Back in February, I wrote about a heavily publicized report released by the University of Texas Energy Institute that billed itself as the authoritative guide for regulators wrestling with the extraction of natural gas from shale formations and the novel combination of directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Injecting sand, water and often hazardous chemicals deep underground into shale at pressures of thousands of pounds per square inch to crack it and free gas, the report concluded, was unlikely to contaminate drinking water sources. In fact, a press release, stripped of nuance, stated, "New Study Shows No Evidence of Groundwater Contamination from Hydraulic Fracturing." After reading through the entirety of the report, however, I found the distinction was much more semantical. Fracking was an unlikely culprit, lead researcher Chip Groat claimed, but surface spills and underground blowouts pose a widespread risk.
A reader can hardly be blamed for seeing a distinction without a difference. Contamination is contamination. Yet the press release issued by UT could be read that fracking is no threat to water sources. In light of Monday's revelations, the pro-industry tenor of the report doesn't seem so strange.
Groat neglected to mention his extensive financial ties to the industry. A report from the Public Accountability Initiative found out Groat is a board member of Plains Exploration and Production. His salary as a board member is more than double his salary at UT. The professor has some $1.6 million in company stock. What's more, Plains, along with partner Chesapeake Energy, is drilling in the Haynesville Shale in Louisiana, a play examined in Groat's report. UT's Energy Institute isn't without strong fossil-fuel interests. Its advisory board has ties to big oil and gas -- ConocoPhillips and Hess, for example.
That none of this is mentioned in Groat's CV or in a report that claims "to inject science" into an emotional debate is stunning. In medical research, disclosure of industry connections is the rule, not the exception. Imagine a researcher who authors a paper on the impressive efficacy of GlaxoSmithKline's diabetes drug Avandia -- now found to pose substantial risks to the heart -- without disclosing membership to its board.
Sharon Wilson, an anti-fracking blogger known as Texas Sharon, recorded industry representatives last year at a Houston conference bragging about how they employ former military psy-ops personnel to deal with what they called an "insurgency." Dennis Holbrook of Norse Energy said the industry should "seek out" academics and universities for their "tremendous credibility."
He said his company had aligned with the University of Buffalo, whose research into fracking has been called into question by its industry ties. Monday, I responded to an AP report that insinuated the fear of health problems associated with fracking is irrational, without a foundation in good science. I asked, "What science?" So little of it exists on the human toll.
But if the industry's detractors are anchored in misunderstanding, in light of Groat's disturbing omission, how will it ever be otherwise?