Scientific Integrity at Risk in Fracking Policy Debate

by Martha T McCluskey

The natural gas industry’s campaign against increased federal oversight of shale gas development has recently produced a spurt of “dirty science” minimizing the environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” 

The University at Buffalo, the branch of the State University of New York where I teach, recently launched its new “Shale Resources and Society Institute” (SRSI) by issuing a report last month giving the “first quantitative data review of Pennsylvania’s regulation of hydraulic fracturing.” The report examined state environmental law violations during 2008-2011, a period when drilling in Pennsylvania shale increased substantially.  A press release from the university – widely quoted in the national news – quoted the lead author’s description of the findings: “now we have comprehensive data that demonstrates, without ambiguity, that state regulation coupled with improvements in industry practices result in a low risk of an environmental event occurring in shale development, and the risks continue to diminish year after year.”   Shortly afterward, these comments were repeated in Congressional testimony aimed at pushing back federal regulation of fracking.  Speaking before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform, Michael Krancer, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, highlighted the report as evidence that “outside experts agree” about the success of existing state environmental regulation: 

“There is no question that states can do and are doing a better job regulating the oil and gas extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing within their borders than the federal government could do.”

In a press statement accompanying the report, Institute Director and report co-author John Martin suggested it should help open the door to fracking in NY: “To me, New York has the adequate understanding and experience to manage this industry."

But this report proves only the power of fracking industry money to weaken both regulation and academic integrity.  

The University at Buffalo (UB) first falsely publicized the report as a peer reviewed study, even though the study had gone through no formal academic review or publication process.  Though the University posted an addendum to its initial press release correcting this error, the false description had already circulated widely, serving to bring media attention and legitimacy to the study’s analysis and conclusions.

 A critical analysis of the UB Report by the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) reveals a host of problems of fact, logic, and integrity.  The UB report does not acknowledge that it copies large sections word-for-word, along with much of its basic substantive analysis, from a 2011 Manhattan Institute report by three of the UB report’s four authors.  As PAI explains, this undisclosed recycling in effect allows the authors to give a neutral academic cover to what originally was prepared as a pro-fracking advocacy piece by an industry-backed, ideological organization. 

Moreover, neither the UB report, the UB Institute, nor the UB press release disclose the extensive industry ties of the report’s authors.  The Shale Institute’s website asserts that it is “an independent, non-partisan, non-lobbying group aimed at objectively analyzing the development and societal impact of shale and other unconventional resources. SRSI focuses on balanced, fact-based research that can have global reach and impact...”  However, the Institute’s Director and report co-author John P. Martin has never been faculty member at SUNY or UB or held a similar scholarly appointment; instead, alongside his UB Institute position he owns a consulting company, JPMartin Energy Strategy LLC, whose core business includes producing public relations reports for oil and gas interests.  It’s hard to imagine a more noteworthy conflict of interest, yet neither UB’s press releases nor the Institute or Report disclose or explain the fact that Martin simultaneously holds himself out as a hired spokesperson for the industry and an independent researcher.  The other three authors of the UB Report include Timothy Considine, from the University of Wyoming, and Considine’s son; neither disclose in the report their work for an industry consulting firm, Natural Resource Economics, which lists the senior Considine as the firm’s principal, and which issues similar reports for industry clients.  Two of the authors, including the senior Considine, similarly failed to disclose their ties to the industry in 2009 and 2010 in reports released under the Penn State name, leading to a retraction by Penn State officials.  The repetition of this widely criticized ethical violation under the auspices of UB suggests the continued failure to disclose is not inadvertent.

As for the substance of the report, its central claim of decreasing environmental risk with increased drilling in Pennsylvania is not supported by its own data and analysis.  As PAI’s review explains, the report’s data shows that “major environmental violations” as defined and counted by the report “increased by 36% from 2008 and 2011, from 5.9 per 1000 wells to 8.0 per 1000 wells” directly contrary to the report’s conclusion states that “the percentage of wells resulting in a major environmental event declined significantly.”  To cover up this inconsistency, the report provides a graph that lumps together major violations with what it calls minor events. PAI’s review documents further internal discrepancies and other methodological problems in its counting and analysis of these “minor” events, including excluding violations of “preventative” requirements as mere paperwork problems unrelated to environmental risk. 

Another commentator  pointed out that the report used the wrong year (2009 rather than 2010) to classify an underground leak causing chemical contamination of a creek – and this date error was substantive, since the study was attempting to show declining violations over time.

The study not only contradicts or misreports its own analysis and data, but also fails to examine the obvious problems in the study’s underlying logic.  Even if the study could support its claim that environmental violations recorded by state officials decreased as drilling increased, such evidence would not by any means be sufficient to show that the state’s regulation is effective or that environmental risks were low or decreasing, as the authors claim.  An obvious explanation for declining reports of environmental violations could be reduced regulatory effectiveness – due to political or fiscal pressure on state regulators to reduce investigations or reports of violations.  In fact, news reports show that a change in administration brought increased ties to the industry along with an official state DEP directive to control inspectors’ filings of violations (though this directive was retracted after criticism, its message likely affected agency staff behavior and plausibly represents a broader agency policy aimed at minimizing regulatory oversight).  The UB report neither mentions this evidence nor acknowledges the possibility that political and economic factors could affect the rate of reported regulatory violations. 

And the report does not acknowledge or discuss a further, more fundamental question about its basic premise and conclusion.  Even if real (not just reported) “major” environmental law violations decrease as drilling increases, that does not mean environmental risks of increased drilling are “low,” and that the public can be assured of the safety of existing regulations.  A decreased rate of serious environmental damage as drilling increases can still mean irreparable, extensive harm outstripping any benefits.  A smaller percentage of spills from a dramatically larger number of wells can mean increased likelihood of harm.  Worse, even a small risk of catastrophic loss, such as major permanent destruction of water supplies, should not be presented as an unambiguous assurance of safety (as CPR scholar Douglas Kysar explains in his excellent book, Regulating from Nowhere).

Even if UB retracts its support for this thinly disguised industry public relations ploy, and the associated SRSI Institute, as it should, the university has done serious long term damage to the public interest.  From a cynical self-interest-maximizing standpoint, industry gains in the long run by presenting obviously false or sloppy “science” on contentious regulatory issues, exploiting its economic advantage in resources available to circulate misinformation so that it overshadows correcting comments – and because the misinformation is likely to do its work even if it is successfully and widely debunked.  The industry gains in the short run, too, by fostering a public perception that debates about environmental problems are just too fraught with competing claims among experts – doubt – to be worth attention and political action.

Information and expert opinion are valuable commodities, and when they arrive with a university imprimatur, they carry extra weight. That’s exactly why the university label shouldn’t be for sale, in Buffalo or anywhere.

© 2014 The Center for Progressive Reform