Fissures appear in scientists’ assurances about safety of fracking, Why the UT Fracking Study Controversy Matters

Fissures appear in scientists’ assurances about safety of fracking by Mark Hume, December 9, 2012, The Globe and Mail
When the research team from the University of Texas at Austin took the stage at the Vancouver Convention Centre early this year, they knew they had a big audience. Journalists from around the world were attending the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting and many of them had come to the press conference, where a new study on the environmental impacts of fracking was to be released. Across North America, including in British Columbia where gas exploration is booming, the industry has been under intense scrutiny.  …

Charles Groat, of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, promised big news on that front. And he didn’t disappoint, delivering a definitive statement that the widely held environmental concerns about fracking were simply unfounded. “The bottom line [is that] we found no direct evidence that hydraulic fracturing itself – the practice of fracturing the rocks – had contaminated shale groundwater or was causing concerns,” said Dr. Groat at the February event.

That was then. Now a review panel appointed by the University of Texas has taken a hard look at Dr. Groat’s report, and has concluded his study “fell short of contemporary standards for scientific work.” Not only was the work suspect, reported the panel, but Dr. Groat himself was in a troubling conflict of interest. “In studies of controversial topics, such as the impact on public health and the environment potentially stemming from shale-gas hydraulic fracturing, credibility hinges upon full disclosure of any potential conflicts of interest by all participants and upon rigorous, independent reviews of findings. This study failed in both regards,” stated the panel, which released its findings Friday. “Dr. Groat, failed to disclose his material financial relationship as a member of the board of directors of Plains Exploration and Production, a gas exploration and development company,” stated the panel, which was appointed to investigate after a non-profit group, the Public Accountability Initiative, raised questions about the independence of the research. “When asked at the [Vancouver] press conference … about the independence of the work … [Dr. Groat] replied, ‘This study was funded entirely by University of Texas funds,’ not taking the opportunity to comment on his own financial interests,” stated the review panel.

The Globe and Mail and other major media covering that press conference reported that the University of Texas had found there was no evidence to support concerns that fracking damages groundwater.

“You were misled,” said Kevin Connor, director of the Public Accountability Initiative, who raised questions on Dr. Groat’s conflict. “The science isn’t there.” Mr. Connor said Dr. Groat’s report, which the University of Texas has now withdrawn, is similar to a fracking study at the State University of New York at Buffalo, which was also recently withdrawn because of questions about its credibility. “I think the oil and gas industry is really desperate to go full speed ahead with fracking, and through various means and mechanisms are trying to get out in to the public debate, academic studies that absolve the industry,” he said.  In a press release, accepting the findings of the review panel and announcing strict new conflict-of-interest guidelines, the University of Texas noted that Dr. Groat has since retired and Raymond Orbach has resigned as director of the Energy Institute.

In British Columbia, where the gas industry is racing to tap into vast shale deposits in the northeast, the government has been assuring first nations that fracking is not causing any environmental harm. The groundwater is safe, the government says. It is now clear there is reason to doubt that.

[Refer also to this excerpt by Jessica Ernst, April 20, 2012, in Brief review of threats to groundwater from the oil and gas industry and hydraulic fracturing: A Canadian perspective 

The report released in 2012 by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas called for more science on hydraulic fracturing and reported that “lack of baseline studies in areas of shale gas development makes it difficult to evaluate the long-term, cumulative effects and risks associated with hydraulic fracturing.”[1] “Leaks in part of the well bore could mean gas getting into water wells nearby. But the same thing happens in conventional gas production. …We haven’t found any community where inspection practices, pre-development conditions, monitoring of development and post-development assessment has been done according to best practices”[2] [emphasis added]

The Energy Institute report covered gas migration into groundwater caused by drilling and specifically hydraulic fracturing:

“Unplanned releases of natural gas in the subsurface during drilling may result in a blowout of the well or migration of gas below the surface to nearby houses, where the gas may accumulate in concentrations high enough to cause an explosion. … Many blowouts happen as a result of the failure of the integrity of the casing or the cementing of the casing such that high-pressure fluids escape up well bore and flow into subsurface formations. …

“Blowouts are apparently the most common of all well control problems, and they appear to be under-reported. … Subsurface blowouts may pose both safety hazards and environmental risks. The potential environmental consequences of a blowout depend mostly on three factors: 1) the timing of the blowout relative to well activities (which determines the nature of the released fluid such as natural gas or pressurized fracturing fluid); 2) occurrence of the escape of contaminants through the surface casing or deep in a well; and 3) the risk receptors, such as freshwater aquifers or water wells, that are impacted. …

“Blowouts due to high gas pressure or mechanical failures happen in both conventional and shale gas development. Shale gas wells have the incremental risk of potential failures caused by the high pressures of fracturing fluid during hydraulic fracturing operations. Underground blowouts occur in both wells that had been or about to be hydraulically fractured. …

“An example of the environmental consequences of an underground blowout…has been reported in Louisiana, in which pressure changes in the Wilcox aquifer caused a number of water wells around the blowout will to start spouting water. …

“In another incident in Ohio…high-pressure natural gas was encountered and moved up the well bore and invaded shallow rock formations. Within a few days gas bubbling was observed in water wells and surface water, and the floor of a basement in a house was uplifted several inches. Over 50 families were evacuated from the area. …

“In one well-known case in Ohio, a house exploded soon after a nearby hydraulically fractured well was drilled. After much investigation by the regulatory agency and a private geological engineering consulting firm, followed by study of the case by a distinguished review committee, it was concluded that methane may have migrated to the house along shallow horizontal fractures or bedding planes. …

Other cases of methane explosions in homes and wellhouses have been investigated in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Texas. In some of these cases, the explosions were found caused by gas migration from hydraulically fractured wells.[3] 

The press release accompanying the Energy Institute’s report was intentionally misleading: “New Study Shows No Evidence of Groundwater Contamination from Hydraulic Fracturing”[4] setting off similar headlines in the media across the globe.

[1] [3] Groat and Grimshaw, 2012

Groat, C. G. and T. W. Grimshaw. 2012. Fact Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development. Energy Institute, University of Texas, Austin.

[2] Irish Times, 2012

The Irish Times How the US energy industry stopped worrying and learned to love fracking March 21, 2012.

[4] Energy Institute, U of Texas, February 16, 2012

Energy Institute Press Release New Study Shows No Evidence of Groundwater Contamination from Hydraulic Fracturing February 16, 2012, University of Texas, Austin ]

Why the UT Fracking Study Controversy Matters by Terrence Henry, December 7, 2021, State Impact Texas
Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat says he wants to put the fracking study controversy behind him. … 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.”

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 Duncan maintains his section wasn’t ready at the time of the study’s initial release. Moreover, Duncan told the review panel that he was concerned that the press release “distorted” his findings and “that the report should not have been released in draft form, as was actually the case.” Citations were missing, and two of the report’s main sections were marked as rough drafts when the report was released.
•    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). [Emphasis added]

Review of UT Fracking Study Finds Failure to Disclose Conflict of Interest (Updated) by Terrence Henry, December 6, 2012, State Impact Texas
The long-awaited review of a controversial study on the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” was released today, and it finds numerous errors and flaws with how the study was conducted and released, as well as University of Texas policies for disclosing conflicts of interest. The head author of the study, Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat, has retired in the wake of the controversy, and the head of the Energy Institute that released it, Dr. Raymond Orbach, has resigned as head of the Institute, the University announced today. (Update: In a press release Thursday, UT announced that Orbach had “resigned.” It did not say, however, that Orbach will be staying at UT as a tenured professor. In an interview with StateImpact Texas, Provost Steven Leslie didn’t mention it, either, saying ,”the person who oversaw the fracking report has retired from the University, and the Director resigned over this.” Orbach has in fact only resigned as head of the Energy Institute, effective December 31. A UT spokesperson maintains that the exclusion of this information wasn’t intentional. UT has since updated the press release, noting Orbach’s continued employment.) The original report by UT Austin’s Energy Institute, ‘Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in the Shale Gas Development,’ was released early this year, and claimed that there was no link between fracking and water contamination. … Kevin Connor, Director of Public Accountability Initiative, which originally disclosed the conflict of interest in July, tells us he is satisfied with the review and the retirement and resignation of the two UT professors. “I see this as a commendable stand for integrity and transparency,” he tells StateImpact Texas, “and I think it sets a strong example for other universities and sends a strong message to the oil and gas industry that this kind of sham research won’t be tolerated or supported by universities.” [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to:  Fracking Studies Cartoon by Adam Zyglis, August 13, 2012,

Ernst Water Well Complaint Review by Dr. Alex Blyth, P. Geol, PhD., Alberta Research Council Inc. (Name changed to Alberta Innovates – Technologies Futures) Permit to Practice P03619, December 31, 2007, Prepared for Alberta Environment [name changed to Alberta Environment and Water, now Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, soon to be Alberta Energy Regulator]

An Independent Review of Coalbed Methane Related Water Well Complaints Filed with Alberta Environment by Dr. Alex Blyth, P. Geol, PhD., Alberta Research Council Inc. (Name changed to Alberta Innovates – Technologies Futures) Permit to Practice P03619, January 16,  2008, Prepared for Alberta Environment [name changed to Alberta Environment and Water, now Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, soon to be Alberta Energy Regulator]

8 Landowners Reject Closure of Groundwater Cases: Demand Proper Study of Industrial Contamination Media Alert, March 19, 2008
Alberta Environment closed the Rosebud cases based on reviews by the [Alberta Research Council (ARC)]…. ARC’s 2007 annual report clearly lists EnCana as a funder of its water program including studies on the impacts of coalbed methane development. (p.14) In a January 28th letter to MLA David Swann, Karlis Muelenbachs and Barbara Tilley at the University of Alberta, two experts on fingerprinting the sources of gas contamination, criticized the ARC study as inadequate and called the government’s conclusion “premature.” ]

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