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.


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