Fracking Centers at Universities Cause More Problems Than They Solve

by Duane Nichols on August 29, 2012

Penn State University

Let’s look at the “centers on fracking” at SUNY-Buffalo, the University of Texas, Penn State University, Ohio State University, and West Virginia University.  While the specific mission for each is somewhat unique, they are intended to (1) bring in money from outside the schools, (2) provide a clearinghouse for accurate information, and (3) bring praise on their schools.  Doing university research on the full drilling & fracking process is not really practical but some limited aspects could be studied. The implication in each case is that fracking is good, so let’s spread the good word; that maybe it could be done better, so will someone tell us how. We can get money for this!

State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo faculty are seeking more information on industry ties to an institute created to study fracking for natural gas. A group of 83 professors and staff have requested documents on the founding and funding of the school’s Shale Resources and Society Institute, according to an August 23 “open letter” to the university administration.

The institute released a report in May that didn’t acknowledge “long-term” ties by its authors to the gas industry while it seeks more than $1 million in corporate funding.

 “A number of questions have been raised about whether the institute was really intended to provide independent academic inquiry,” according to the faculty members’ letter. “Only complete transparency can dispel the shadow now cast over UB.”

In April, the newly formed Shale Resources and Society Institute issued a report that found drillers in Pennsylvania had reduced by half the rate of blowouts, spills and water contamination since 2008. Potential environmental problems could be “entirely avoided or mitigated” under New York’s proposed rules, according to the shale institute’s report. The Public Accountability Initiative, a Buffalo nonprofit that focuses on corruption in business and government, said the report contained errors and didn’t acknowledge “extensive ties” by its authors to the gas industry.

Last month, the University of Texas at Austin announced it would convene a panel of independent experts to review its February study on gas fracking after reports that the professor who led the study is on the board of a gas drilling company.

Charles Groat, associate director of the university’s Energy Institute and former Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, proposed the study, selected the researchers, edited its summary and presented it to the American Association for the Advancement of Science on February 16th.

Groat also sits on the board of Plains Exploration & Production Co., a relationship he didn’t disclose in the report or to his boss. Company filings show that in 2011 he received more than $400,000 in compensation from the Houston-based company, which has fracking operations in Texas.

The university announced August 14 that Norman Augustine, former chief executive officer of defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., will lead the review panel. Augustine is also a former board member at the oil and gas producer ConocoPhillips.

Kevin Connor, president of the Public Accountability Initiative, said Augustine’s ties to the oil industry raise questions about the panel’s independence. Augustine over almost 20 years received “millions of dollars” in stock and compensation from ConocoPhillips, according to Connor. “It is extremely troubling that the university chose an energy industry insider to chair the panel.”

Pennsylvania State University now requires faculty research to be submitted to university officials before it is published, according to Michael Arthur, co-director of the school’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research (MCOR). A 2009 report on the economic impact of gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Marcellus shale was released without disclosing industry funding.

The MCOR is Penn State’s education and research initiative on shale gas recovery and use. MCOR is internally funded by the College of Agricultural Sciences, the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment and Penn State Outreach, according to their web-site.  Obviously, this doesn’t reveal the root source of the funding.

Jeff Daniels is Co-director for The Ohio State University Subsurface Energy Resource Center (SERC). SERC was opened in September 2011, to cover all aspects of the industry – geologic, economic, public health, environmental, outreach and education in communities impacted, policy making. But, as a “resource center”, the intention apparently is to provide accurate information to the public, with some 70 affiliated faculty participants. Professor Daniels is a geophysicist doing research on carbon dioxide sequestration.

On February 24th, a member of the West Virginia University Board of Governors expressed concerns about a plan for a Marcellus shale center at WVU. Charles Vest said that he wanted assurances that conflicts of interest would be avoided in such a center, as proposed by the WV Legislature in Senate Bill 522. Vest was formerly president of M.I.T. and now President of the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, DC.

The Senate Bill 522 would create the WVU Shale Research, Education, Policy and Economic Development Center. It had already cleared the House and Senate education committees and was headed to the finance committees. WVU President James Clements agreed, saying that while he’s proud of the work scientists do and eager to see research grow, firewalls must be created and conflicts avoided.

On July 25th, the Morgantown Dominion Post reported that the WV Legislature held discussions on the proposed shale center bill. Sen. Ronald Miller, D-Greenbrier: “Are we going to focus on fixing every center in West Virginia or just this one?” Bill Hutchens, WVU’s general counsel said a dream project for the research center was put on hold by the recent dive in natural gas prices — but he’s working to get it going again. WVU wants to work with an operator to drill a horizontal well on WVU land. It would be a working well, generating money for the operator. But it would also be a research well, with every bit of data from the first turn of dirt through drilling and production and on being shared to advance knowledge in the field.

 [A dream project indeed.  Maybe a Marcellus well could be put on the University farm, within elbow reach for the health professionals of the WVU Medical Center and the Monongahela General Hospital. I understand that some of the drilling/fracking companies will replace the roads after they are torn up. DGN]

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

S. Thomas Bond August 29, 2012 at 10:48 pm


Buying support from every institution in sight is an old Oil and Gas trick. They enjoy subsidies, favorable legislation, weak inspection and weak enforcement of such law as exists. Still they need a cozy public perception to maintain these benefits and override complaints. So the need for extensive “good works” in the community. And a lot of public relations.

Legislatures are considerably less than generous with universities in many cases. So how does a research institution get it’s funds? By solicitation of funds for projects. And what kind of projects get funded?

Dedicated research centers certainly don’t bring forth research that will upset it’s sponsors! This article lists university after university setting up to do research on shale drilling with money from shale drillers. People! Do we have to be reminded of the conflict of interest? Do we not know what to expect? Can anyone doubt that such research will amount to little more than another PR angle?


Paul Brown August 29, 2012 at 11:50 pm


It seems to me that it is unrealistic for WVU to try to muster the money, trained personnel, real time electronic monitoring equipment, and analytical chemical analysis laboratories to follow a horizontal Marcellus well from start to finish.  The challenges to the management of the environmental disturbances on public lands would be extreme.  Such a project is clearly far beyond the scope of any existing research teams at WVU.

Just as seriously, it is unreasonable to expect WVU to produce any unbiased research on fossil fuel impacts on the environment or on society. The university is up to its chin in dirty funding from the fossil fuel industry, and the appearance of conflicts of interest is unavoidable. The exception of the excellent research of those like Michael Hendryx, whose ground-breaking analysis of the harmful effects of coal mining on community health are above suspicion.

Similarly, it is ludicrous to expect honesty from a university which has just initiated a study of green energy production from coal and natural gas. There is no such thing, given the advanced state of global greenhouse gas emissions, earth temperature rise, and climate change.
Paul Brown, PhD
professor emeritus, WVU
Morgantown, WV


j.c. August 31, 2012 at 1:12 am

hum, sounds like a pennstate plan where they get monies to say nothings wrong … every thing fine … money over people’s health … who would have ever thought that universities would sell the people out … money the root of all evil!


Ralph Larkin September 2, 2012 at 11:19 pm

Why does the shale well to be studied by West Virginia University professors have to be on WVU land?  So the students will have something to watch weekdays?  (Football takes care of Saturdays.) I doubt the administration needs entertainment through the week! 
I’ll bet it is to study the health effects on young adults, the most resistant part of the population to toxic substances…   Naa, that would skew results.  You need children or old folks.  A school would be better, or perhaps a retirement home.
I know! It’s a crony deal.  If you have faculty studying it, you have an excuse to have it on campus.  That’s the answer. 
However, if someone plans to buy the result before the research is done, it could be done anywhere, but far away in the boonies would be better – somewhere other faculty wouldn’t be looking over your shoulder.
You know how fractious these faculty types are: someone is sure to point out the fact that the research has to confirm what the industry wants or they don’t come back with more dollars.  You know, like that famous Tobacco Institute that found smoking has no effect on health for four decades.
Anyway, why does WVU need an institute to study shale drilling?  Why does it want to sully its hands with such a contentious subject?  Let individual faculty work on the problem.  If it goes wrong, let the individual researcher carry the onus.  Not the whole university.


Paul Brown September 10, 2012 at 12:18 am

FRACKADEMIA: Critics question the legitimacy of industry-funded ‘frackademia” — the nexus between academia and companies with a stake in “fracking,” the controversial method of extracting gas and oil from shales.


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