A little more than a week ago the Orange County Register ran a column by Timothy Considine, the director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming arguing against a ban on hydraulic fracturing in California. Considine claims that fracking in the Monterey Shale could add 557,000 jobs per year and increase the state domestic product by $63 billion. While Considine’s numbers look compelling, they are based on a wild overestimate of the recoverable oil from the Monterey formation. Five days after Considine’s column ran, the Energy Information Administration reduced its estimate of recoverable oil from the Monterey Shale by 96%.
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.
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.
Businesses in controversial industries often turn to the academy for evidence exculpating them for the harm that they do, with trade groups funding “scholarly” reports claiming that their products and business practices are safe for the public. In much the same way that Big Tobacco funded research claiming that secondhand smoke is not harmful, natural gas associations such as the Marcellus Shale Coalition have been paying for research that exaggerates fracking’s economic benefits and downplays its environmental risks both by funding individual studies and by donating to myriad shale gas research institutions, such as the University at Buffalo’s Shale Resources and Society Institute and the University at Wyoming’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy.