UT to commission review of controversial fracking study [Austin American-Statesman, Texas]By Farzad Mashhood, Austin American-Statesman, TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Information Services
July 25--Reversing course, the University of Texas plans to have an independent group of researchers review a study about fracking that came under public scrutiny this week after disclosure that the study's lead author is a paid board member of a company that engages in the practice.
Charles "Chip" Groat of UT's Energy Institute has been on Houston-based Plains Exploration & Production Co.'s board for several years. Groat was paid $413,900 in cash and stock by the company in 2011, according to SEC filings reviewed by the American-Statesman, more than twice his salary from the university, and holds $1.53 million in company stock. Groat had not told his supervisors at the Energy Institute about that position nor disclosed it in the fracking study.
Critics have called his role a conflict of interest.
Though his name appears first on the study, Groat said Tuesday that disclosing his role with Plains was not necessary because other researchers wrote the report and his role of coordinating their work could not have influenced it.
"Having the report reviewed by outside experts sits well with me. ... This process should help clear the air," Groat said.
In fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, are injected into rock thousands of feet underground to extract natural gas.
Months after publishing the report, which touted as its principal finding that fracking has not been linked to groundwater contamination, Groat's role with Plains has gained widespread exposure, including scrutiny by Bloomberg News and the Statesman, as well as a nonprofit watchdog group's report Monday.
UT previously told the Statesman that though Groat should have disclosed his position at Plains, the university did not consider his work on the report a conflict of interest and would not look into the matter further.
However, in an interview Tuesday, Provost Steven Leslie said the matter would be reviewed by a panel of "independent researchers, recognized nationally as people who understand reputable science and how it is delivered."
"It seems that there is a possibility that his type of incident could raise the questions of what are we doing at the university and how does this kind of thing impact what we are doing here?" Leslie said.
The panel will look at the 400-page study released by the university to see if it was free of outside influence and will have results back within a few weeks, Leslie said.
"That's a useful thing to do," said Tom McGarity, a UT law professor who specializes in corporate sponsorship of research. "That wouldn't necessarily weed out bias in the report, but it ought to detect poor protocols, bad form and bad scientific form in the report."
Leslie said that he does not believe Groat's position at Plains and his failure to disclose it before leading a study about a controversial practice integral to the company's industry is a conflict of interest. "The issue is one of disclosure," Leslie said.
A draft report by the Environmental Protection Agency in December seems to dispute the UT findings. EPA research found hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals associated with natural gas production in deep water wells at a fracking site in Pavillion, Wyo.
UT researchers looked at reports of groundwater contamination in three shale plays: the Barnett Shale in North Texas; the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, New York and parts of Appalachia; and the Haynesville Shale in western Louisiana and Northeast Texas.
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