2013 in review: the year of frackademics, defense profiteers, and twittlesis
By Gin Armstrong  •  Dec 20, 2013 at 10:51 EST

2013 has been a great year for the Public Accountability Initiative. Our investigations on issues ranging from corrupt greenwashing efforts to on-air war profiteers garnered major media coverage and delivered real impact. We ramped up our blogging activity. We moved into a new office in our home base of Buffalo and added two awesome staff members, one of whom seized control of our twitter account and actually started tweeting. We also made significant improvements to LittleSis, the research wiki that powers all of our nosy investigations, and began working on some exciting upgrades that we plan to roll out in 2014. Edits to the LittleSis database are up 20% from 2012, to 197,229 modifications (two tips of the hat to WileECoyote and seeker, the top LittleSis editors in 2013). Read on below for more highlights from our year.

Here at PAI, we follow the money in our daily work, tracking money flows through tangled networks in order to expose corruption and conflicts of interest. But we also do it in a larger sense: we follow the big money in the economy. Naturally, this has led us to focus our attention on banks, and fracking, and the defense and intelligence apparatus, among other things. With each of our investigations, we aim to challenge power and hold it accountable in a way that creates space for real democracy. By exposing corrupt and cozy deals among cronies, we hope to get the people a better deal.

Read on for more on how we did this in 2013. And if you like what we’re up to, please make a donation to PAI to support our work in 2014. Thank you!

– Kevin Read more…

Penn State faculty refuse to co-author frackademic report
By Rob Galbraith  •  Oct 03, 2012 at 12:18 EST

The Marcellus Shale Coalition has canceled its series of economic reports formerly issued through Pennsylvania State University when no Penn State faculty would agree to put their name on it. The reports, primarily authored by the frackademic Timothy Considine and widely cited in the campaign against a gas severance tax in Pennsylvania, painted a rosy picture of the economic benefits of Pennsylvania’s hydrofracking boom, though jobs numbers have not reflected Considine’s predictions. Bloomberg reported today that gas drilling has actually created and supported fewer than half of the jobs predicted in Considine’s 2009 report. His 2010 and 2011 updates of the original study were even farther off than that. Penn State retracted the 2009 report when the Responsible Drilling Alliance revealed that Considine and Seth Blumsack, his co-author, had not disclosed that the Marcellus Shale Coalition had commissioned and paid for it. The report was reissued with a notice of its funding, which was also carried on the 2010 and 2011 updates. The three studies cost the Marcellus Shale Coalition $146,000.

According to William Easterling, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, the study cannot be researched or published under the school’s imprimatur if no full-time faculty will associate with it. Among the people who were asked to take part in the study and declined are Seth Blumsack, co-author of the 2009 study; Michael Arthur, co-director of Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research; and Terry Engelder, the geologist and industry cheerleader who discovered the perhaps 141 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Marcellus.

“I would speculate that some of them have just made a calculated decision that getting out there and being involved in this report isn’t the best thing for the way they would like to be seen by the outside world.” Easterling told Bloomberg‘s Jim Efstathiou.

Frackademic backlash

The Penn State development comes in the context of a greater crackdown on gas industry influence over the science that shapes public policy around hydrofracking, a phenomenon that has come to be known as frackademia. In August, the University of Texas named a panel to review a February study from its Energy Institute that PAI revealed may have been influenced by author Chip Groat’s financial interest in Plains Exploration and Production, a fracking company operating in the area the report studied (though it should be noted that the scope of the review may not be as wide as UT originally made it out to be).

Last month, the trustees of the State University of New York unanimously called for the University at Buffalo to report to them on the role of the gas industry in the founding, funding, and staffing of the university’s Shale Resources and Society Institute and in the issuance of its controversial first report on environmental violations in the Pennsylvania Marcellus. That study, which was cited in Congressional testimony by Pennsylvania Secretary of Environmental Protection Michael Krancer, had a number of problems identified by PAI, including the fact that two of its central conclusions were not supported by its data, entire passages had been copied verbatim from a previous report, and that the data itself was of dubious value due to possible political interference and misreporting of violations by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The report on SRSI’s creation, which the university has completed, has not been made public, though a SUNY representative says that once it has been reviewed it will be. Meanwhile, the UB administration is standing behind the report. In a speech to the UB faculty senate, provost Charles Zukoski attributed the problems with the study to “wording errors” and insisted that “there have been no concerns regarding the report that have been raised by the relevant scientific community.”

Despite the UB administration’s confidence in the SRSI study’s rigor, the frackademic backlash is mounting. UB CLEAR, a group formed to insist on transparency in the institute, collected more than 600 signatures in support as well as a letter signed by 83 University at Buffalo faculty and staff. The Middle States Commission on Higher Eduction is considering a request to look into Penn State’s accreditation over the Considine reports. All of this spells out bad press for the universities involved as the public becomes more aware of the policy implications of industry-influenced science when it comes to a practice as dangerous as hydrofracking.

“Nonsense” and UB’s Shale Resources and Society Institute
By Rob Galbraith  •  Sep 04, 2012 at 08:57 EST

In recent interviews, Dr. Bruce Pitman, the dean of the University at Buffalo’s College of Arts and Sciences responded to PAI’s criticism of a study published this summer by the school’s Shale Resources and Society Institute. To a WBFO reporter, Pitman characterized claims of SRSI’s poor scholarship as “nonsense”, saying, “We haven’t been able to get past the noise on the extremes in order to actually begin to talk about what’s sensible and serious here.”

In the Spectrum, UB’s independent student publication, Pitman said:

“PAI took data from the very report turned it around and said, ‘Oh if you do the calculations this way something else happens.’ So was the report honest and open and did it disclose all the facts and define all its terms? I think it did. People choosing to interpret things differently – absolutely fair enough – but you can’t discredit the report if it’s providing you the data you’re choosing to look at differently.”

Here, Pitman was responding to this quote from a PAI researcher interviewed for the article:

“The biggest thing is that two of the main claims of the UB report were just flat out wrong,” Galbraith said. “When it comes down to it, they made a claim that is totally unsupported by their data. Their data doesn’t say what they say it says.”

The claim at question, found on page iii of the SRSI study, is:

In conclusion, this study demonstrates that the odds of non-major environmental events and the much smaller odds of major environmental events are being reduced even further by enhanced regulation and improved industry practice. (emphasis added)

The numbers and method of finding the odds used in the SRSI report show that in 2008 the odds of “major environmental events” were 5 in 1000 and in 2011 the odds of “major environmental events” were 8 in 1000, i.e. increased, not reduced. The following is a further examination of this simple math problem, with excerpts from the SRSI report to show where the numbers came from and that the calculations were not performed some other way, as Dr. Pitman asserted.

Read more…

Frackademics: The Ohio Shale Coalition Team
By Rob Galbraith  •  Jul 31, 2012 at 11:52 EST

With the University of Texas assembling a panel to review a February study from the Energy Institute at UT Austin following PAI’s report “Contaminated Inquiry”, there has been a flurry of media attention to gas industry’s capture of scientists and economists, using the independent brands of and public trust in universities to promote a gas-friendly message, often using misleading information or low-quality scholarship – a phenomenon we have termed “frackademia.” This week, Climate Desk, a collaboration between Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, the Guardian, and other outlets, released an article drawing attention to a report commissioned by the Ohio Shale Coalition and released with the logos of Cleveland State University, the Ohio State University, and Marietta College on its cover. The Climate Desk story featured Dr. Robert Chase, a Marietta geologist who co-authored the study, and his ties to the natural gas industry and government.

Source: Climate Desk

Source: Climate Desk

Chase runs a consulting firm to negotiate leases between landowners and gas companies. His firm Chaseland LLC was the subject of an inquiry by the Ohio Ethics Commission after landowners contested a permit granted to Chesapeake Energy by the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission, a five-member body on which Chase serves. Chase’s history consulting on lease negotiations with Chesapeake led him to recuse himself from that case, and the Ethics Commission ruled that Chase must recuse himself from any case involving companies or people he had done business with at his consultancy.

“An Analysis of the Economic Potential for Shale Formations in Ohio”, the Ohio Shale Coalition-commissioned study that Chase worked on paints a rosy picture of hydrofracking, promising “65,680 jobs and $3.3 billion in labor income, or an average income of $50,225 per job” and a nearly $5 billion increase in Ohio’s GDP from 2011 to 2014 thanks to fracking in the Utica Shale, numbers that the authors call “very conservative.” Researchers at the Ohio State University’s Swank Program in Rural-Urban Policy have criticized these estimates as overestimating job creation by “about 400%”. Also, in addition to Chase’s conflict of interest in writing a report endorsing fracking while running a consulting firm that takes a share of the bonus payouts for every gas lease it negotiates, the report itself was commissioned by a pro-fracking group and some of its authors and contributors exhibit similar conflicts. These conflicts raise the question of whether the study’s results were determined before it was conducted.
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