Former University of Texas at Austin Professor Charles “Chip” Groat is ready to move on from a controversy about failing to disclose a conflict of interest while at the University. “I will leave this unpleasant episode behind me,” he wrote us in an email last week.
Groat is retiring early from UT and moving to Louisiana, where he will lead the partially taxpayer-funded Water Institute of the Gulf as President and CEO. The institute is a non-profit dedicated to coastal protection and restoration in Louisiana. It received $10 million of initial funding from the state of Louisiana and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. It is intended to “inform decisions on restoration and renewal of gulf coastal areas” and reduce risk and protect the Gulf, according to its website.
The Institute has not disclosed (on its website or in press releases) that Groat still sits on the board of the drilling company Plains Exploration and Production. That company has major drilling projects offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, including deep-water ones, and on the ground in Louisiana, Texas and California.
Groat has come under fire for failing to disclose what an independent review called a “clear conflict of interest” in a study he led of the oil and gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” (You can read our explainer on fracking here.) While leading the UT study, which called itself a “fact-based” look at the environmental impact of fracking, Groat was sitting on the board of a drilling company engaged in fracking. He was collecting compensation from that position totaling over $1.5 million over the last five years. He didn’t disclose the financial relationship in the report, on his resume, or to the University at the time of the study’s release. An independent review of the study found it lacked scientific rigor and was presented in a way as to downplay many of its more critical findings.
Nick Speyrer, a representative for the Water Institute of the Gulf, doesn’t see any problems with Groat’s role on the board of Plains Exploration and Production. He says the institute was aware of Groat’s financial ties to the oil and gas industry. “It just wasn’t germane” to include on Groat’s bio on the website, he says.
Speyrer says that the institute has conflict of interest policies and procedures modeled after “best practices” at major scientific organizations, and that depending on what it does in the future, it may disclose Groat’s role on the board of a major drilling company. “Anything that we do produce in terms of science and technical information, we’ll ensure that the proper disclosures and conflicts of interest are certainly aware and open,” he says, “to ensure that there are no challenges or questions about the science we’re producing.”
While the institute’s initial research is likely to focus on tools to help rebuild wetlands and reverse the disappearing Louisiana coastline, Speyser confirms that the group may do research into the effects of drilling and spills on the coast in the future. “There will be research opportunities that a lot of folks are interested in, to make sure that we’re monitoring the long-term impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” Speyrer says. “And hopefully this research will lead to smarter decisions in the future in terms of response.”
Disclosure: StateImpact Texas is part of KUT Austin, a unit of the University of Texas at Austin.