Monday, May 28, 2012

Should UB Sponsor a Shale Gas Institute?

~ By David Kowalski ~

The University at Buffalo (UB) has now entered into the controversial area of unconventional shale-gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing ('fracking') by sponsoring a newly-created "Shale Resources and Society Institute" (SRSI).

Last week, SRSI released their first study, which is entitled "Environmental Impacts During Shale Gas Drilling: Causes, Impacts and Remedies". The authors stated strong conclusions, which were included in a UB news release (May 15, 2012), and subsequently made for some sensational newspaper headlines. However, others who have since examined the study indicated that the authors' conclusions are biased and not supported by the data (see below).

And that's not all. Initial examination of the background of the study's authors indicated close ties with the gas drilling industry. Also, the UB news release claim that the report was "peer-reviewed" was incorrect. Subsequently, UB retracted that claim in a revised press release. Then one of the so-called peer-reviewers distanced himself from the SRSI study. Finally, the authors did not disclose their funding sources. All of these issues made shale gas and fracking sensitive topics at UB, as documented in a post last week.

Shown below are excerpts of new reports with a link to each full report. These articles start with an editorial letter by me, and continue with detailed analyses of the SRSI report by others, which together provide independent views of flaws and industry-bias in the SRSI study and lead one to question the wisdom of UB sponsorship.
Shale study harms UB’s reputation, By David Kowalski, Letter to The Buffalo News, May 24, 2012
But the fact that all three authors have ties to the energy industry raises concern about conflicts of interest. Their report and undisclosed funding sources only reinforce that concern and harm the university. 

They claimed that the decline [in environmental violations per gas well] was evidence for improved industry operations and state regulations. However, the authors completely ignored the fact that, as more wells were drilled over time, the total number of environmental violations increased by threefold. 

It is a shame that this study was done under the aegis of UB. The university should protect its reputation and re-evaluate its sponsorship of the Shale Resources and Society Institute.  

UB report on 'fracking' draws fire of watchdog, By David Robinson, The Buffalo News -- Front page story, May 25, 2012
A Buffalo-based corporate accountability research group Thursday criticized as "seriously flawed and biased" last week's study from the University at Buffalo that said stronger regulation was leading to an improved safety record among drillers in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale.

The new report from the Public Accountability Initiative disputed the conclusions of the study by UB's new Shale Resources and Society Institute, which reported that the rate of environmental violations -- both major and minor -- were declining at Pennsylvania's Marcellus wells.

"The evidence does not support the notion that fracking is becoming any safer," the new study said.

"While masquerading as independent, academic research, the report's errors all point in the direction of heavy pro-industry bias and spin," the Public Accountability Initiative study said.  

Critics question shale gas researcher, schools, By Kevin Begos, Associated Press, May 25, 2012
 A well-known expert on the natural gas boom is again facing criticism over his ties to industry and a lack of transparency in how he presents work to the public, fueling debates over research that's been published by major universities.

Timothy Considine was lead author on a shale gas report recently issued by the University at Buffalo and a previous report from Penn State University. Critics say both reports presented research in misleading ways and failed to fully disclose funding sources.

Considine, now at the University of Wyoming, has gotten funding from industry groups such as the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Wyoming Mining Association, the American Iron and Steel Institute, and the American Petroleum Institute.

On Thursday, the Public Accountability Initiative, a Buffalo nonprofit, issued a critique of the UB study.

The University at Buffalo also said the report "was not funded or commissioned by external sources." But Considine told The Associated Press in an email that the University of Wyoming paid him and two other lead authors.
Martha McCluskey, a University at Buffalo law professor who was on an ethics committee there, said the new shale institute appears not to meet disclosure provisions and hasn't gone through the standard process for faculty approval and vetting of new centers and initiatives to preserve academic integrity.  

UB Pulls SRSI Website, By the Public Accountability Initiative, May 25, 2012 (updated May 26, 2012)
The University at Buffalo Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI), the subject of the analysis we released yesterday, has password-protected its website as of this morning. Notably, the SUNY Fredonia Shale Resources Institute also pulled its website recently after negative attention from Artvoice

The Public Accountability Initiative saved copies of most of the SRSI’s web pages.

Update (5/26): The SRSI site is accessible again, and UB has issued a statement regarding the SRSI report.
UB Releases Statement Regarding Shale Resources and Society Institute, from E. Bruce Pitman, PhD, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, University at BuffaloMay 25, 2012
The University at Buffalo views academic freedom as a core principle. Faculty members are free to conduct research on any topic, including controversial ones, and to disseminate their findings without prior review or approval by the university. The university's role is to create a forum for objective research and informed debate--not to dictate the positions taken by its faculty members.

Under this principle, the findings presented in a recent report produced by the Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI) are the work of the authors, and any conclusions drawn are their views, not the views of the institution. Any questions related to the analysis and interpretation of the data must be referred to the authors.

In the days since [the SRSI released its first report], some criticisms of the authors' conclusions have been raised. UB will examine all relevant concerns, in accordance with the university's strong commitment to academic and research excellence.  

UB's sponsorship of the Shale Gas Institute raises questions about how a research and teaching university, dedicated to objectivity and integrity, will deal with the SRSI 'study', which contains misinformation and unsupported conclusions that favor fracking and the shale gas industry.

The issues surrounding the funding of the SRSI study are still not resolved. While the University at Buffalo said the report "was not funded or commissioned by external sources," the report's first author, Timothy Considine, told The Associated Press that the University of Wyoming paid him and two other lead authors.

The SRSI report was released after UB graduation, when the undergraduate students had left campus. It remains to be seen how UB's sponsorship of the SRSI will affect the students and their relationship with the administration. 

Likewise, how will the SRSI report and the existence of an industry-friendly institute on campus affect the university professors and their relationship with the administration? Apparently, as indicated above by Professor Martha McCluskey, the Shale Gas Institute has not gone through the standard process for faculty approval and vetting of new centers and initiatives to preserve academic integrity.

John P. Martin, an author of the study and the SRSI director, said in a UB News Release (April 5, 2012) announcing the formation of the Institute, that "We're really trying to provide fact-based, objective information. We're guided by science."

Martins' goal of providing objective information meshes with the University's role expressed by Dean Pitman, but those words were not put into action in the biased and flawed SRSI study that Martin co-authored under the University's name.

The Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) concluded at the end of their full report [PDF]: "The University at Buffalo effectively offers industry players a clean, academic front for this research, and lends it more weight in the media." PAI then asked, "Will the University at Buffalo and its parent system, the State University of New York, continue to participate in this deception?"

Here's hoping that UB will now take a much closer look at what these gas-industry-friendly authors are really up to, and will re-evaluate its sponsorship of the Shale Gas Institute. The sooner the better for UB and its faculty and students.

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