Fired researcher paints pattern of pressure from oil and gas industry

Fired researcher paints pattern of pressure from oil and gas industry by Jefferson Dodge, August 16, 2012, Boulder Weekly
A former researcher who says he left the Colorado School of Mines due to pressure from the oil and gas industry has now lost his university job in Wyoming after an industry association complained to his superiors about comments he made about fracking. It appears to be one of several examples of faculty around the country experiencing blowback from the powerful oil and gas industry after releasing research exposing the possible health hazards associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and other extraction processes. What makes Geoffrey Thyne’s case distinctive is that he claims he and his university employers have caught heat from the industry more than once. Thyne, who began working at Mines as a research faculty member in 1996, made some controversial remarks about fracking in 2005. He was reviewing the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2004 report on hydraulic fracturing at the request of Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project, and he says the EPA study’s conclusion was essentially that because there was no data on water impacts from fracking, there was no threat of contamination.

Thyne says he faced similar pressure in Wyoming, where he was a senior research scientist at the Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute (EORI) — until his appointment was not renewed this year. … He gave reporter Shauna Stephenson some figures on the amount of water used during a frack job: 48 million to 70 million gallons. … According to Thyne, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming (PAW) objected to the 70 million gallon figure, saying it was way too high, and contacted the newspaper to find out where Stephenson got her numbers. Thyne says that when PAW traced the information back to the university and Thyne’s institute, he got called into a meeting with a university government affairs officer, who told him he needed to meet with PAW members. In that meeting, Thyne told PAW representatives Jonathan Ekstrom of Noble Energy and Jody Levin of Levin Strategic Resources how he got his figure. He based it on a calculation of the amount of water needed to frack an especially long well. Wells stretching horizontally for about a mile need to be fracked in up to 40 different sections, he says, using between 1 million and 2 million gallons of water for each section. ….the PAW representatives wanted him to “say it’s wrong in writing.”

“This will continue to happen as long as you speak out on a subject like this,” Thyne says of the pressure he’s experienced. “Industry handled this about as badly as they possibly could have. This is totally my opinion, but I think they handed this off to PR people at some point, and they’ve chosen a strategy that’s going to fail. It has to fail.” He describes it as a strategy to deny, cover up, avoid responsibility and discount industry critics. … John Robitaille, vice president of PAW, told BW that one concern with having an overly high water estimate in the paper was that area well owners who are considering selling their water to oil and gas companies (instead of for agriculture) might get the wrong impression of how much water the industry is buying. “We didn’t want those figures to go out,”….

Thyne says he’s not the only one who’s been subjected to undue pressure from the oil and gas industry. He says he knows of faculty around the nation who have been targeted as well, including an engineer at Cornell University who called for an outright fracking ban in his state. “Industry did a bunch of nasty pieces on him, trying to make him look like a wild-eyed, pistol-waving lunatic,” Thyne says. There was even one woman from the tiny town of Raton, N.M., who claimed she was being followed and harassed after complaining about her water well being contaminated by nearby drilling operations. … “I’ve talked to people who’ve been shot at. … It’s a real sticky situation, because there are some people getting jobs in the community, because of the development, and they’re good-paying jobs, and this is changing our economy, so it’s all positive, and then you say, ‘Yeah, well, so-and-so screwed up my well, and they won’t compensate me for it, so I’m going to take them to court, or I’m going to make waves.’ And you’ve got your neighbors mad at you.” In addition, taking a big oil or gas company to court isn’t a walk in the park. “You’ve got to have really deep pockets, you’ve got to go to court for a couple of years,” Thyne says. “They’re going to push it back and push it back and push it back, and then they’re going to wait until the last second, literally, and they’re going to settle. And they’re probably going to simply buy your land for what you paid for it, and get you to sign a nondisclosure [agreement] and say bye bye.” [emphasis added]

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