Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Review Panel Announced for Controversial Fracking Study

Photo by Paul E. Alers/NASA via Getty Images

Norman Augustine, who was formerly on the board of directors of ConocoPhillips, has been selected to chair a review of a controversial study on hydraulic fracturing.

A few weeks back we reported that the lead author of an academic study on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” had been sitting on the board of a drilling company at the time, earning well over a million dollars in compensation. After the financial ties came to light, the University of Texas at Austin, whose Energy Institute conducted the study, said it would commission an independent review. And now the university has announced some of the particulars.

There will be three people on the panel, and the university says they’ll have “free reign” in their process. Provost Steven Leslie said in a statement that he’ll follow whatever their reccomendations are. The three members of the panel are chair Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin;┬áJames Duderstadt, President Emeritus of the University of Michigan; and┬áRita Colwell,┬áa former director of the National Science Foundation.

But a watchdog group that first revealed the potential conflict of interest in the original study is skeptical. The Public Accountability Initiative says the university is taking “an important step” after misleading the public, but believes there are “serious questions about the independence” of the panel.

Here’s what the group found about the chair of the panel, from a statement emailed to StateImpact Texas:

“Given the conflict of interest at the root of this report’s problems, it is extremely troubling that the university chose an energy industry insider to chair the panel.┬áNorman Augustine served for nearly 20 years on the board of oil and gas company ConocoPhillips and its predecessor company, Phillips Petroleum. During that time, he was awarded millions of dollars in stock and cash compensation, some of which he continues to receive in retirement in the form of annual payments of deferred compensation. Mr. Augustine’s┬árelationship to the gas industry is strikingly similar to that of the original study’s author, Chip Groat, who has earned close to $2 million as a director of drilling company Plains Exploration and Production (PXP).

ConocoPhillips is also one of the University of Texas Energy Institute’s top publicly-named named donors, having given a five-year, $1.5 million grant for energy research in 2010.”

In the university’s press release announcing the review panel, they do note that Augustine was on the board of ConocoPhillips, but not the extent of the relationship or ties between the company and the Energy Institute. The press release states that there are “no direct ties” between the members of the panel and the university. Augustine was Director of ConocoPhillips’ Compensation Committee from 2002 to 2008, according to BusinessWeek.

ConocoPhillips calls itself one of the “largest producers of natural gas” in the country. And it cites Groat’s study on the fracking section of its website, saying that the study┬áfound “no evidence” of groundwater contaminated by hydraulic fracturing.

Previously: Texas Professor on the Defensive Over Fracking Money


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