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.
A Chesapeake Energy contractor drills for natural gas northeast of Cleburne (Photo: Staci Semrad)
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.”