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Critics question university research with ties to shale gas industry

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Tuesday, Sep. 25, 2012, at 10:09 p.m.

— Professors funded or compensated by the shale gas industry have produced influential research supporting the industry at major institutions including Penn State University and the University of Texas at Austin and don’t always disclose where that money is coming from.

There’s a growing backlash against the practice. State University of New York trustees last week ordered a review of the University at Buffalo’s shale gas institute after faculty members complained that authors of a controversial report were tied to the industry.

The University of Texas at Austin last month named a panel of experts to review its own controversial study. The Texas report found no evidence of groundwater contamination from “fracking,” the process of injecting high-pressure water and chemicals underground to free gas inside shale rock. But the professor who led the study, Charles Groat, failed to mention he’s on the board of a company engaged in fracking that paid him $400,000 last year.

Penn State is under fire after putting out influential shale industry-funded research without disclosing who paid for it. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which is reviewing Penn State’s accreditation because of the child-sex-abuse scandal of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, said it is considering a request from the advocacy group Responsible Drilling Alliance that it also look into the university’s ethics regarding shale gas research.

“I would certainly be very concerned about industry-funded research at academic institutions, which always has the potential for having strings attached to it,” said Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors. “In a number of cases there’s a clear conflict of interest and these corporations have a direct interest in research results that support their goals.”

Faculties are under increasing pressure to get private funding with cutbacks in government money, he said. Shale gas research is a particularly sensitive area, and there’s no conclusive data on how much of it is being funded by industry.

Some 100 protests, organized by the consumer advocacy group Food and Water Watch, were staged worldwide on Saturday against the process of fracking, with opponents of the process claiming it “has already damaged communities and ruined lives. It pollutes water and makes people sick.”

There’s been no scientific consensus on such harmful affects, and research is hotly disputed as shale gas emerges as a huge energy source.

The Responsible Drilling Alliance is targeting Penn State over a 2009 study that was influential in killing a proposed state tax on the shale gas industry. The study failed to mention it was commissioned and paid for by a shale industry trade group.

“Because Penn State put its prestige behind the paper it really changed the conversation in Pennsylvania, and weighted it very heavily on the side of the gas industry,” said Jon Bogle, co-founder of the Pennsylvania-based group. “If the gas industry had put out the same paper under its own name it would have been taken much less seriously.”

Penn State’s logo appeared on every page of the study.

“The high level of drilling activity in Pennsylvania is a function of relatively lower taxes. This competitive advantage should be maintained,” the authors of the report argued.

William Easterling, dean of Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, said in an interview that he doesn’t put much credence in the complaint that the Responsible Drilling Alliance filed this month against Penn State’s accreditation. While the original version of the shale gas study did not say that gas drillers paid for it, the fact was added to later versions. Easterling called it a “minor departure from Penn State research policy” to leave out the source of the funding in the initial version.

“While Penn State has no particular position on to frack or not to frack, we certainly will stand behind the research that’s been done,” he said.

Easterling said he doesn’t see any problem with taking money from the shale gas industry for shale gas research. He noted it’s a common practice at universities to get private funding from various industries, particularly at Penn State.

“Penn State is the second leading university in the country in terms of industry sponsored research. We’re good at it,” Easterling said. “We know how to receive funding from industry and not let the source cloud the science.”

(Penn State also has had controversy on the other side of fossil fuel debates. Penn State climatologist Michael Mann has been attacked by global warming skeptics after thousands of e-ails from scientists, including Mann, were hacked and posted on the Internet. Penn State said it found no evidence of research misconduct by Mann after an inquiry.)

The lead author on the Penn State shale gas study was Timothy Considine, who is now at the University of Wyoming. Considine, along with retired professor Robert Watson of Penn State, also led a report this year for the University at Buffalo asserting that fracking has become safer as a result of state oversight and industry improvements.

A Buffalo watchdog group called the Public Accountability Initiative put out a critique of the study, arguing that it was flawed and full of “industry friendly spin.” Considine did not return messages seeking comment for this story. The university was forced to retract its claim that the study was peer reviewed.

A group of professors and students reacted by forming the University at Buffalo Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research, calling for more transparency from the university’s new shale gas institute, which released the controversial report.

The State University of New York trustees have now weighed in with a resolution calling for more information on the institute.

The trustees ordered the university to turn over all “facts and circumstances regarding the formation of the UB Shale Institute, the selection of its directors and the publication of its first report, including the involvement of the natural-gas companies in the formation of the institute.”

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