The most indelible images of the dangers of hydraulic fracturing show tap water catching fire. Fracking brings with it the fear of catastrophic environmental damage, but also the promise of economic boom and energy independence.
Now, the battle for hearts and minds in the debate over natural gas drilling is increasingly being waged at universities, with much squabbling between researchers about studies and industry influence.
The latest battleground in this war is the State University of New York at Buffalo, where upset faculty members say that a report by a new institute hews too close to industry viewpoints. Similar allegations surfaced two years ago at Pennsylvania State University where a dean said that a study crossed the line between research and advocacy, while faculty members at Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have traded sharp words over studies on natural gas drilling.
The imprimatur of a university brings much-needed prestige, recognition and legitimacy to research, and that’s why industry has always tried to associate with academic bodies, said Thomas McGarity, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research. “When research is associated with a university, lawmakers take notice and the public notices too,” he said.
Meanwhile, faculty members are under more and more pressure to bring in research grants, McGarity said. “If they don’t do so, they are seen as unsuccessful,” he said. The answer, McGarity said, is to make research absolutely transparent.
Transparency is one issue being brought up at SUNY Buffalo, where concerned faculty members are raising questions about the university’s Shale Resources and Society Institute. The institute released a report in May called "Environmental Impacts During Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling: Causes, Impacts and Remedies," which said that industry practices and state rules had made drilling for natural gas safer and that the risks associated with it continue to decrease. Aggrieved faculty members says that the institute was formed without proper faculty input, its funding sources are unclear and it has solicited the gas industry’s money.
The issue of fracking has been intensely debated in the state, with new reports suggesting that Governor Andrew Cuomo might allow limited drilling for gas.
After a Buffalo-based watchdog group called the Public Accountability Initiative questioned the credibility of the report, E. Bruce Pitman, dean of College of Arts and Sciences at the university, issued a statement saying that the institute would provide “scientific research and analysis on all sides of the issues surrounding shale gas” and the university was going to examine the questions being raised about the report. An editor’s note was added to a previous university announcement, which incorrectly claimed the report was peer-reviewed.
Last week, the university released a statement saying that the institute creates a forum for “objective research and informed debate” about the subject, that it would not dictate positions taken by faculty members, and that faculty are guaranteed “freedom from interference." The American Association of University Professors has opposed bans on industry-sponsored research, citing a policy that says it is difficult to “sustain a clear, consistent and principled policy for determining which research funds to accept and which to reject.”
Pitman said all funding for the institute comes from the College of Arts and Sciences, and it was formed because geology faculty members and other departments wanted it. "People should read the report, study its methodology and examine the assumptions and conclusions, and then make up their own minds.The report presents all the data it uses in its analysis; everything is public,” he said in an e-mailed message and did not directly address allegations about the authors’ closeness to industry.
Some faculty members at the university have formed a group called the University at Buffalo Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research (UB Clear) and have asked university administrators to suspend the institute’s funding and investigate its relations to industry. Jim Holstun, an English professor at the university who is part of the group, said the university's statement last week, which raised the issue of academic freedom, was an attempt to distract from the real issues. He pointed to the work of the Buffalo watchdog group, which found that Timothy Considine, one of the authors of the report and an economics professor at the University of Wyoming, had also written a report for the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group. "We're asking for more transparency," Holstun said.
Considine and Robert Watson, a co-author of the report and an associate professor emeritus of petroleum and natural gas engineering at Pennsylvania State University, have faced similar criticisms before. In 2010, William Easterling, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State investigated a report called "An Emerging Giant: Prospects and Economic Impacts of Developing the Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Play" by the two authors after a group called Responsible Drilling Alliance raised questions about their work. Easterling, who did not respond to requests for an interview, concluded that the report was flawed in some ways because “it crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy.” The university retracted the original report, according to a letter Easterling wrote to the Responsible Drilling Alliance, and issued a new report “to sustain a clear, consistent and principled policy for determining which research funds to accept and which to reject."
Considine, a former Penn State professor, and Watson did not respond to interview requests, but Michael Arthur, a professor in the department of geosciences at Penn State and co-director of the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, a resource center at the university for natural gas stakeholders, said the study from two years ago provided a “rather rosy forecast” when it came to the economic benefits of drilling for gas in the state. Arthur said peer review of such studies is essential, but so is the freedom of faculty to engage in them. “This is important, even though it may lead to some flawed studies,” he said.
“There will always be flawed ‘science’ which is subject to criticism and correction – that is part of the scientific process,” Arthur said. “We all require and use energy, even the shale gas detractors. Obviously, a balanced energy portfolio, including conservation, is advisable.”
His colleague, Thomas Richard, director of the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, echoed those views, saying that as more data are collected on the impact of drilling, the analysis will improve. He said the best way to prevent bias might be to get different research groups to study a problem, and then look at their analyses and try to understand why they differ. “This diversity of research approaches and funding sources is the best guarantee of progress toward objective results,” said Richard, and suggested that this is already happening when it comes to research on drilling for gas.
These disagreements, such as the one between researchers at Cornell and MIT last year over their respective reports, stimulated critical thinking, Richard said. "The public benefits from a diversity of approaches, especially on complex and interdisciplinary topics like shale gas development,” he said.
Ernest Moniz, a professor of physics at MIT and a co-chair of the study called "The Future of Natural Gas," said the paper clearly mentioned that it was funded, in part, by an industry group. He said no constituency was entirely pleased by the study, which found that the increasing use of natural gas instead of coal plants can cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. Moniz also added that the challenge of mitigating risks from drilling can be met only with help from energy companies. “…I give credit to the Clean Skies Foundation, the lead sponsor, for a very appropriate relationship to the research team,” he said.
The American Clean Skies Foundation is a nonprofit group that says on its website that its goal is to “advance America’s energy independence and a cleaner, low-carbon environment through expanded use of natural gas, renewables and efficiency.”
“Our analysis was extensive in scope and effort, and it could not happen without support and input from multiple perspectives,” Moniz said.
But that is not how a prominent Cornell researcher views the issue.
Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at the university, and the co-author of a peer-reviewed study that concluded that drilling for shale gas could be worse than coal mining when it came to greenhouse gas emissions, likened the issue to the debate over climate change.
Howarth, whose findings were criticized by MIT researchers, said that when it came to research on shale gas drilling, there is deliberative research by scientists on one side, while “on the other hand, you have industry interests engaged in public relations, clothing it in science,” Howarth said. “The goal is to confuse the public and the decision makers.”
Anthony Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell and a co-author of the study, said the debate should not be about “who shouts last, who shouts the longest or who has the most colorful ad on TV.” Ingraffea said he was increasingly concerned that “the mere suggestion of doubt on a blog or a report rather than a peer-reviewed article is equated to scientific invention and scientific reporting.”
An official at the Public Accountability Initiative, the watchdog group in Buffalo, said that it is looking at university studies where the gas industry might have tried to influence research. Kevin Connor, a co-director for the group, said industry can often wield disproportionate influence over research when it provides funding. “Disclosure and transparency are steps in the right direction, but that isn’t necessarily sufficient in ensuring the accuracy, quality and independence of research,” he said.
“Academics who produce research that undermines industry risk their careers, their funding, and their reputations in their field,” Connor said. The gas industry is rushing to drill, and universities that issue bold claims about the safety of fracking such as the recent survey in Buffalo are being extremely irresponsible, he said. “If these findings are wrong, and fracking is not safe, there will be serious, irreversible public health and environmental consequences,” he said.