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Industry money and questionable ethics contaminate UT Austin fracking study

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Remember that study out of The University of Texas last February that concluded there wasn’t a direct link between fracking and groundwater contamination? It caught flack for seeming to being too easy on the fracking industry by suggesting that there wasn’t a direct link between cracking shale and groundwater contamination. The study was great news for an industry fighting a PR battle over a politically-charged issue.

However, financial ties to the fracking industry were never mentioned in all of the announcements about the study, and not known until a new study put out Monday by the Public Accountability Initiative. The study’s leader, Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat has significant financial ties to the fracking industry, to the tune of a couple of million dollars. From State Impact Texas:

Groat, a former Director of the U.S. Geological Survey and professor at the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, also sits on the board of Plains Exploration and Production Company, a Houston-based company that conducts drilling and fracking in Texas and other parts of the country. According to the new report (and a review of the company’s financial reports by Bloomberg) Groat received more than $400,000 from the drilling company last year alone, more than double his salary at the University. And one of the shales examined in Groat’s fracking study is currently being drilled by the company, the report says.

Since 2007, Groat has received over $1.5 million in cash and stock awards from the company, and he currently holds over $1.6 million in company stock, according to the PAI report.

It’s hard for me to read this news because I have taken courses from Dr. Groat and value his wealth of experience. But this is damaging to himself and the University.

The purpose of research institutions is to help push the human race forward by making breakthroughs and advancements that benefit everyone, not just a select few with financial interests. At least that’s what I think.

Scientists already have a hard enough time keeping up a good reputation, with the Climategate nonsense or the Solyndra theatrics. Isn’t this news just one more data point that reinforces the ridiculous view that researchers are fabricating issues (like climate change!) in elaborate campaigns for research grants that fund the luxurious lives of tenure track professors? Give me a break. But try telling that to someone at a political rally, let alone at a School Board meeting in Texas. But I digress.

Ties to industry are common at research universities. It’s common in the engineering disciplines for research to be funded by an industry partner. That relationship is an explicit contract that the university offers some additional brainpower and expertise to overcome some technical challenge, or perform some fundamental science, and is in turn rewarded by funding several grad students for a couple of years.

But this differs because there is an appearance that financial gain was to be had. I don’t think it matters, as Dr. Groat has said, that the research was paid for with university funds. Over a million dollar in stocks constitutes a conflict of interest. What does this say for the integrity of The University of Texas and other universities and labs as research institutions? The University’s ethics policy specifically draws attention to research:

It is the policy of the University of Texas that research is conducted with integrity and free from any actual or apparent institutional or personal conflict of interest. An employee of the University who applies for grants or cooperative agreements from the federal government for research or other educational activities or who otherwise submits a proposal for sponsored research funding from any entity must insure that there is no reasonable expectation that the design, conduct, and reporting of the research will be biased by any significant financial interest of an investigator responsible for the research or other educational activity.

Shouldn’t these ties have been disclosed to the public? Where was the University’s due diligence? Did they not know a prominent faculty member was pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year? At the very least, Dr. Groat should have removed himself from the study.

Private industry brings a lot of knowledge, experience, and funding, all things that are useful in research. And it is reasonable to expect that leading researchers will have contacts in industry, or serve on boards or on advisory positions because of their knowledge. But where do you draw the line and distinguish between an appropriate relationship, and one that one that compromises the goal of providing unbiased research?

Update: Statement from UT Austin:

The most important asset we have as an institution is the public’s trust. If that is in question, then that is something we need to address. We will identify a group of outside experts to review the Energy Institute’s report on the effects of hydraulic fracturing. We hope to have that group identified and the results back within a few weeks. We believe that the research meets our standards, but it is important to let an outside group of experts take an independent look.

Dr. Groat has been reminded of his obligations to report all outside employment per university policy. If the university had known about Dr. Groat’s board involvement, the Energy Institute would have included that information in the report.

I’ll check back in on this in a couple of weeks when we hear the results of the external review.

Update #2: Welcome, Dot Earth readers!

Update #3: Welcome, Huffington Post!

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. daedalus2u 11:56 am 07/24/2012

    The only conceivable reason for not disclosing the conflict of interest in the publication is to hide it.

    I think the inference that the study is biased is now a fair inference.

    When researchers hide flaws in their data and hide conflicts of interest, they don’t deserve the presumption of honesty and the benefit of the doubt that honest scientists do.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Pragmatist 12:41 pm 07/24/2012

    The link certainly should have been disclosed.
    This news is disturbing indeed, as a gas field may last 20 years, … but ground water is ‘forever’.

    Link to this
  3. 3. julianpenrod 3:32 pm 07/24/2012

    To view “science” devotees’ comments is to see a solid opinion in favor of the “field”. Their expressed sentiments hold definitively to the “principle” that, “‘Scientists’, indeed, anyone with a lot of letters after their name, are incapable of lying”, which leads to, “Whatever smeone with a lot of letters after their name says is true and must be accepted without question by those without a lot of letters after their name.” A corollary, necessary to maintain this lucrative swindle of mandated unquestioned belief, is, “If you don’t have a lot of letters after your name, it’s impossible for you to know enough to make a legitimate critique of what someone with a lot of letters after their name says.” Of course, that’s built on the insipid stance that there have always been “experts” with lots of lketters after their name, there was never a day when someone who wasn’t an “accredited expert in a field” began the first examination of the field, and their assertions have never been challenged. Evne though they didn’t have a lot of lettes after their name. And, too, the entire model requires such things as “The entire area of ‘science’ is entirely honest and legitimate, there is no deceit or cravenness among its members.”
    This attitude has an effect of “legitimizing” politically and corporately oriented lies.
    Such as the study ostensibly “commissioned” by CNN to “prove” that all chidlren, back and white, are geared by society to favor the white race. CHicago “professor”, Margaret Beale Spencer, cooperated by providing children identical pictures of smiling children with different “skin” colors and asking which child is sad. The pictures were all smiling! But the children felt they could trusted Spencer, and so looked for another clue as to what made the child sad, and they chose the dark color. And, carefully, CNN refused to admit that it was already accepted that children automatically equate dark colors with sadness!
    So similar to the manufactured “experiment” in New Jersey, ordered to “prove” that call phone use causes accidents. The “researchers” began by “defining” cell phone use causing an accident is it was used within ten minutes of the accident. So, you could take a call at a restaurant, drive away, not use the cell phone, then be plowed into by the coked out son of some political big wig and you “using the cell phone” will be blamed!
    And this lack of reliability, in terms of everything from contrived “experiments” to the simple tactic of ordering the public to accept what they are told without providing them actual, absolute proof, underlies the general deceiving of the world by “science”.

    Link to this
  4. 4. IB Forum 4:00 pm 07/24/2012

    This reminds me of the release of a study showing that smoking was not harmful. It was announced by a fellow who had a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. Which of course necessitated his speaking from the other corner.

    Link to this
  5. 5. bondsman 6:06 pm 07/24/2012

    I am surprised this is even in print, the author reminds me of the socialist left that is willing to promote lies and ignorance vs truth simply because its the way he wants it.
    Although I am guilty of the same beliefs for a few years it is this issue alone (fracking) that completely made me realize my gut feelings were correct all along.
    Having grown up surrounded by wells that were fracked.
    Participating in LP’s, MLP’s and JV’s in the 80′s and 90′s Never ever having a water issue or any other issue for that matter I started asking “my leftist friends” why they were so radical as there were NO Facts at all showing any damage to drinking water zones 8’000′ above the fraced zones. Then the EPA filed suit against Range Resources in Parker county Texas. This got my attention and had I not gone to the hearings it is very possible I might even have changed my mind and thought like this author. But being very curious and wanting to know the truth not what a Oil Exec or a Socialist said.
    What I learned and saw would and should make EVERY American Sick! The EPA Had NOTHING!! No tests No nothing! The EPA Dog on the stand said “It is not up to us to prove there is a problem but up to Range to prove There is Not a Problem!! Guilty before trial LOL!
    The Judge gave the EPA more time to come up with something other than disgruntled homeowners making claims in order to gain a profit. Yes this is TRUE!
    In the end the EPA DROPPED the suit! NO EVIDENCE!
    But what this band of nitwits is selling is Fear and playing off of it at the expense of ALL Americans who Pay Taxes. Literally 100′s of 1,000′s of wells have been fracked since the 1950′s and no problems. The typical problem as usual is Greed! YES GREED, If you look those people complaining bought their land or lot without ever doing a mineral check. Not owning minerals means they do not participate in the well revenue or Lease Bonus’s while watching neighbors get new cars and trucks, pools, trips, ect, So they get mad and any lawyer will take a case in believing its cheaper today for a Company to settle than to fight. WRONG!
    If you look at Texas, Wy, Pa you will see those filing suits had attempted to get a company to pay them for nothing to go away. Bottom line is our own Government is full of people tilted way left who as we have seen are willing to and have Lied, Pulled numbers out of the Air, (UN Climate Change) and will do say or write anything to get turn their belief to something believable. Between watching the EPA waste so much on Bogus Lawsuits never intending to win ONLY to sway a majority of people by fear and then watching 97% of EVERY Scientist that went along with Clinton/Gore era Climate change Write papers saying “We were Wrong” Including NASA which as far as I am concerned is the preeminent Science group in the USA. ALL have said we were pushed to sign on as it was pitched as a Global Emergency. We wanted to run Tests But just like House rep Nancy “bribe me” Pelosi said on the floor of the House on Obamacare “Trust me! You do not need to read it just vote yes” It was the same to scientists in the 90′s. So as mad as I am at myself for having to admit I once was one of the truly stupid who listened and beleived those like this author who will always find a reason to cast doubt on Facts.

    Link to this
  6. 6. julianpenrod 7:23 pm 07/24/2012

    bondsman uses so many of the non argument tactics of the New World Order, both of long standing and those seeing major coinage recently. Among them, name calling.
    The New World Order, like all criminal ventures, knows it cannot seel its lies to everyone, so it doesn’t try. It only seeks those who are stupid enough to be conned very easily. Their target audience. This group resonates to calling names. They trust anyone who starts yelling “leftist” and then peppers their statements with epithets like “dog” and “nitwits”.
    They’ll also believe lies, like that the EPA had nothing against the fractured rock mining in their earlier presentation. The dullard gullible target audience won’t look, they march according to orders, mindlessly parroting what they’re told to say. To be sure, whatever EPA may have had in the earlier discussion may have been exceedingly small, as bondsman tries to suggest, although bondsman’s actions otherwise make trusting them seem unwise, but there is something definite that does implicate the corporations, and bondsman themself implicates them.
    bondsman said that EPA said it was up to the corporations to prove they didn’t contaminate the water. And bondsman does not describe them as having done that! If fractured mining were so safe, the corporations would have provided evidence of that! bondsman tries to claim the EPA had nothing condemning the process, but, certainly, by bondsman’s own admission, the corporations had absolutely nothing to provide to prove they didn’t contaminate water supplies!
    Note the careful dodge about “NO facts showing any damage to drinking water zones 8’000′ [sic] above” the fractured rock drilling. Among other things, contamination is not necessarily classified as “damage”. Ruining flow rate, diverting flow is more along the line of “damage”. Most importantly, though, contaminated water does not necessarily flow straight out, it can spread out to other water zones, especially when rock is breing fractured, opening new connections between aquifers. Contamination can show up hundreds of miles away, and there is no evidence bondsman provides that their information covered that wide a region! Poisoning others but content because you’re stealing their still clean water!
    And, as well, note the technique of branding the opposition with the NWO’s own mark of Cain. Selling fear and motivated by greed. Charges leveled against others by those who engineered the fraudulent events of September 11 and launched an unprovoked awar against an unarmed anad nonaggressor nation; and who define their capitalist mentality, proudly, as being “My obligation is to make money”!
    By their very craven display of connvery and disingenuousness, bondsman admits that fractured rock mining contaminates water supplies, it is the work of New World Order corporatist Fascist thugs, and they are willing to lie to promote it.

    Link to this
  7. 7. kingneece 1:18 pm 07/26/2012

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  8. 8. vebiltdervan 7:05 pm 07/26/2012

    I overlapped in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Chip Groat at Louisiana State University: me earning a PhD in geology, Dr. Groat primarily serving as director of the Louisiana Geological Survey, and then later as director of the Center for Coastal, Energy, and Environmental Resources.

    Any reporter who wishes to seriously investigate Dr. Groat’s background and qualifications for any ostensibly objective study of the oil industry should interview several of his former employees at the LA survey & colleagues in CEER & the Dept of Geology & Geophysics, paying particular attention to the circumstances under which Dr. Groat left LSU. Let’s just say that these were politically-connected appointments, & Louisiana politics have never been renowned for their probity.

    Between stints at LSU, Dr. Groat served for three years as executive director of the American Geological (now ‘Geosciences’) Institute in Washington DC. You will not find this in that organization’s mission statement, but the AGI has fundamentally evolved into just another lobbying organization for the petroleum industry.

    Personally, I was extremely disappointed when president Clinton appointed Chip Groat to be director of the USGS, but not at all surprised when that appointment was extended by president GW Bush.

    Dr. Groat, in my personal opinion, is not in a position to be an objective critic of the petroleum industry; throughout his career he has profited professionally & financially (if legally) from his direct links to oil industry CEOs. Indeed, Dr. Groats’ several apparently pure academic appointments were in reality largely owing to the accurate perception that he could deliver entrée to abundant oil industry funding for research projects.

    I DO NOT accuse Dr. Groat of any illegal dealings, but my personal knowledge of him makes me skeptical of his reputation for being a gifted leader of organizations. I believe he has always had a skill at political games, & very strong connections within the petroleum industry.

    These do not strike me as proper criteria for his appointment to the position overseeing a supposedly objective investigation of fracking practices and related problems. My concern was that his close political and oily financial connections would lead to a whitewash, which is precisely what seems to have occurred. It certainly does not inspire confidence in the study.

    Link to this
  9. 9. davidwogan 11:25 pm 07/26/2012

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    V – we’ll see what happens at UT. The external reviewers should be wrapped up in a couple of weeks. I would assume that the University, and hopefully the Energy Institute, are taking another look at their projects with an eye towards ethics and conflicts of interests.

    Link to this
  10. 10. kingneece 10:25 am 08/12/2012

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