Tuesday, July 24, 2012

UB Shale Institute -- Getting to the Bottom of It

By David Kowalski ~

Shale gas and fracking have become sensitive topics at UB. SUNY signed a three-year, $22M contract to buy natural gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing beginning April 1, 2012. On April 5, a UB Shale Institute was announced to the public. Shale-gas industry ties and UB's new Shale Institute led to controversy, which only deepened after the Institute released its first study on May 15.

The Institute's study revealed a gas-industry bias and was found by the Public Accountabilty Initiative to be riddled with procedural flaws and errors of fact. All of the Institute's authors have ties to the gas industry, but they did not disclose the funding sources for their study. Lack of disclosure naturally raised concern about conflicts of interest. Also, the authors' initial claim that the study was peer reviewed was later retracted.

Subsequently, news reports in the New York Times and The Buffalo News only exacerbated concern about the effect of the industry-friendly institute on UB’s reputation for credible scholarship. The Institute’s director, John P. Martin, who does consulting and public relations work for the oil and gas industry, is a co-author on the study. Martin declined, through a UB spokesperson, reporters' requests for an interview. 

The UB Shale Institute is not a physical entity -- it's a virtual institute. The study's lead author, Timothy Considine, lives in Wyoming, works at the University of Wyoming, and has a reputation as the academic "go-to-guy" for industry-friendly studies. Two other co-authors live in Wyoming and Pennsylvania. Director John P. Martin lives in Saratoga Springs, NY.

How did an industry-friendly Shale Institute come to exist at a publicly-funded university known for academic research and scholarly activities?

According to a May 25, 2012 statement by UB Dean E. Bruce Pitman, the College of Arts and Sciences formed the Institute in April 2012, with the goal of providing scientific research and analysis on all sides of the issues surrounding shale gas. Pitman acknowledged in a radio interview on June 7, that he gave the support to create the Institute, and that he appointed the Director and the Co-Director, and got the Institute started. He also said, "The origin of the Institute. It started with a series of seminars organized by the Geology Department in spring of --get my years right-- 2011."

So how did the seminar series start and who were the speakers?

On March 28, 2011, the UB Geology Dept announced a Public Lecture Series on the Marcellus Shale.  Department chair Marcus Bursk Ph.D. said that "The series will inform attendees about how geologists explore for resources, how companies get rights to the resources, how gas resources are drilled, fracked, and distributed and what legal, environmental and regulatory issues are involved."

HEARTLESS - courtesy of IOGA.
On March 29, 2011, it was announced that oil and gas industry experts will take part in "Marcellus Shale Lecture Series: Energy Resources and the Environment in Western New York," beginning March 31 at UB. Independent Oil and Gas Association (IOGA) of New York members were to lead five of the eight presentations, and the March 31 speaker would be Rayola Dougher, senior economic advisor for the American Petroleum Institute.

Six of the eight announced presentations were connected to the gas industry. 

A speaker not listed among the industry experts was Langhorne Smith, also known as Taury Smith, the state geologist with the New York State Museum. Smith was under a state gag order from talking to reporters. A month before his UB talk, he told the Albany Times Union that the Marcellus natural gas was "a huge gift" and that the potential environmental hazards of hydraulic fracturing were often exaggerated, as reported in The Buffalo News. At his UB presentation, Smith downplayed claims that the ability to light tap water on fire was caused by gas drilling contamination.

The final presentation on May 19, 2011 was entitled "Energy and the Environment: Gas and the Green Earth," by John P. Martin, listed as former senior project manager for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. At the seminar, the audience learned that the title of his talk had changed to "Can we get to sustainable energy resource development in the 21st century?" Well, so much for the Environment and the Green Earth. 

Martin talked rapidly, describing how all energy sources have risks. It seemed that he was providing cover for the known risks of drilling and fracking. He downplayed wind turbines, and showed a fallen tubine tower made of some flimsy material to illustrate one risk. 

John P. Martin showed the same flaming faucet photo that Langhorne Smith displayed, and said the water contamination wasn't caused by gas drilling. About a month before his seminar, scientists at Duke University published peer-reviewed evidence to the contrary in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA). Martin, an economist, dismissed the scientific study and put down the journal of the esteemed National Academy.

At his UB seminar, Martin was introduced by Robert Jacobi, a UB Geologist who had a position as director of special projects in Norse Energy Corporation. Jacobi would later become the Co-director of the UB Shale Institute.

Dean Pitman consulted with Geology faculty and others at the university

In the June 7, 2012 interview cited earlier, Pitman said "That seminar series was very successful. There was interest in following up on this issue." He added, "In consultation with the Geology faculty and with others at the university, as dean I gave my support to create an Institute as an initiative of the College of Arts and Sciences. And that’s how it started."

Consultation must have occurred before February 6, 2012 when John P. Martin gave a talk in Jakarta, Indonesia and listed himself as Director of the Shale Resources and Society Institute, University at Buffalo, SUNY (also known as the UB Shale Institute). In his slide presentation (courtesy of Artvoice) he cited as "in review" the study of Considine et al. (2012), which would later become the UB Shale Institute's first study (released May 15).

Who is Dennis Holbrook and who consulted with him?

Dennis Holbrook is the Executive Vice President of Regulatory and Public Relations, at Norse Energy Corporation. He is also on the board of of the Independent Oil & Gas Association (IOGA) of New York, on which he has served as a director for over 25 years. 

In November 2011, Holbrook spoke at an industry conference in a session entitled 'Understanding How Unconventional Oil & Gas Operators Are Developing A Comprehensive Media Relations Strategy To Engage Stakeholders and Educate The Public'.

Holbrook's talk was entitled "Planning, Participation & Partnership: Making It Work in New York State." In his talk, Holbrook revealed an alignment with UB, his ability to get "the academics" to sponsor public education sessions (like the Marcellus Shale Lecture Series with five of his IOGA members as speakers) and partnering in academic studies
(like the first study released by the UB Shale Institute) to gain credibility for the industry.  

Dennis Holbrook said:
"Seek out academics and academic studies, and champion with universities because that again provides tremendous credibility to the overall process."

"We tend to be viewed, as I said earlier, very skeptically, but we've aligned with the University of Buffalo and done a variety of other activities where we've gotten the academics to sponsor programs and bring in people for public sessions to educate them on a variety of topics."

The remarks indicate consultation, directly or indirectly, between Holbrook, who lives in the Buffalo area, and UB. Who consulted with him? Did that consultation lead to the creation of the industry-friendly UB Shale Institute?

UB Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research (UB CLEAR)
UB Faculty, students, and alumni as well as all New Yorkers who financially support the public university deserve answers to the above and other questions about the UB Shale Institute. They deserve transparency from the UB administration. They also deserve a response from UB Shale Institute Director, John P. Martin, who has remained silent.

UB CLEAR is calling on the UB Administration to take several initiatives to prevent further damage and regain public trust in the university. Academic research, which may influence public policy, should be held to the highest standards of ethics and must not be beholden to outside special interests.

Please Endorse a Petition to support the UB CLEAR initiatives and pass it on to others. 

All people are welcome to sign the petition. Gas-industry invasion of academia is not just a issue in New York, it is happening in other states as revealed in reports released yesterday:

*A recording of Dennis Holbrook's entire talk was kindly provided by Texas Sharon, and is available here (mp3).

**Video and slides of the Marcellus Shale Lecture Series are available here, except for the video of the state geologist, Langhorne "Taury" Smith, who was under a gag order. For more on this topic, see Gagged State Geologist to Speak on Hydrofracking Tonight.


Anonymous said...

How did an industry-friendly Shale Institute come to exist at a publicly-funded university known for academic research and scholarly activities?

Doug Sanford said...

There is a great need for investigation into fracking and energy issues, but that investigation MUST be unbiased and a search for the truth. Unfortunately we seem to have a case here of university capture by a special interest. That is a smirch on UB's reputation.