Fracking and academic freedom II, Some professors shielded from oil/gas attacks, thanks to tenure

Fracking and academic freedom II, Some professors shielded from oil/gas attacks, thanks to tenure by Jefferson Dodge, August 30, 2012, Boulder Weekly
While certain faculty members around the country have felt the heat from the oil and gas industry for raising questions about the possible health impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” not all have been canned. Not all are like Geoffrey Thyne, a researcher highlighted in the Aug. 16 issue of Boulder Weekly who blames controversial comments he made about fracking for the fact that he is no longer employed by the Colorado School of Mines or the University of Wyoming. Luckily, controversial research is sometimes still protected by tenure, or by the university itself. Robert Howarth, who holds an endowed chair at Cornell University called the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, is another faculty member who has been targeted by the oil and gas industry because of his research. “Unlike Thyne, I’m a tenured professor, which gives me some protection,” Howarth tells BW. “The tenure is the important thing.” Howarth, who began working at Cornell in 1985, says he started his research on fracking about three years ago, specifically focusing on the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas extraction in hopes of filling a void in the research at the time. “No one had published any sort of study on what the greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas were,” he says of an energy source that had been widely touted as a clean fuel. “There was nothing, absolutely nothing. … People were perfectly content to have no studies.”

Howarth says he began circulating drafts of his study results in spring 2010, and those early reports showed that methane emissions from the extraction of shale gas were higher than they were from coal. (His ultimate findings were that while shale gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal or oil, when it comes to the much more potent greenhouse gas methane, shale gas has a larger impact than coal, oil or conventional gas.) But his preliminary findings got distributed more widely than he had intended, resulting in inquiries from the press. In a message posted to his website, he announced that his research was not yet done, but he says his work continued to gain media attention. Howarth says even the White House took notice and directed the Environmental Protection Agency, which hadn’t updated its natural gas studies since 1996, and the U.S. Department of Energy to look into the matter. The EPA released studies showing similar increased gas emissions beginning in November 2010, he says. His finished paper, co-authored by Cornell colleagues Renee Santoro and Tony Ingraffea, was not published until April 2011. But it seems that someone got a copy just before the paper came out, judging from a story published in The Hillthat described an earlier draft — a draft that a reporter said he got from industry insiders and that Howarth says was only available on his and his two co-authors’ computers. He’s not shy about suggesting that someone in the oil/gas industry stole it. “That’s the most likely explanation, but I can’t prove it, and it sounds paranoid, right?” Howarth says. “I think they probably hacked into my computer, from the looks of it.”

“The quality of the data is terrible because industry is very secretive and not very honest,” Howarth says. … “As real science comes along, I think it’s making our stuff look pretty good,” Howarth says. And in December 2011 Time magazine named him and co-author Ingraffea, along with actor Mark Ruffalo, among the “50 Others That Mattered” in the publication’s “Person of the Year” issue. But there have been consequences associated with his controversial findings. Howarth says that in addition to the ANGA critics, he saw a significant decrease in the number of graduate students who applied to study with him, for one thing. …  I’ve had a huge number of scientists I’ve never met before who have contacted me, and we’re now working together towards increasing the quality of the science in this area. There’s a lot of positive stuff, but I’ve also come under a huge amount of attack, personal attack and professional attack, and it definitely colors how non-scientists see me or approach me.” [Emphasis added]

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