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Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Why the UT Fracking Study Controversy Matters

Photo by KUT News

Dr. Charles "Chip" Groat says he wants to put the fracking study controversy behind him.

One University of Texas at Austin professor has retired and another has resigned his position as head of UT’s Energy Institute, the school announced Thursday after the release of a scathing review of a study on fracking that has become mired in controversy.

The man at the center of the storm for sitting on the board of a drilling company the entire time, Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat, has declined a request for an interview, but has talked to us about his take on the matter in a series of emails over the last 24 hours. “While I admit that even though my reasons for not disclosing my industry connection were valid in terms of connection to the report results,” Groat writes, “I should have made a disclosure.”

In his most recent email to us, Groat writes, “I don’t have anything further to discuss regarding my role in the project.”

Under an Open Records Request, we have obtained Groat’s letter of retirement dated November 21, which you can read in full below. In it, Groat makes no mention of the controversy, instead he writes of his new position as head of the not-for-profit Water Institute of the Gulf in Louisiana, where he and his wife are moving.

The University strengthened its conflict of interest policies in August after the controversy that erupted over the study. And it says it will implement all the recommendations of the review panel, including withdrawing the study until it is properly researched and reviewed. The example of Groat’s clear conflict of interest is even used as an example in University ethics compliance training today:

A full reading of the independent review panel’s report shows just how unscientific the Energy Institute’s original study was. Yet it was marketed and presented to the media as a “fact-based” analysis of the environmental impacts of fracking.

Here are some of the issues the panel noted:

  • “Much of the report was based on literature surveys, incident reports and conjecture,” and not independent scientific research. In fact, there was only one “active” scientific member of the team, Professor Ian Duncan, who did his work on his own time and his own dime. Duncan told the review panel that “there was very little published scientific information on many of the matters he was asked to investigate,” so he essentially had to cobble them together from “unreviewed” sources like violation reports.
  • And Scott Anderson of the Environmental Defense Fund, who reviewed Duncan’s section, maintains that it shouldn’t have been included if the section wasn’t ready at the time of the study’s initial release. Citations were missing, and two of the report’s main sections were marked as rough drafts when the report was released. Anderson told the review panel that he was concerned that the press release “distorted” the study’s findings and “that the report should not have been released in draft form, as was actually the case.”* (StateImpact Texas noted in an interview with Anderson at the time that the report was much more nuanced and critical than the press release suggested.)
  • Other experts at the University who were actively researching the health effects of hydraulic fracturing didn’t participate in the study.
  • The report was made up of three white papers submitted by three separate individuals, but the substance of those reports (one of which was critical of some of the impacts fracking, as we noted at the time) was distorted as “the project moved through the stages of drafting the summary, media release and public presentations.” Strong caveats in Duncan’s report were not included in the press release or presentation of the study. And there was no independent peer review of the study before its release.
  • The project manager, Dr. Thomas Grimshaw, “possessed little experience in scientific research.” While the study proclaimed participation by “hydraulic fracturing experts … there was no evidence found” of that.
  • And while Groat claimed leadership of the study, he in fact had little to do with it and “delegated the responsibility for much of the project to others.” While that excuses him from accusations of bias, it also calls into question why he represented the research as his own.
  • Groat was in fact so uninvolved with the project that he “did not read the white papers” prepared by the three contributors.

As the review points out, it may be unrealistic to expect academics studying the oil and gas industry to have zero actual ties to it, but disclosure is key. (These issues are not without precedent: consider the pharmaceutical, tobacco and chemical industries influence on health research in the past).

In fact, the Energy Institute study was hampered by a lack of funding because they declined to partner with the lobbying group America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA). The industry group wanted to manage the project “in detail,” the review panel reports, “including removing one of the investigators and editing the report prior to its release.” Because the Energy Institute turned ANGA down, it lost the funding, and the scientific research part of the study.

A similar situation at the University at Buffalo over a report on fracking ended with its Shale Resources and Society Institute, which released the study, being shut down last month. That study had industry ties that weren’t disclosed, and was conducted haphazardly.

Both Charles “Chip” Groat, who retired, and Raymond Orbach, who will stay on at the University as a tenured professor, have been sources for StateImpact Texas and other news organizations in the past.

There are legitimate concerns about the environmental impacts of drilling that is rapidly expanding across Texas and other parts of the country. But these very real concerns cannot be addressed without real integrity by scientists and researchers. The UT case may be a real setback for those seeking to understand the drilling boom underway, where Texans’ backyards are often the site of new drilling rigs.

Further Reading: In New Role, Former UT Professor’s Industry Ties Remain Unpublicized

Read Chip Groat’s retirement letter:

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

*Correction: We originally reported that UT professor Ian Duncan objected to the report being released in draft form and that the original press release distorted the study’s overall findings. Those objections were in fact made by Scott Anderson, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, who reviewed Duncan’s section of the original study, as we have noted in a revision above.

Comments

  • scottrose

    The University of Texas at Austin’s now demonstrated — and admitted — general lack of proper ethics oversight that extended to the behavior of its now former professor Charles Groat also very severely tainted the school’s inquiry into scientific and academic misconduct allegations against Associate Professor Mark Regnerus in the matter of The New Family Structures Study (“NFSS”).

    Specifically, UT’s inquiry into Regnerus and the NFSS apparently failed to uncover, and certainly failed to acknowledge conflicts of interest as well as Regnerus’sconflicts of commitment.

    The NFSS was first organized in 2010 by Regnerus’s chief funder, The Witherspoon Institute.

    Witherspoon’s 2010 IRS 990 forms call the NFSS a “major accomplishment” of Witherspoon’s Program for Marriage, Family and Democracy.

    In 2010, the Director of that Witherspoon program was W. Bradford Wilcox.

    For the Witherspoon Institute, Wilcox recruited Regnerus to be head researcher on the NFSS. Witherspoon then gave Regnerus a planning grant. Still in his capacity as a Witherspoon Program Director, Wilcox then collaborated with Regnerus on NFSS study design.

    Despite that, Regnerus in his June, 2012 NFSS article published in the Elsevier journal Social Science Research states that “the funding sources played no role at all in the design or conduct of the study, the analyses, the interpretations of the data, or in the preparation of the manuscript.”

    That statement from Regnerus is plainly false. He repeated a similar untruth in his November, 2012 NFSS “Additional Analyses,” also published in Social Science Research. In his November article, Regnerus phrases the false claim this way: “No funding agency representatives were consulted about research design, survey contents, analyses, or conclusions.”

    Note that UT’s documents of NFSS study disbursements show that UT did not start administering NFSS-related disbursements until 2011. That is to say, when, in 2010, Brad Wilcox – as a Witherspoon Program Director – recruited Regnerus for the NFSS for Witherspoon, and then collaborated with him on NFSS study design, Wilcox was acting as a titled Witherspoon representative, reporting and answerable to The Witherspoon Institute.

    Formulating and/or changing a study design to produce a study result desired by a funding agency constitutes misconduct.

    I shall return to that point shortly, but first I shall enumerate Wilcox’s additional undisclosed conflicts of interest in the matter of the NFSS; 1) Wilcox’s University of Virginia programs receive financial support from both of Regnerus’s funders, The Witherspoon Institute and The Bradley Foundation; 2) Wilcox collaborated with Regnerus on NFSS data collection; 3) Wilcox collaborated with Regnerus on NFSS data analyses; 4) Wilcox collaborated with Regnerus on NFSS interpretation; 5) A preponderance of evidence shows that Wilcox was permitted to do peer review; 6)Wilcox is a long-time associate to Regnerus; 7) Wilcox is a long-time associate to Social Science Research editor-in-chief James Wright; 8) Wilcox is on the Social Science Research editorial board.

    That Wilcox is on the Social Science Research editorial board – and a long-time associate to Regnerus and to Wright – is of particular significance to Regnerus’s failure to disclose – and indeed, his actually going beyond non-disclosure and telling untruths about – Wilcox’s involvement in the NFSS.

    Copies of Regnerus’s “Additional Analyses” circulated prior to the print publication of the article. Concerned about the repeated failure to disclose that Wilcox as a Witherspoon Program Director had recruited Regnerus for the NFSS for Witherspoon, and that Wilcox — still as a Witherspoon Program Director — had then collaborated with Regnerus on NFSS study design, I e-mailed editor James Wright with all of the documentation of Wilcox’s involvement. I also left Wright voice mails explaining that I wanted to know if he would be disclosing Wright’s involvement in the NFSS. Wright ignored those communications, and re-published Regnerus’s untruthful statement. I also sent Regnerus the same e-mails, but received no responses.

    Regnerus thus is involved in blatant, outstanding violations of fundamental academic, and science publishing ethics involving non-disclosure of conflicts of interest.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kim-Triolo-Feil/1320864445 Kim Triolo Feil

    Good….glad he’s gone.
    —– Forwarded Message —-
    From: kim feil
    To: president@po.utexas.edu; chancellor@utsystem.edu
    Sent: Wed, August 8, 2012 2:38:37 PM
    Subject: Dr Groat needs a reprimand on fracturing study nondisclosure and for rushing the oversight portion

    Clearly the subject of if our water supplies are “at risk or not” is important enough for the head of a fracturing study to disclose any conflicts of interest.

    I read that he rushed the piece on if any federal or state oversight is needed, which definately shows his bias and allegiance to having the industry get special treatment possibly to the detriment of our future drinking supplies.

    Please send a clear message and remove him from any affliation to your university.

    There was to be a second part to this study, can you forward my email to whomever can add me to the list of interested parties when those results are available?

  • Cris McConkey

    This is the first time I’ve encountered “State Impact”. This is really encouraging. When will this start in New York, where we also have a similar story involving the closure of a University of Buffalo shale gas institute (some call it shamstitute). BTW, was this story broadcast on Texas NPR stations? Who decides which stories are broadcast on the radio, and when do they become national stories? We’ve been hearing a lot from the American Natural Gas Alliance on public media here in New York.

  • Steve

    I find it curious that NPR fulminates about “disclosure” in this article. Is this the same NPR that regularly fails to disclose the outside activities of many of its reporters, correspondents, and analysts? Mara Liasson, Cokie Roberts, Juan Williams, anyone?

    • http://www.facebook.com/ted.p.lee Ted Pen Lee

      NPR is a private organization. State universities are public institution paid for by the taxpayers and should be more answerable to the public mandate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sue.rapp18 Sue Rapp

    Are you aware that the Binghamton University Alumni Magazine featured on its cover an interview with an alumnus who is concerned about CO2 emissions and therefore believes we should frack in NY? He is also endowing a chair in the geology department to make sure no “misinformation” on fracking is taught to students. Is BU another frackademia institution?

  • JeffreyRO55

    What is it with the University of Texas and fraudulent academic work? So far this year, there’s been the Mark Regnerus fake gay parenting study and now this. What the heck is going on in Austin??

    • http://www.facebook.com/ted.p.lee Ted Pen Lee

      Though the situation is bad, Academic fraud is not unique to UT. Academic fraud seems to be a reflection of the university system across the US.

  • G. Stream

    This event goes to show how fastidious researchers and their affiliated institutions must be in this current time of activist media. This type of lopsided coverage belies a clear agenda. If the feeling from these investigative reporters is that they are righting a wrong, I would suggest that they are simply adding a wrong…and we know how the saying goes. Don’t be a brainless mouthpiece for EDF. Every imperfect report that doesn’t agree with their agenda may not be as nefarious as their attorney might suggest. They have certainly produced no shortage of unsubstantiated “facts” (read: propagandist fabrications) in their time. At any rate, I’m not defending the report, I’m just astounded at how a supposedly astute readership froths with excitement over such an obviously slanted report.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ted.p.lee Ted Pen Lee

      Have you read the report? It’s lack of academic rigor speaks for itself–no proofreading and grammatical errors, too much white space (blank pages), 5 different table of contents, a page numbering that repeats 5 times, an introduction that is not really a summary, piles of information that don’t support the executive summary, inadequate accreditation of a Congressional report “Chemicals Used in Hydraulic Fracturing” which qualifies as plagiarism. There was a section in there on media that belonged in a study on PR and data mining rather than a fact-based study on fracking. It is what I would call a propagandist fabrication.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ted.p.lee Ted Pen Lee

    In the summary there was out-and-out plagiarism of a Congressional report that was improperly cited in the footnote of page 17 as the “Waxman report.” I wish I could find a source when this study began to check if to see if the date of the so-called study correspond with the date in which drilling occurred in Dimock.

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