Review of UT Fracking Study Finds Failure to Disclose Conflict of Interest (Updated)

Photo by Mose Buchele/StateImpact Texas

UT Professor Charles "Chip" Groat came under fire for not disclosing significant financial ties to the drilling industry, and has resigned from the University.

Resignation and Retirement Result

The long-awaited review of a controversial study on the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” was released today, and it finds numerous errors and flaws with how the study was conducted and released, as well as University of Texas policies for disclosing conflicts of interest.

(Read more on this story in our follow-up: Why the UT Fracking Study Controversy Matters)

The head author of the study, Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat, has retired in the wake of the controversy, and the head of the Energy Institute that released it, Dr. Raymond Orbach, has resigned as head of the Institute, the University announced today.

The original report by UT Austin’s Energy Institute, ‘Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in the Shale Gas Development,’ was released early this year, and claimed that there was no link between fracking and water contamination. But this summer, the Public Accountability Initiative, a watchdog group, reported that the head of the study, UT professor Chip Groat, had been sitting on the board of a drilling company the entire time. His compensation totaled over $1.5 million over the last five years. That prompted the University to announce an independent review of the study a month later, which was released today.

The review finds many problems with the original study, chief among them that Groat did not disclose what it calls a “clear conflict of interest,” which “severely diminished” the study. The study was originally commissioned as a way to correct what it called “controversies” over fracking because of media reports, but ironically ended up as a lightning rod itself for failing to disclose conflicts of interest and for lacking scientific rigor.

Calls and emails to Groat were not returned at the time of this report’s publishing. His outgoing message at UT currently says, “I’m away from the University during the summer months, and therefore won’t be checking my voicemail.” (Update: Groat responded in an email to StateImpact Texas Thursday afternoon that “I maintained that my role [on the board of a drilling company] would not influence results and that I did not do so. In fairness to me, I hope conclusions regarding this are aired.” You can read more from his response below.)

Likewise, the Energy Institute isn’t talking, either. “Dr. Orbach won’t be conducting any interviews or commenting on this matter publicly,” a spokesperson for the Energy Institute tells us via email, referring all questions to the University’s Provost. (You can read the Provost’s response below.)

The review finds no “intentional misrepresentation” by Groat, and even believes that, at the time, he was likely not violating established conflict of interest policies at the University. But his failure to disclose constitutes ”very poor judgement,” the review says, and harmed the credibility of the report.

The University’s conflict of interest disclosure policies were updated in the wake of the controversy, but the review notes that “in discussions with both faculty and administrators, concerns were expressed about whether these policies were sufficiently comprehensive.”

Aside from that conflict of interest, the review finds many other errors and missteps in both the study and University policies:

  • Because of “inadequacy” in conflict of interest policies at UT at the time, “conflict of interest and disclosure policies were largely ignored.”
  • The report itself was presented as having scientific findings, but much of it was in fact “based on literature surveys, incident reports and conjecture.” The review goes so far as to say that “the term ‘fact-based’ would not apply to such an analysis” and it lacked a “rigorous, independent review” of its findings.
  • The summary of the study, which was widely distributed and trumpeted by a UT press release, failed to include many of the caveats within the actual report. Some of the conclusions were “tentative,” the review says, and the press release and presentation of the report at a scientific conference in February was “inappropriately selective” and “seemed to suggest that public concerns were without scientific basis and largely resulted from media bias.”
  • The study was also not ready for distribution, as Public Accountability Initiative noted in July. The drafts in the study “were not subjected to serious peer review and therefore were not ready to be considered for public release as fact-based work.”

Photo courtesy of the Energy Institute

Raymond Orbach of UT's Energy Institute has resigned after the group became engulfed in controversy over a study of fracking.

The review calls on the Energy Institute to withdraw the study, and that the authors of the individual white papers that made the study “should be allowed sufficient time and opportunity to finish their work” to prepare it for independent scientific review. The review did not examine the environmental impact of fracking itself, only the actual study by the Energy Institute.

After similar issues at the University at Buffalo over a report on fracking that also lacked scientific backing and failed to disclose industry ties, the Univeristy shuttered its Shale Resources and Society Institute, which released the study, last month.

While the review says that it would be “impracticable, and likely inappropriate to seek to eliminate all ties” between research and the oil and gas industry, it says that “the key is transparency.”

Both the press release and original study are not linked on the Energy Institute’s website, but the study is still available online.

The University said in a release today that it accepts the findings of the review, and will implement all of its recommendations.

Updates:

In an interview with StateImpact Texas, University of Texas at Austin Provost Steven Leslie says that  UT is “taking very strong and quick action to get our hands around the issue. These are matters that affect the credibility and the public trust relating to the university.” Leslie says that the University will conduct a campus-wide compliance audit and that the Energy Institute will be re-structured, but not shut down.

Chip Groat, the UT professor at the center of the controversy, says in an email to StateImpact Texas that he should have made a disclosure. ”However, I continue to be disturbed by the assumption by many that a university faculty member with financial connections to industry cannot be unbiased,” Groat writes. “This blanket indictment isn’t fair to most faculty members or most industries. I am also concerned that my retirement is being linked to controversies related to the report. My retirement is linked to my very fulfilling position in Louisiana, which began February 1 when I took leave from the university, before any controversy emerged. Since I am no longer affiliated with UT, I will leave this unpleasant episode behind me.”

Kevin Connor, Director of Public Accountability Initiative, which originally disclosed the conflict of interest in July, tells us he is satisfied with the review and the retirement and resignation of the two UT professors. “I see this as a commendable stand for integrity and transparency,” he tells StateImpact Texas, “and I think it sets a strong example for other universities and sends a strong message to the oil and gas industry that this kind of sham research won’t be tolerated or supported by universities.”

Update, Friday Dec. 7, 2012, 10 AM: In a press release Thursday, UT announced that Orbach had “resigned.” It did not say, however, that Orbach will be staying at UT as a tenured professor. In an interview with StateImpact Texas, Provost Steven Leslie didn’t mention it, either, saying ,”the person who oversaw the fracking report has retired from the University, and the Director resigned over this.” Orbach has in fact only resigned as head of the Energy Institute, effective December 31. A UT spokesperson maintains that the exclusion of this information wasn’t intentional. UT has since updated the press release, noting Orbach’s continued employment.)

Update, Friday Dec. 7, 2012, 11:30 AM:

A spokesperson for the University of Texas at Austin says the school will update its press release on the review to note that Raymond Orbach will continue as a tenured professor at the University. The spokesperson also says that while Chip Groat had been on leave this year, he was expected to return.

“Dr. Groat has been on leave since February but the University believed he would be returning,” a University spokesperson says in an email to StateImpact Texas. “He submitted his resignation letter in late November and it was accepted by the university shortly afterwards at a time when stakeholders had begun to hear what the panel findings might include.”

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Below is a copy of the original report by UT’s Energy Institute:

Disclosure: StateImpact Texas is part of KUT Austin, a unit of the University of Texas at Austin.

Comments

  • David

    the entire UT System has a conflict of interest by allowing drilling for gas on campus property, exposing Texas students to dangerous chemicals. shouldn’t the UT System err on the side of caution and not allowed anymore drilling on our campuses ?

    • UT Grad

      Where on campus is gas drilling occurring?

    • Austin

      UT has many land ownerships. The land you are referring to is up near midland and many of those wells are drilled conventionally.

      • Ed Pischedda

        The University of Texas at Arlington – the second-largest campus in the UT system – has drilled a couple-dozen or so gas wells in the SE corner of its campus (all within 500 feet of a daycare center and student housing) in the middle of Arlington, Texas – the state’s seventh-largest city.

        Because of amount of money the University reaps in royalties from these wells it’s quite fond of loudly touting the “benefits” of urban gas drilling. Because these wells are on state-owned land they are utterly immune from local drilling regulations (flaccid as they are); instead they are subject only to state regulations developed early in the last century with uninhabited rural areas primarily in mind. Additionally, these state regulations are overseen by a three-member commission of state officials whose election coffers runneth over from political contributions from energy companies.

        So, all-in-all I’d say that “David’s” original point herein – about the UT System as a whole and not referring to any specific UT tract – is spot-on, wouldn’t you now?

  • DoryHippauf

    Groat: Director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS )he was appointed by President Bill Clinton and retained by President George W. Bush. Groat resigned as Director on June 17, 2005
    Between 1998 and 2000, three USGS scientists working on water infiltration projects for the proposed Yucca Mountain facility exchanged emails revealing that they had altered or outright falsified the results of their research to produce desired outcomes. One of the scientists, Joseph Hevesi – who would later have to be subpoenaed to appear before a House of Representatives subcommittee after refusing to cooperate with their investigation

    http://public-accountability.org/wp-content/uploads/ContaminatedInquiry.pdf
    U.S. Geological Suvey chief Groat resigns
    Suzanne Struglinski | Friday, June 10, 2005 | 9:37 a.m.
    http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2005/jun/10/us-geological-suvey-chief-groat-resigns/
    WASHINGTON — The U.S. Geological Survey chief resigned Thursday, but a spokeswoman said his departure has nothing to do with the ongoing investigation into e-mails that indicate his agency’s employees may have falsified data on the Yucca Mountain project.

    At the hearing, Groat declined to discuss the e-mails in detail pending inspector general investigations. ‘We have a 125-year reputation for sound, unbiased science,” Groat said in written testimony submitted to the panel. “Anything that casts aspersions on that reputation disturbs us greatly. We, as do you, look forward the to completion of the ongoing investigations to fully determine the impacts and appropriate responses.”

    Groat plans to accept appointments as the Jackson Chairman in energy and mineral resources in the School of Geosciences and the founding director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, according to the Interior Department.

    Congressional Testimony, 2005
    Statement of Charles G. Groat
    Director, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior
    Before the House Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce and Agency Organization
    On The Yucca Mountain Project
    April 5, 2005
    http://www.usgs.gov/aboutusgs/docs/testimony/groat_yucca_4_05.pdf

  • St Johnny

    It’s simple. If the water table is 1000 feet above facking and the sleeve through the water table is installed safely, there is NO risk.
    Domestic production of energy is the best solution to America & Texas economy challenge and shield against Middle East extremest who hate us.

    • Andy

      If.

    • Longhorn11tas

      To say there is NO risk is just as bad as saying that there’s always risk. You are being deceptive or worse, dogmatic and truly believe there is no risk. There is always some small risk. Unfortunately, the point of this study was to figure out that risk but it doesn’t look like that happened…

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Manfred-Higgs/100003709336864 Manfred Higgs

        That study doesn’t say fracking is completely safe unlike the one sentence summary would like you to believe. It talks about things like minimal risk and if it’s done properly etc etc. many little caveats and provisos. It also says quite plainly in it’s abstract that : “Research and regulation, both state and Federal, are needed to minimize the environmental consequences.” So in actual fact right now fracking is NOT environmentally safe, with regulation and research it could be safer. Part of the problem is that fracking in an environmentally concious manner is very expensive so their is always an incentive to cut corners and contaminate water supplies.

  • Irina Cech

    The University’s administration should share in shame for forcing its faculty members to prostitute themselves for the grant money. Groat’s matter is probably just the tip of an iceberg.

  • United States Marine

    Clearly, something smells fishy about this whole deal. How on earth can someone accept $1.5 million from the gas and oil companies and still remain totally unbiased? I wonder what Diogenes would say about Groat? I spent ten years in academia, and the hypocrisy and insincerity of many academicians–especially tenured ones–made me sick. I suspect this is just another example of their same old lofty-sounding B.S.!

    • Rvo

      Well, I am, and while I can’t speak to his experience, this is definitely the “conflict of interest” we are required to avoid for any semblance of legitimacy. This is definitely grounds for serious inspection of previous research.

      • Rvo

        Resource Economics, focus on China’s environmental issues (water policy/market failure). Just finished the semester. Thankfully, speaking Chinese and researching Economics means funding isn’t an issue.

        The idea isn’t whether he’s factually incorrect – that wasn’t the point of the article (although I’d like to know). We don’t trust research from smoking companies on the dangers of smoking. Why do we trust this?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Manfred-Higgs/100003709336864 Manfred Higgs

      Wow man you are all over this page, so what energy company do you work for again?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Maresca/1450817690 Chris Maresca

      “…the fact that fracking is safe.”

      Marcellus Shale Wells Drilled (2010): 1,454
      Marcellus Shale Violations (2010): 1,227
      Marcellus Shale Violations (2009): 656
      Marcellus Shale Violations (2008): 206
      % of Wells with Violations in 2010: 18%
      Total # of Marcellus Shale Wells Drilled (2005-10): 2,498
      Total # of Violations at Marcellus Shale sites (2008-10): 2,089

      source: PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)

      In
      Pennsylvania right now, 7.2 percent of all new Marcellus Shale gas
      wells fail immediately. In 2010 and 2011 the failure rate was 5.2
      percent.
      All wells will fail eventually, usually because the cement cannot and
      does not bond with the rock strata, or human error. The fact is that
      well casings fail, sometimes immediately, sometimes without human error.

      source: Anthony Ingraffee, a world-class fracturing expert and engineer; a
      researcher on horizontal hydrofracturing with a resume a mile long.

      I
      normally don’t respond to folks with IQ’s around room temperature, but
      your flagrant misunderstanding of the definition of the word “fact” is
      insulting to 2nd grade graduates.

  • WALT

    it doesnt matter the result of the findings, capitalism and economics will make fracking safe. Thank God for Capitalists.

    • IonOtter

      Yes, because capitalism worked soooo very well for the Cuyahoga River. What a pity those slimy Commies had to come in and slap capitalism with that stoooopid EPA thing.

    • Rvo

      You’re everywhere in this thread, it seems.

      Your assertion is incorrect. Capitalism treats environmental damage as an externality and pushes those costs onto “the public,” unless strict property rights and legal recourses are available to those that own whatever environmental area was polluted. Without these methods, capitalism falls into a market failure scenario and doesn’t produce an optimal outcome.

      This also has nothing to do with the Simon-Ehrlich wager, which was specifically demonstrating that the huge increase in population we have experienced is in fact sustainable given sufficient technological advances – one method of which is more efficient resource extraction. There is no more copper than there was 100, 200 years ago, we can simply produce it for lower costs, so the increase in input resource price is offset by the reduction in cost of production.

      • Rvo

        Fracking, in theory, could be totally safe. If you can somehow implement a way to definitively prevent water contamination, there’d be no issue. We’re looking at a risk vs. benefit, however – what are the potential risks of contamination versus the benefit of the resources we extract? The cost of water contamination is quite high, so is it worth the potential gains? I say no, because that kind of problem would be huge. We have information asymmetry between the company and the government, and that in itself is too large of a risk. What do we do if there is contamination? We can sue for damage costs but we can’t necessarily repair them.

  • David Blackmon

    Good lord, David, there are no gas wells on the UT campus. The rig at the corner of MLK and San Jacinto is simply a display – it’s the rig from the Santa Rita #1, the first of thousands of West Texas wells drilled on lands the state deeded to the University system because they thought it was basically worthless. Those oil wells have created tens of billions of dollars for the University endowment over the last 80+ years, and are the main reason why UT is one of the best funded universities in the world. You should thank your lucky stars they exist.

    • http://stateimpact.npr.org/texas/author/thenry/ Terrence Henry

      Thanks everyone for chiming in. I believe the original commenter is referring to the active gas rig on the UT Arlington campus, which is referred to in the review of the UT fracking study.

    • http://stateimpact.npr.org/texas/author/thenry/ Terrence Henry

      This paragraph from the review panel on the UT fracking study is relevant to the discussion:

      “Beyond shortcomings in the oversight in disclosing the potential conflict
      of interest of the Principal Investigator, there was also inadequate consideration
      given to a discussion of the relationship of the Energy Institute and the
      University of Texas to the oil and gas industry. Both the Energy Institute and the
      University have substantial interests in the industry through philanthropy and
      research support; the income from the Permanent University Fund and direct
      shale gas production on the UT-Arlington campus; and substantial
      representation of the industry on both the Advisory Board of the Energy Institute
      and the University of Texas Board of Regents. While the Energy Institute
      maintains that the shale gas hydraulic fracturing study was entirely funded from
      discretionary funds, it was acknowledged that these came from the Permanent
      University Fund, as did other support of the Institute. It is noted that some
      activities of the Energy Institute and its associated faculty also receive material
      funding from the oil and gas industry.”

    • Ed Pischedda

      Good Lord, David Blackmon – see above. Your comments are utterly irrelevant to “David’s” original point, which concerned the wisdom allowing relatively unregulated gas drilling in inhabited urban areas. For what it’s worth, as you inadvertently acknowledge, during its productive life the Santa Rita well in western Texas had about as many people living in close proximity to it as are currently in space, in contrast with the urban drilling pursuits of current UT System administrators.

    • B L Zebubba

      “West Texas” – where’s that? I’m familiar with western Texas, where places like Big Bend National Park, Alpine, Marfa, Ft. Davis, Marathon, Toyahvale, Pecos, El Paso, Midland and Odessa et al are, but “West Texas” – unless these places ganged up on the rest of us, seceded and formed a new government while we weren’t paying attention, there’s no “West” Texas – it’s called western Texas. You know, just like “eastern Oregon”, “southern Utah”, “western Washington”, “northern California” etc.

      • Longhorn11tas

        If you really want to get technical, there is a town called West, Texas. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West,_Texas) Not that it is the place Ed was writing about… also, everyone colloquially refers to it as west Texas anyway: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West,_Texas.

      • Tbird83ii

        UT Calls an area “West Texas”, and they have a “West Texas Admissions Center”. Wikipedia defines it as “vernacular” but since we are getting picky about semantics anyway: It would be more than likely considered dialect or colloquial arising from either around UT or perhaps from the Pan Handle (Lubbock?), although an argument could be made for the use of vernacular, as it could be based on the geographic region around UT or even as far as San Antonio (where my sister lives… and she says “West TAXUS” when discussing her Ex).

        Hey! Here is an idea – why not add some sources to your posts… you know… ones that show you know what you are talking about? Here ya go! Oh, and if you want the literary stuff… I will have to go grab my wife’s books from college and write up a citation on those.

        Works Cited

        “West Texas.” Wikipedia.
        Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Oct. 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

        “The University of Texas at
        Austin.” West Texas Admissions Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec.
        2012.

        “University of Texas at Austin’s
        President to Attend Opening of West Texas Admissions Center, Sept. 18.” University
        of Texas at Austin’s President to Attend Opening of West Texas Admissions
        Center, Sept. 18. N.p., 14 Sept. 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

  • Austin

    Fracking has been in use for decades. The only difference now is they are doing large scale horizontal fractures in multiple stages.

    • Ed Pischedda

      Oh, there’s a key difference now: the industrial activity that fracking is is now being forced on urban residents despite its being relatively unregulated by minimal State rules that were first designed decades ago and which had rural areas in mind.

  • Diogenes

    In my experience, Provost Steven Leslie is ethically disabled. He will do and say anything to shield the University from public scrutiny and from taking responsibility for the numerous lapses in administrative oversight and judgment that have occurred in the last couple of years. So far, he has kept the lid on most of these embarrassing stories, but they stretch from one side of campus to the other, from the Law School to the Blanton Museum.

    • mikelbonin

      Yep. I’ve been watching dittoheadism in action for 20 years regarding AGW.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XOEBDYMLUKCRIZRVHQ6YDXKWV4 Dan

    Sink holes, heavy metals in your drinking water and if your real lucky you might even get some gas out of your sink tap to light up if you feel cold. If the cancer doesn’t kill you from the heavy metals, your general health will decline and your teeth will most likely fall out. Happy fracking everyone.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Manfred-Higgs/100003709336864 Manfred Higgs

      Fracking is absolutely horrible for the environment and it seems they are making every effort to make sure no one can prove it, it must be very profitable indeed.

  • Jim

    The real issue here, in my opinion (and from what I’m seeing on this board, many others’ as well) is how an institute of higher learning, that touts, “What starts here changes the world,” and has some of the most distinguished scholars in its ranks could allow such a hollow shell of what was supposed to be a credible, scientific report to be published. To me it seems less about how one man didn’t disclose a conflict of interest and more about how the administrators over him (often times academics themselves, in this case I’m unsure) did not do their jobs by raising concerns about how this “scientific study” actually contained very little science. On Groat, it is my opinion that someone as distinguished of a professor as himself should have been fully aware of how crappy of a report he was creating, as I’m sure if a student submitted work to him as brittle as his report it would have gotten an F.

    I don’t buy it when expert academics claim they had no idea that “things were that bad,” or that “something wrong was happening,” because it means that either they aren’t paying attention to their job responsibilities and should be fired (just like any one else who fails at their job) or should be fired because they are unqualified to do their job and make mistakes as a result.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=517327201 Quyen Nguyen

      Jim, how did you know that this study “contains very little science”?

      Though it’s a shame that he didn’t disclose his conflict of interest.

  • http://www.facebook.com/billraydrums Bill Ray Drums

    Wow, why don’t you just sell your grandkids to the cartels and get some more $$$? Because you just sold off the birthright of a lot of unsuspecting folks and caused damage of which you have no idea of the extended magnitude.

  • Euphonious_Munk

    What a sh*tbag. Does money means everything? Ethics? Morals? Caring about something besides your bank account?

  • subsilentio

    “Since I am no longer affiliated with UT, I will leave this unpleasant episode behind me.”

    Dream on, you bastard. You will only be remembered as a fraud and a criminal.

  • Shammit

    What a POS.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joe-ThePimpernel/100003157676276 Joe ThePimpernel

    If the money had come from George Soros and the report said that fracking was bad, it would have been fine.

    • http://www.facebook.com/anthony.kubiak.7 Anthony Kubiak

      Really? How do you know that?

  • QueensGambit

    Never trust reports released by people with ‘big oil’ connections. And obviously not the reports by the oil companies themselves.

    • wally

      I’ll agree with the a standard of being skeptical of all reports. Remember the hockey stick scandal of the Mann and the UN report that there was a direct correlation of world temperature increases and the additional CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuel. They even stated that the science was settled because it was peer reviewed. That report was not by the oil companies it was by individuals who were paid by government funds and by the Gores of the world who saw a chance to make money. The real statement should be is to be skeptical of all statements by all individuals since many are incorrect and /or are untrue on purpose.

  • Internet-justice

    Corrupt studies on drilling in Texas!!! Gasp!

  • http://netwrok.us/videos/ Viral Videos

    Yea, let’s choose the energy source that screws up humans and the environment the most, because… well, money.

    • http://www.facebook.com/clare.love Clare Love

      Your grandkids are gonna be so proud.

  • ToBobTim

    That actually looks like it might jsut work man, Wow.

    http://www.AnonSurfit.tk

  • broketheinterweb

    So they reviewed the study, but they found no factual errors? I would guess there are at least a few major ones, and I was hoping they’d be included in this article. Huge conflict of interest aside, do we still not know the facts about hydrofracking yet?

  • abacobeachbum

    In other news, the wolf has insisted that there’s no reason to lock the hen house door, as he is not influenced by his carnal urges to eat any of the chickens.

  • shoot yourself

    You should too

  • chill

    you should probably settle down right about now.

  • Concernced

    On campus and nearby campus drill sites surround UTA- Arlington. And, I read that the new parking garage that was added to the engineering building was funded with “frack money’ In fact, Arlington has a plethora of sites build next to school, apartment complexes and strip malls. There a a huge site next to the new Football staduim.

  • collier weiner

    Fraccing needs to be regulated It can be safe and in most cases is safe In cases where precautions have not been talen it can be dangerous to freshwater. Adequate and effective cementation, having casing in the hole, being seperated a distance vertically and horizontally from the aquifer is essential AND subcontractors must follow the rules too. Dispose of the wase safely and LEGALLY!

  • jones2371

    Progressives will stop at nothing to reach their ends. Sorry, don’t believe the spin. Drill.

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