At Universities, Fracking Research Funded by Oil and Gas Companies

Critics question the legitimacy of industry-funded ‘frackademia.’
by Published on
PHOTO BY STACI SEMRAD
A Chesapeake Energy contractor drills for natural gas northeast of Cleburne.

Critics are calling it “frackademia”—the nexus between academia and companies with a stake in “fracking,” the controversial method of extracting gas and oil from shales.

The University of Texas at Austin, for example, endured a major public relations crisis in July, when it came to light that Chip Groat, a professor at the Jackson School of Geosciences at UT-Austin and one of the authors of a report on the risks of fracking, had undisclosed financial ties to the oil and gas industry. Published under the auspices of UT’s Energy Institute, the February 2012 report found little evidence of groundwater contamination from fracking—a controversial finding that was immediately embraced by industry and fracking supporters. UT promoted the study as independent academic research. And Groat was frequently quoted in the press as an even-handed expert—a representation that pleased leaders at UT’s Energy Institute.

“Chip is quoted at length, in both the online and broadcast versions,” wrote Gary Rasp, the Energy Institute’s communications director, in a March email to colleagues about a CNN story, “and the Energy Institute study is properly characterized as ‘independent’ research—one of the primary messages we want to convey.”

But it turned out Groat’s research wasn’t so independent. In July, the New York-based Public Accountability Initiative, a non-profit public interest group, called the integrity of the report into question. The damning revelation: Groat isn’t just a UT professor; he also serves as a director for Plains Exploration and Production Company, an oil and gas concern involved in fracking. As a director, Groat has received more than $1.5 million in cash and stock from the company since 2007. The professor hadn’t disclosed this to his boss at the Energy Institute at UT.

In a story on frackademia, Bloomberg wrote, “producers are taking a page from the tobacco industry playbook: funding research at established universities that arrives at conclusions that counter concerns raised by critics.”

But the Observer has found that UT’s fracking connections don’t end there. In March, UT’s Center for Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering announced that ExxonMobil and GE—two companies with large stakes in shale gas—would each donate $1 million to fund a training program for regulators and policymakers on fracking. (As part of the deal, Penn State University and the Colorado School of Mines will develop similar programs.)

“It’s designed to inform and educate the regulators…about basic petroleum technology,” said Gary Pope, the director of the Center for Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering. “They typically don’t have the technical background or experience to understand some of the fundamentals related to drilling and drilling fluids and fracturing and all the environmental aspects and so forth.”

Pope said the curriculum for the regulators is under development. The one- or two week-long courses will probably be taught by UT professors as well as retired oil and gas veterans, he said.

Even before the Groat controversy erupted, some at UT worried about public perceptions.

“I was under the impression it was for either scholarships or sponsored research—not THIS,” wrote Maria Arrellaga, director of communications at UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering, in an email to her colleagues obtained by the Observer through an open records request. “It is widely known that the media is super sensitive about funding sources for studies and the correlation to their integrity. Granted this is not for research, but training, but I feel like there are two bad potential consequences of announcing this:

  • it leaves open the speculation that industry is influencing the university to influence the regulators and policy makers
  • It discredits the recent fracking report released by Energy Institute in an indirect way

Exxon Mobil and GE are of course excited for the publicity. It doesn’t help that we have a quote from [Exxon CEO] Rex Tillerson in the release who is a UT alum and a super powerful one at that.”

Asked about these concerns within his own university, Pope insists that ExxonMobil and GE’s involvement raise no thorny questions of integrity. 

“I made it very clear to ExxonMobil and GE that there could be no influence at all,” Pope told the Observer. “After that was made very clear only then did we proceed to talking about accepting the gift.” The two companies, he added, will have no role in designing the curriculum or in selecting the instructors.

The industry, Pope said, is frustrated by regulators who lack technical expertise in unconventional oil and gas production, especially shale plays like South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale flush with fracking activity.

“They want the regulators to be knowledgeable, they want them to understand what they’re doing, they want them to know the science and technology,” said Pope. “Everybody benefits from that.”

Arrellaga, the spokeswoman, said she initially debated whether to announce the Exxon-GE deal at all. 

“The fact that we released it should tell you that we have no worries,” she said. “It’s all good. There is no more to the story than that.”

Complicating the issue, however, is Pope’s own financial stake in the oil and gas business. Along with several other professors at UT-Austin, Pope this year launched Ultimate EOR, a company that specializes in selecting and designing chemicals to enhance oil recovery. Known as “chemical enhanced oil recovery” or EOR, the process involves mixing chemicals with water and injecting them into the producing zone to help get the oil flowing freely. A host of oil companies are sponsoring research into chemical EOR at UT-Austin under the direction of Pope—including BP, Shell, ConocoPhilips and ExxonMobil.

Pope wrote in an email that although he has “a business interest” in Ultimate EOR he doesn’t “make decisions for the business such as who the company does business with or for.”

He said it was “very unlikely” that Ultimate EOR would do business with GE and “probably” wouldn’t work with ExxonMobil.

Corporate funding of universities is nothing new. But the fracking boom has generated both mountains of cash and controversy. Meanwhile, many public universities are struggling financially. If taxpayers won’t pay for research and training, then the industry will.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.