Contaminated Inquiry How a University of Texas Fracking Study Led by a Gas Industry Insider Spun the Facts and Misled the Public

Contaminated Inquiry How a University of Texas Fracking Study Led by a Gas Industry Insider Spun the Facts and Misled the Public by Kevin Connor, Rob Galbraith and Ben Nelson, July 2012, public accountability initiative
The University of Texas Energy Institute report, titled “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development,” is a review of media coverage, public perception, and scientific investigations into environmental impacts of fracking and a summary of state regulations and enforcement. The report was released in February 2012 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference and billed as an independent, academic inquiry into fracking. According to the UT Energy Institute website, the goal of the report was to “inject science into a highly charged emotional debate” and provide a “fact-based foundation” upon which policymakers can base their decisions. The Energy Institute’s contribution to the fracking debate falls short of these goals in important ways, and in fact appears to have taken advantage of the university’s independent brand in order to publish industry spin dressed up as objective science. This is most significant in the press release accompanying the report, which ran with the following headline: “New Study Shows No Evidence of Groundwater Contamination from Hydraulic Fracturing.” This finding was highlighted in a wave of press coverage of the report, but it is based on a highly selective and misleading analysis of the 414-page report, which identified many environmental risks associated with fracking. … Energy Institute’s researchers report 22 issues related to fracking’s environmental impacts, although only the “no contamination” claim was highlighted in their press release. … For a study whose purpose is to provide for “fact-based” regulation of shale gas drilling in order to protect the environment, it is antithetical to take for granted and introduce the study with assertions that fracking is essential and in the public interest. … The principal investigator for the UT Energy Institute report, Charles “Chip” Groat, has a substantial, undisclosed conflict of interest: he sits on the board of, and has a major financial stake in, an oil and gas company involved in hydraulic fracturing. This was not disclosed in the report or accompanying materials and presentations. In fact, the university and Groat himself stressed that the report was independent of industry, perhaps in order to enhance the appearance of credibility. Proper disclosure of Groat’s stake in the oil and gas industry would have raised questions about the report’s credibility and independence. The Energy Institute report’s industry-friendly spin and message are even more troubling – if predictable – in light of this undisclosed conflict of interest.

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