There is a growing concern with university studies regarding hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, and the relationships between those schools and the oil and gas industry. The studies conducted aim to prove that fracking is safe and are cited by state politicians as reasons to open up to the fracking market. However, recent discoveries concerning the authors and universities links to the oil and gas industry has raised questions regarding possible bias within the reports.
Fracking involves injecting millions of gallons of water, mixed with various chemicals, deep into the ground to break up rock and release natural gas. Some environmentalists have found that the drilling technique is linked to negative environmental consequences, such as contaminated drinking water. Ohio state officials were forced to tighten fracking regulations after a series of earthquakes in northeastern Ohio were linked to fracking.
The energy policy wing of the US Chamber of Commerce recently launched a public-relations campaign called “Shale Works for US” that plans on spending millions of dollars on advertising to convince Ohio citizens that fracking is a good way to bring the state out of a recession. The campaign uses a study authored by professors from Ohio universities to support claims of safety with fracking but fails to mention the funding those authors received from the natural gas industry. One co-author of the study, Robert Chase, was recently investigated by the Ohio Ethics Commission for his potential conflicts of interest.
Chase received his petroleum engineering PhD from Penn State and early in his career worked as a consultant for some of the nation’s biggest oil and gas developers, like Halliburton and Cabot. In 1978 he started teaching petroleum engineering at Marietta College where he is still on the faculty today and in 2008 he was appointed to the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission. The commission is an independent judiciary board that hears complaints from landowners and developers against the state’s Division of Resources Management. Then last year he also founded his own consulting firm by the name of Chaseland LLC. His company is designed to help connect landowners with gas companies looking for drilling rights. Chase gains a commission for these services. As a result of his founding of Chaseland, the director of the Oil and Gas Commission, Linda Osterman, asked the state’s ethics board to investigate Chase. Chase has taken a pro-fracking stance by calling for increased fracking and assuring locals that it is safe. He also gave testimony to Congress on the benefits of fracking.
Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council expressed concern over Chase’s involvement in fracking research and stated “[t]here’s a clear and present danger of industry and university being way too cozy. [Chase] is clearly a poster child for the need for a clear bright line between industry and academia.” Unfortunately Chase is not the only professor conducting fracking studies that has not disclosed his relationship with the natural gas industry.
Another Penn State graduate, Timothy Considine, is now a geologist at the University of Wyoming and was the lead author on a SUNY Buffalo report released in May that claimed state regulations had made fracking safe in Pennsylvania. Days after the release of the report a top Pennsylvania environmental official quoted the study in his testimony to Congress regarding the effectiveness of fracking regulations. However, neither the state official nor the study he quoted disclosed Considine’s close ties to the industry and the fact that his department received nearly $6 million in donations from the oil and gas industry last year alone.
Charles Groat, a professor at the University of Texas, led a study that was released in February which claimed there was no evidence of groundwater contamination from fracking but also forgot to disclose that he was on the board of a major Texas fracking company. Groat was reportedly paid $400,000 by the fracking company in 2011 and the University is now convening a panel to re-examine the professor’s findings.
Thomas McGarity is a UT Austin law professor who has performed studies on industry money in university research and wrote the book Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupts Public Health Research. He found that it is almost impossible to imagine a bias –free study with industry cash behind it and stated “[t]hey’re trying to buy the prestige of the university…And the universities are happy to sell their prestige, I suppose.”
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