On Monday, protesters poured into a hearing room in Albany, New York to make the case that the state should not lift a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing - better known as "fracking" - later this month. Their overriding message: There is no evidence that fracking, the controversial process of extracting oil and natural gas from huge underground rock formations, is safe.
"As of yet, there has been no study that satisfies any of the concerns that people have in New York," said Travis Proulx of Environmental Advocates of New York. "We have no answers here in New York on the public health, economic or environmental impacts."
That isn't to say, of course, that there haven't been studies done on the issue. But in the fraught debate over fracking, it isn't always easy to decide which ones to trust, and how much to trust them.
In May, the Shale Resources and Society Institute at the State University of New York at Buffalo released a research report that used data from Pennsylvania to argue that fracking had become increasingly safe. "[T]his study demonstrates that the odds of non-major environmental events and the much smaller odds of major environmental events are being reduced even further by enhanced regulation and improved industry practice," said the study, which was released just one month after the institute was founded.
The release prompted an outcry from professors and students at the university as well as a response from a Buffalo-based nonprofit called the Public Accountability Initiative. The group found that data in the report contradicted its central claim, that the report had not been adequately peer reviewed (despite a press release claiming otherwise), that the methodology was flawed and the language was biased toward industry. It also pointed out that the authors of the report as well as the co-directors of the institute had close ties to the oil and gas industry, including as consultants or employees for oil and gas companies.
Six months later, SUNY Buffalo announced that it wasn't just pulling back the report - it was closing the Shale Resources and Society Institute altogether. University President Satish K. Tripathi pointed to a lack of "sufficient faculty presence in fields associated with energy production," inconsistent disclosure of financial conflicts of interest, and "actual and perceived" conflicts "between sources of research funding and expectations of independence."
Amid fracking boom, research questions
America is in the middle of a fracking boom, one driven by advances in technology (most notably horizontal drilling) and the discovery that the United States is home to previously unimaginable stores of untapped oil and natural gas.
In 2007, Penn State Professor Terry Engelder calculated that there were 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, which runs for about square 95,000 miles underneath Pennsylvania, New York and four other states. (The US Geological Survey had previously estimated the shale held just 2 trillion cubic feet.) Engelder's discovery and others around the country revealed that America's shale held "the equivalent of two Saudi Arabias of oil," as Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon put it.
The discovery has had a transformative effect on the American energy economy. It means the United States is becoming less reliant on foreign energy sources; some proponents say it will eventually mean energy independence. For struggling Midwest towns like Youngstown, Ohio, which saw its fortunes fall with the steel industry's decline, fracking represents an economic lifeline. Over the past five years or so, fracking projects have transformed communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere in the country, sometimes turning residents who sell their land rights into millionaires - or "shaleionares."
Natural gas burns cleaner than the coal it has begun to replace as an energy source. But, environmentalists say, it also carries with it a host of as-yet-understood risks. They argue that the boom is outpacing the science - that states and local communities, desperate for the money and jobs that fracking can bring, have been ignoring the costs, both present and future. As the debate has raged, the industry has turned to academia to calm concerns. It got what appeared to be a piece of good news last February, when the University of Texas at Austin released a study that found there is no evidence that fracking contaminates groundwater.
Fracking involves pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into shale rock formations deep underground at high pressure, which causes the rock to crack and release natural gas. Critics say chemicals from the fracking fluid used in drilling, as well as the natural gas and other chemicals released from the rocks, can enter aquifers; the Environmental Protection Agency said in a 2011 report, which has been contested by fracking advocates and remains in draft form, that chemicals from fracking were present in well water in Wyoming.
The lead author of the UT study, Dr. Charles Groat, said his aim was to "separate fact from fiction" in "what has become an emotional debate" over fracking. "There is at present little or no evidence of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing of shales at normal depths," his report found. "No evidence of chemicals from hydraulic fracturing fluid has been found in aquifers as a result of fracturing operations."
A few months later, the Public Accountability Initiative released a report of its own. It found that two sections of the Groat study were marked as rough drafts and that numerous citations were missing from the "environmental impacts" section. It also found that paper had not been peer reviewed - despite claims to the contrary from the director of the UT Energy Institute, Roy Orbach - and that Groat had declined to reveal his connection to industry. That connection was not incidental: Groat earned $413,900 as a board member of the oil and gas company Plains Exploration and Production in 2011, according to the report - more than double his university salary.
In the wake of the revelations, the University of Texas at Austin named an outside panel of experts to review the study. It found "failures and inadequacies in several procedural areas," according to a December news release, including "the failure of the principal investigator to disclose a conflict of interest that could have had a bearing on the credibility a reader wished to assign to the resulting work." Groat retired from his faculty position amid the controversy, and Orbach resigned; the university removed the study from its website.
Academics defend industry ties
The SUNY Buffalo study was authored in large part by Timothy Considine, who is now at the University of Wyoming, and Robert Watson, a former Pennsylvania State University professor who is now retired. The pair has been criticized by anti-fracking activists for generating what the activists claim is industry-friendly scholarship.
In 2009, when Considine was at Penn State, the two men collaborated on a report for the university's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences that found natural gas production could generate $13.5 billion for Pennsylvania and almost 175,000 jobs by 2020. The study also said that Pennsylvania should not tax natural gas production and that "[p]roposals to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act pose yet another serious threat to the development of the Marcellus Shale and other unconventional gas sources."
The study, which was affixed with the Penn State logo, was funded by the Marcellus Shale Association, a coalition of oil and gas companies. (The connection was not initially disclosed; the report was later reissued with the disclosure.) Critics, including the nonprofit Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, derided the report as pro-industry advocacy, noting that other estimates found a smaller economic impact from fracking. Eventually the dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, William Easterling, said in a letter that the report contained flaws and "may well have crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy."
The study was nonetheless reissued on a yearly basis, and the jobs estimate was revised upward. Pro-fracking lawmakers and figures from industry used it to argue for fracking in Pennsylvania without taxation or certain regulations. Citing the study, Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a fracking proponent, repeatedly referenced the university at a committee hearing, saying that "Penn State University -- I'm still quoting -- also concluded that federal regulation was a serious threat to Marcellus [Shale] development."
Watson, who is now retired, strongly denies claims that his scholarship is slanted toward industry. "That's baloney," he said. "I was a faculty member at Penn State for 30 years, and the one thing I can say about Tim [Considine] and I, we're not academic whores."
"I consider myself to be an honest man. And this is not to beat the drums, I'm an evangelical Christian also," he added. "And as a consequence, I'm very serious about maintaining the highest level of ethics with respect to both my personal life and my professional life. If somebody came in and tried to twist my arm with respect to the work I was doing, I'd throw them out of my office."
Considine, like Watson, said that his research is not influenced by funding sources.
"There's a lot of unfair things that are being said out there and I think the public is being disserved by the scare tactics that a lot of these groups are engaging in over fracking," he said. In a follow-up email, he added, "I have no agenda to promote," pointing to his past work at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, where he wrote reports on natural gas.
Considine, who believes the benefits of fracking far outweigh the costs, attributed the shuttering of the Shale Resources and Society Institute at SUNY Buffalo to politics.
"There's a lot of politics going on at the University of Buffalo about shale, and I think the politics ruled the day," he said. He added that a new version of the study will soon be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
"There is no debate about whether natural gas development creates jobs. It does," he said. "We're arguing about the magnitude."
Industry money flows to universities, professors
Last year, for the first time since 2009, Penn State did not release an updated version of the paper co-authored by Considine and Watson, since no current Penn State faculty members at Penn State would sign onto the project. Engelder, the Penn State professor who is one of the leading pro-fracking figures in academia, said he turned down Watson's "last minute" appeal to sponsor the report, "purely for the reason that I'm a geologist and this is a study of the economics as much as anything on the impact of the Marcellus Shale and the state of Pennsylvania."
Both Engelder and Watson acknowledge having been paid throughout the years to consult for the oil and gas industry. (Considine says he has "no financial interest" in the industry.) Engelder said that, dating back to 2007, industry consulting has amounted to an average of one third of his income each year. Universities require faculty to disclose consulting connections on conflict of interest forms, though these forms are not easily available to the public.
"I should point out that this policy was instituted when it was discovered that good faculty will leave academia when the salary differential between industry and academia becomes too large," Engelder said in an email. "The idea was to allow faculty the experience of a direct exposure to industrial problems while attempting to narrow the relatively wide gap between industry and academic salaries. It is really in the best interest of the university to keep the best faculty."
Engelder, who said industry has spent about $6 million to fund his research over his 35-year career, pointed to the peer review process as a safeguard against slanted scholarship. His work "is reviewed by other people who understand the science, and it would be reasonably easy for these people to recognize when a piece of science has been torque by the industry," he said. Yet the peer review process is not automatic. Papers presented at conferences, for instance, are often not peer reviewed, though they do often find their way onto the Internet for potential citation by interested parties. And sometimes papers are simply issued to the public without rigorous peer review.
Avner Vengosh, a Duke University professor whose fracking research has been lauded and criticized by both sides of the debate, said there is no simple answer to the question of whether fracking is safe. Vengosh has tried to work with industry, but has not sought industry funding for his own research. He said the question for industry-funded scientists and universities is this: "If your researchers are finding results that could hurt the industry, are you having the freedom to make it publicly available?" He added that it is not difficult for scientists to "do some very fine-tuning manipulation that can change the message of the study" if they so desire.
Critics of the current system say that academics who publish research that troubles the industry could be putting more than their own funding stream at risk. In the fiscal year 2010, Penn State received nearly $104 million from "industry and other" sources in research funding, according to an annual report of research activity.
"Most universities, and especially public universities right now, are under extraordinary funding pressures, and they're trying to make more money from outside sources," said Kevin Connor, director of the Public Accountability Initiative. "When ... an issue like fracking comes along, there's an obvious source of money for studies that put a positive spin or friendly face on fracking. And that source of money is industry. Universities that are seeing their budgets get cut, and are working to raise money from the private sector, they see fracking as an opportunity."
Cary Nelson, the immediate past president of the American Association of University Professors and the co-author of a report on academic-industry partnerships, said that it is appropriate for industry to fund fracking research. But he argues that the funding should be funneled through an academic group so that researchers don't know which company it comes from. He also says that public websites should be set up by universities where funding and conflicts of interest are disclosed to the public.
Nelson believes that the fracking industry has influenced academic research in the same way that cigarette companies did in the past, "but in sped up fashion."
"It took decades for smoking research at universities to be undermined," he said.
The Environmental Protection Agency expects to issue a long-term study on whether fracking pollutes drinking water in 2014, though the effort is already mired in partisan controversy. Figures in industry and some Congressional Republicans have deemed the study unnecessary, and it's almost certain that any results that cast doubt on the safety of fracking will be fiercely contested.
For non-government researchers, studying fracking without industry support can be difficult. University of Pennsylvania Professor Trevor Penning, who is leading an effort to align major universities in a systematic fracking study, said that finding non-industry funding sources is a major challenge -- particularly at a time when groups like the National Institutes of Health are "having trouble meeting existing commitments [and thus] don't want to fund new work." He said that with Congress looking to cut domestic spending - automatic "sequester" spending cuts are set to kick in on March 1 - finding funding will only get harder.
"The issue I think we're faced with is when you start looking at how much sound science has been done that's peer-reviewed, it's actually very, very small," said Penning, whose strategy involves funding small pilot programs in hopes that that work will generate additional funding. The first study, which is nearly complete, involves reaching out to residents in northwestern Pennsylvania to ask about health problems they believe are related to fracking. Another, which is pending funding, would look at water qualities and health outcomes in fracking communities compared to communities where fracking has not taken place.
Penning said politics in his state have hampered efforts to put together a systematic study of the risks involved in fracking. "In Pennsylvania, we've had a very pro-drilling legislature since Tom Corbett became governor," he said.
"Industry ... needs to learn by practice"
Proponents of industry-funded research say that in most cases the system works.
At Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 12 members of the "international council" have ties to the oil and gas industry, including three directors. The Public Accountability Initiative argues that those ties raise questions about potential pro-industry bias in the center's research.
Sharon Wilke, a representative for Harvard's Belfer Center, said that the University and Center "take a number of steps to ensure the integrity of its scholarship." That includes, she said, a requirement that all grant and gift agreements protect faculty members' "rights to publish their findings and conclusions where and how they see fit, free of undue sponsor or donor influence."
Engelder, of Penn State, said that critics of continued fracking miss a simple reality: To fully understand the risks and rewards of fracking, you have to actually do it.
"This is a very complex industry that needs to learn by practice," he said. "In New York State, for example, the moratorium has been put on by people who say we need to study this more. When you look at what that really means, it means let's look at what's happened in Pennsylvania."
"I don't think the industry has moved too rapidly, because the industry really needed the experience to come across the problems that then needed to be expected," Engelder added. "And it is my contention that the industry has learned from its mistakes and has fixed them. My point is you find the leaks and you fix them. And I think the engineering is there to do that."