August 2, 2012
By Katherine Moreno
The U.S. is currently experiencing a natural gas boom from an increase in hydraulic well fracturing (“fracking”). Fracking is a controversial process that extracts oil or gas deposited in shale rock by shooting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals down a well (Galbraith). The controversy stems from concerns that fracking wells may contaminate groundwater and threaten the health of nearby residents. In response to critics, the fracking industry has taken to funding university research that arrives at conclusions that oppose their concerns.
Last month, it was revealed that the author of the University of Texas report “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development” had received more than $400,000 from a Texas natural gas developer (Revkin). The report found no direct link between fracking and groundwater contamination.
The Texas study appears to be part of a trend that is emerging. Carly Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says frackers are “’buying the prestige’ of universities that are sometimes not transparent about funding nor vigilant enough to prevent financial interests from shaping research findings.”
Mark Patridge, a professor of rural-urban policy at Ohio State University, attributes the issue to a lack of funding at universities. “It’s a growing problem across academia,” he says, “Universities are so short of money, professors are under a lot of pressure to raise research funding in any manner possible.”
This trend could have serious implications for public policy. Universities can serve as trusted sources of information in public policy debates. Their research can help guide policymakers, inform public opinion, and ultimately shape policy (Connor, Galbraith, and Nelson). Universities need to take action to prevent undisclosed conflicts of interest and the “buying of prestige” from becoming more prevalent before public policy is significantly affected.
Connor, Kevin, Rob Galbraith, and Ben Nelson. “How a University of Texas Fracking Study Led by a Gas Industry Insider Spun the Facts and Misled the Public.” Contaminated Inquiry. Public Accountability Initiative, Jul. 2012. Web. PDF file.
Galbraith, Kate. “Seeking Disclosure on Fracking.” Dot Earth. The New York Times. 30 May 2012. Web.
Revkin, Andrew C. “A Deeper Look at Undisclosed Conflicts of Interest in ‘Frackademia’.” Dot Earth. The New York Times. 1 Aug. 2012. Web.
About the author: Katherine Moreno is a senior working toward a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies at USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.