By Velda Addison, Associate Editor
Let me start by disclosing the fact that I am a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin). I gave the university most of my money, and some of my family’s, after tuition and living expenses surpassed my scholarship, grant, and work-study funds. The university no longer gets cash from me, nor do I get any from them.
I am not conducting an environmental study on hydraulic fracturing.
Was that difficult? No, it wasn’t painful at all.
So why wasn’t the connection between Charles Chip Groat, director at Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production Co., disclosed on his bio or on the university’s website? Groat, a professor of geological sciences at UT-Austin, led a study on hydraulic fracturing released in February by the UT Energy Institute, where he is an associate director.
The study found no evidence that fracing contaminates groundwater.
True though the findings may be, controversy is now surrounding the report. Groat’s apparent conflict of interest was put into the spotlight by a New York nonprofit watchdog group called the Public Accountability Initiative. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, Groat received US $58,000 in cash as director and got stock awards valued at more than $355,000 in addition to stock shares.
The Chronicle reported Kevin Connor, director of the Public Accountability Initiative, said Groat didn’t disclose his Plains Exploration affiliation on the institute’s study.
In an e-mail comment that appeared in a Bloomberg news article on the subject, Groat said he didn’t try to steer researchers to conclusions that were industry friendly.
“The study results were determined by the individual investigators,” Groat said in the email. “I made no modifications or alterations of their findings, some of which were not particularly pleasing to the shale gas industry. Disclosing my Plains board position would not have served any meaningful purpose relevant to this study.”
The controversy has prompted the university to call for an independent review of the report. UT-Austin’s Steven Leslie, provost and executive vice president, said in a statement in the newspaper, “The most important asset we have as an institution is the public’s trust. If that is in question, then that is something we need to address.”
Given widespread misinformation about fracing, it may be wise not to give naysayers any fuel to ignite more fires by not disclosing conflicts of interests. Anti-fracing proponents are circulating false information, including in a documentary film about fracing, which oftentimes has to be corrected by industry experts.
The lack of disclosure could lead some people to believe that the study currently in the spotlight was biased, in favor of the industry, considering some of the individuals who conducted it have industry ties. Impropriety, or simply the appearance of impropriety, in a time of “Frack-no-phobia” – as an AOL Energy headline dubbed it – could erode public trust.
Contact the author, Velda Addison, at email@example.com.
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.