University Will Have Outside Review of Fracking Study
A University of Texas at Austin professor came under scrutiny yesterday after revelations that he did not disclose significant financial ties to a drilling company while leading an academic study of hydraulic fracturing (also known as “fracking”).
A report by the Public Accountability Initiative, a non-profit watchdog group, revealed that Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat, professor at the Jackson School of Geosciences at UT Austin, also sits on the board of Plains Exploration and Production Company. That company conducts fracking operations in Texas and elsewhere in the country, including the Haynesville Shale of Louisiana, one of the drilling areas examined in the study. Since 2007, Groat has received cash and stock compensation from Plains Exploration and Production totaling over $1.5 million.
So the questions remaining are: Why didn’t Groat disclose this in the study? And did he fail to tell anyone at the University about it?
The professor would not agree to an interview, but in an email to StateImpact Texas he says the Public Accountability Initiative report is “a mixture of truths, half truths, and unfounded conclusions based [on] incorrect interpretations of information. I don’t want to discuss it.”
The University of Texas requires that financial conflicts of interest be disclosed by employees when it has “potential for directly and significantly affecting the design, conduct, or reporting of … research or is in an entity whose financial interest appears to be affected by that research.”
Dean Sharon Mosher of the Jackson School of Geosciences says that Groat submitted the financial conflict of interest form to her office in previous years, but that he had not done so this year. “I was not aware that he was still a member of the board,” Mosher tells StateImpact Texas. “Had I known he was still a member of the board and being paid, I would have insisted that he disclosed it.”
And she says the forms Groat did submit in the past do not indicate how much he was being paid by Plains Exploration and Production. “The level of compensation, I think, is unusual for someone at UT,” she tells StateImpact Texas. So why didn’t Groat disclose a major financial tie to a drilling company in the report?
“The reason hasn’t changed – my role in the study was to organize it, coordinate the activities, and report the results,” Groat says via email. “The results were determined by the individual investigators, not me and I did not alter their conclusions.” Groat says that his connection to the drilling company had “no bearing on the results of the study.”
He also notes his membership in Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, and Nature Conservancy, but did not say whether or not he receives financial compensation from those organizations.
“I know he’s a member of a lot of these environmental groups,” Mosher, Dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences where Groat teaches, says, “but I don’t believe they’re paying him. And when you receive compensation from a firm that the results are going to positively or negatively impact the views on that subject, you should indicate that you’re holding a paid position.”
Groat did not disclose his financial ties to the drilling company to UT’s Energy Institute, where he serves as assistant director, either. The Institute published the study. “First of all, it would have been better had he told us about it,” Ray Orbach, Director of the Energy Insitute, tells StateImpact Texas. “We certainly would have included that with an asterisk in the report.”
Steven Leslie, Provost and Executive Vice President at the University of Texas at Austin released a statement late today saying that “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.” Leslie said the University will find a “group of outside experts” to review the original study. “We believe that the research meets our standards, but it is important to let an outside group of experts take an independent look,” Leslie says.
Leslie also says that “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.”
Ian Duncan, Program Director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University, authored a section on the study about the environmental impacts of fracking. “I can tell you that I have no funding from any of the companies engaged in shale gas drilling,” he says. “Apart from a small grant I had last year from BP to work on sustainability of water resources I have never had any funding from oil or gas companies.”
Duncan also says that Groat did not influence his section of the report, which found no link between fracking itself and groundwater contamination, but did discover other serious safety and environmental issues related to fracking. “The conclusions in this study are my conclusions, not his conclusions,” Duncan says. His report was “not influenced or edited for substance by anyone,” he says. “The interpretations were all mine.”
Ray Orbach, Director of the Energy Institute that released the study, also says he’s found no evidence that Groat inappropriately influenced the study’s findings, but that a second edition of the study, expected to be released next month, will include a note about Groat’s ties to the drilling company.
“What worries me is that it will cause this study to be completely ignored” says Mosher of the Jackson School of Geosciences. Scott Anderson of the Environmental Defense Fund, who reviewed the study before its release, says that “the study shines a light on the fact that there are a number aspects of natural gas development that can pose significant environmental risks and points to ways in which industry practices and regulations need to be improved.”
And Groat’s boss says she’ll be looking into the issue more. “There’s no question that I will review it and be talking to Dr. Groat,” Mosher says. “I will have it reviewed.”
Disclosure: StateImpact Texas is part of KUT Austin, a unit of the University of Texas at Austin.