News Column

Fracking Researcher Has Ties to Industry

July 24, 2012

Farzad Mashhood

The lead author of a recent University of Texas study that suggested that hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, does not contaminate groundwater is a paid board member and shareholder in a company that engages in the practice, a situation that critics are calling a conflict of interest and of which the researcher's supervisors were unaware.

"The report was presented as if it was an independent study of fracking when, in fact, the study was led by a gas industry insider," said Kevin Connor, the director of the nonprofit Public Accountability Initiative in Buffalo, N.Y., which reported the researcher's role Monday.

Charles "Chip" Groat, who led a study released in February by UT's Energy Institute, billed the university-funded report as an independent look at the process of shale gas harvesting, a controversial process that has increased in recent years.

Groat, who did not respond to messages from the American-Statesman, has been on Houston-based Plains Exploration & Production Co.'s board for several years. Groat was paid $413,900 in cash and stock by the company in 2011, according to SEC filings reviewed by the Statesman, more than twice his salary from the university, and holds almost $1.6 million in the company's stock.

UT officials on Monday said they recently found out about Groat's role with the oil and gas company -- after Bloomberg News asked them about it in the past month -- and said Groat should have disclosed it when releasing the study. But the university does not consider his role a potential conflict of interest or scientific misconduct because Groat only "reviewed the summary of findings and made no substantial changes in what was put together by the researchers," said Charlie Cook, deputy director of the Energy Institute.

UT will not investigate the matter any further or sanction Groat, he said.

"While it should have been disclosed, we don't think that his service on the board had any impact on the findings reached by the independent researchers," Cook said.

Connor called that idea "absurd." "It just seems like they're brushing this problem aside without adequately correcting it," he said.

Professors with connections to the industry they're researching is a problem at other universities and with other fields, said Cary Nelson, who recently spent six years as the president of the American Association of University Professors.

"It's a huge conflict of interest over his ability to be detached and disinterested when producing his research results," Nelson said. "His campus responsibilities should be scrutinized, and he shouldn't be doing things where he can be potentially compromised."

Groat did not disclose his seat on the Plains board to his supervisors at the Energy Institute, in the report or on a university biography online. Groat has disclosed his directorship to the Dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences in past years, as required by university policy, but not this year, UT officials said.

Fracking is a process in which millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, is injected into rock thousands of feet underground to extract natural gas.

The 400-page report, funded by the UT institute, noted problems with fracking, but Groat "pulled out one specific ... industry-friendly claim" that fracking does not contaminate groundwater by promoting it as the report's main finding in a news release, Cook said.

"What is really important here is that when you're pushing a report out the way the University of Texas pushed this report out ... there is public disclosure," Connor said.

Last month, allegations of scientific misconduct prompted the university to investigate a sociology professor's study that was funded by conservative groups and found that adults with gay parents reported significantly different life experiences than the children of married, heterosexual biological parents.

The university began the inquiry amid allegations by a freelance writer who wrote to UT President Bill Powers that Mark Regnerus had committed scientific misconduct because he had created "a study designed so as to be guaranteed to make gay people look bad, through means plainly fraudulent and defamatory."

Source: (c)2012 Austin American-Statesman, Texas Distributed by MCT Information Services

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