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Report: Conflicts of Interest in UT Study Finding Significantly Lower Fracking Emissions [Updated]

Public Accountability Initiative accuses UT of weaving yet another tangled, conflict-ridden web.
Public Accountability Initiative accuses UT of weaving yet another tangled, conflict-ridden web.

Last time the Public Accountability Initiative put out a report on conflicts of interest it uncovered in a University of Texas fracking study, an independent review panel concluded the school should withdraw it.

Now the nonprofit research group, which explores the nexus of business and government, is back with another report claiming to have identified yet another undisclosed conflict in a UT study that significantly lowers the overall methane leakage from fracking calculated by other researchers.

Just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the paper out of UT's Cockrell School of Engineering said new equipment has reduced methane emissions during completion (when water, fracking fluid and gas rush back to the surface) by some 99 percent. It calculates that the overall methane leakage rate during production is .42 percent -- comparable to recent EPA estimates but far below those found by researchers at Cornell.

In a press release, the school calls its findings "unprecedented." Taking measurements from 150 active production sites. "The net emissions for completion flowbacks is significantly lower than previous estimates, indicating the type of emission control activities observed during these events are very effective," David Allen, professor of chemical engineering at UT's Cockrell School of Engineering and principal investigator for the study, says in the release.

PAI, however, found that despite declaring "no conflict of interest," one of the UT study's authors, Dr. Jennifer L. Miskimins, who lists only an affiliation with the Colorado School of Mines, neglected to mention that she is also a senior engineer for a petroleum engineering firm. The author, PAI suggests, may have violated the journal PNAS conflict of interest disclosure policy.

And Allen, the study's lead author, PAI found, reported travel sponsored by ExxonMobil, which he was advising for its "corporate strategic research program." ExxonMobil's natural-gas production subsidiary, XTO Energy, is a sponsor of the study.

We left messages with UT and PNAS. We'll update when we hear back from them.

Updated at 2 pm: We heard back from UT. In an emailed statement to Unfair Park, a spokesman tells us the university was unaware of the conflicts and will alert PNAS. When you get down to it, the statement below is quite a remarkable admission. Before the submission to a scientific journal of a study that pertains to the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted by the oil and gas industry, nobody at the university bothered to look into whether any of the study's authors WORK IN THE OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY, which was determined with the most cursory Google search:

Transparency has been our top priority throughout this process and we have openly discussed the funding sources and affiliations of study participants. UT Austin also required all authors -- even those who have no direct affiliation with the university -- to disclose any potential conflicts of interest and to affirmatively approve the language about them that was included in the PNAS article. As we receive new information that wasn't shared with us earlier, we are alerting PNAS and asking that the journal consider adding it in the study.

Asked where such a correction, or whatever you'd call it, would be published, since the journal has almost certainly gone to print, a UT spokesman told us we'd have to ask PNAS that question. Still waiting to hear back from them.

The last fracking report PAI slammed was recommended for withdrawal by an independent review panel. They concluded the lead author of that study was guilty of "very poor judgement," and that the paper's research methodology left much to be desired. Interestingly, the panel found that UT's conflict disclosure policies were so terrible that the lead author may not even have been in violation of them.


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