- Hans Engel, Chairman & CEO of BASF, which uses natural gas as a feedstock for the chemicals it manufactures
- Philip K Asherman, President & CEO of Chicago Bridge & Iron Company, which calls itself “the most complete energy infrastructure focused company in the world”
- Robin West, senior advisor, energy and national security program, CSIS, a think tank with significant energy industry funding
- Leo Denault, Chairman & CEO of Entergy, an electric utility that burns natural gas for power generation
- Fred Krupp, President of Environmental Defense Fund, a pro-fracking environmental group with extensive oil and gas ties, and a board member of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development
- Mark Brownstein, Associate Vice President of Environmental Defense Fund
- Eric A Spiegel, President & CEO, Siemens Corp, a German conglomerate that supplies the oil and gas industry
- Christine Todd Whitman, President of Whitman Strategy Group, which has lobbied for Chevron and the chemical company FMC Corporation, and a director of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development
Industry ties: Strong (F, C)
An update to a 2012 report with the same name, “A Geologic Playbook for Utica Shale Appalachian Basin Exploration” was published in July 2015 by the Utica Shale Appalachian Basin Consortium at West Virginia University.
The report, funded by 14 oil and gas industry partners and the National Energy Technology Laboratory, was announced by WVU with a press release that bore the headline “Utica Shale may be next big natural gas producer says WVU study” and focused on the researchers’ conclusion that the Utica Shale contains 782 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas and nearly 2 billion barrels of oil – more 20 times as much natural gas and twice as much oil as a 2012 US Geological Survey estimate. The study’s industry funding and participation went unmentioned.
The news media followed WVU’s lead, running stories identifying the report as a West Virginia University study and reporting the authors’ reserve estimates without including the Utica Shale Appalachian Basin Consortium’s industry ties. The Charleston Gazette’s story was titled “Study finds natural gas reserves in Appalachia larger than estimated,” for example, and the State Journal’s headline read “WVU study: Utica gas resources, production could potentially surpass Marcellus.”
Oil and gas reserves are difficult to reliably quantify, with a variety of different terms used to measure reserves with varying degrees of certainty. According to the US Energy Information Administration “technically recoverable resources,” the category estimated by the WVU researchers, “includes all the oil and gas that can be produced based on current technology, industry practice, and geologic knowledge,” and is the second least certain category of estimate. For example in 2014, the EIA cut its technically recoverable reserves estimate for the Monterey Shale in California by 96% “because of the industry’s difficulty in producing from the region.” Being based on production data from oil and gas drillers, which tend to drill the easiest to produce areas first, WVU’s estimate here warrants some qualification absent from the press release and ensuing media coverage.
As mentioned above, WVU’s press release and the news stories that followed also did not disclose the study’s industry funding. In the executive summary, the authors indicate that “The Study was funded by industry members of the Utica Shale Appalachian Basin Exploration Consortium.”
The industry members, identified on the last page of the report, are:
- Devon Energy
- EOG Resources
- Range Resources
- Seneca Resources
- Southwestern Energy
- Tracker Resources
Also included in the list of industry consortium members is the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) Strategic Center for Natural Gas and Oil, the petroleum research arm of the Department of Energy.