Conflicts, Bad Science in ‘Frackademia’ Studies

Industry Pushes Disinformation About Fracking Safety

In the wake of New York State’s decision to ban fracking, drilling proponents have criticized Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration for basing the decision on “pseudo science” and “junk science.” When asked about the New York fracking ban at his 2015 “State of American Energy” press conference, American Petroleum Institute (API) President and CEO Jack Gerard called for “more thoughtful consideration as to economics, environment and sound science — because the science is clearly on the side of development and on the side of industry.”

Sure, except that the scientific case for the safety of fracking is based on bogus, industry-sponsored research.

API, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and other pro-fracking organizations have financed what is essentially an industry front group, Energy in Depth (EID), to wage a multimillion-dollar lobbying, advertising and public relations campaign to convince lawmakers and the public that fracking poses no environmental or public health dangers. To that end, EID has produced a report containing more than 130 studies that purport to show that “[t]he production of oil and natural gas from deep shale formations and other ‘tight’ reservoirs, and the use of hydraulic fracturing, have been closely regulated and extensively studied for many years.” In other words, the science is in.

EID omitted from its report the many studies that reach the opposite conclusion, but that omission isn’t the sleaziest aspect of EID’s “scholarship.” The Public Accountability Initiative (PAI), which identifies itself as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog research group focused on corporate and government accountability,” analyzed these studies from the standpoint of their sponsorship by or association with the oil and gas industry. This is a practice known as “frackademia,” which is defined as “the complex of oil-and-gas-allied academics, think tanks, consulting firms, and public relations shops producing misleading and flawed research to win public and political support for hydraulic fracturing.”

The following is an excerpt of the report. Quotation marks have been omitted in most places and we’ve edited for length and clarity. Co-authors Robert Galbraith, Gin Armstrong and Kevin Connor conclude that:

Several universities issued industry-friendly fracking studies that the institutions later retracted and walked back due to erroneous central findings, false claims of peer review and undisclosed industry ties. The studies bore the hallmarks of an industry effort to manipulate and corrupt the scientific debate around fracking, much like the tobacco industry manipulated the scientific debate around the dangers associated with smoking.

The industry-sponsored campaign to convince the public and lawmakers that fracking is safe has all the earmarks of Big Tobacco’s 50-year criminal conspiracy to hide that tobacco use causes deadly illnesses. When a federal court found in 2006 that Big Tobacco was engaged in what amounted to a racketeering enterprise under the federal racketeering statutes, the game was up. The frackers, meanwhile, have so far gotten away with their massive propaganda campaign, but we don’t have 50 years to protect our drinking water. 

An in-depth look at frackademia reveals that as with tobacco, the vast majority of pro-fracking studies have been produced by industry and its allies in academia, government and the consulting world.

The report approaches this topic by analyzing a broad set of fracking studies that the industry has put forward to help it make its case. Specifically, the report considers an extensive list of over 130 studies  compiled by EID. The list was used to convince the government of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, home of the city of Pittsburgh, to lease mineral rights under its Deer Lakes Park to Range Resources for gas drilling. Though that decision was a relatively minor one in the context of the nationwide fracking debate, the list provides a telling window onto the fracking research that the industry believes is fit for public consumption, and which it uses to make the case that the science around the issue is settled.

The report assesses the relative independence and quality of the studies by identifying and classifying each study’s industry ties — through funders, authors and issuers — and determining whether it was peer-reviewed. The data suggests that even when the industry searches far and wide for studies to make its case, it ultimately must rely heavily on studies that are marred by conflicts of interest and lacking in academic rigor.

Some Key Findings

Most of the studies — 76 percent — had some degree of industry connection. Of the 137 unique studies on EID’s list that could be located, 56 had strong ties to the oil and gas industry. Another 35 had industry ties that PAI classified as medium, and 13 studies had other industry ties that were present but relatively weak. Studies classified as strongly tied to industry were funded or authored by industry sources, studies with medium ties were released by organizations with oil and gas funding or by consultants or banks tied to the industry, and studies with weak ties were produced in part by oil and gas contractors or otherwise had more attenuated ties than other studies.

Only 14 percent of the studies listed were peer-reviewed. Of the 137 unique studies on EID’s list that could be located, only 19 were peer-reviewed. This suggests that there is a significant shortage of serious scholarly research supporting the case for fracking. Of the studies that were peer-reviewed, 10 were tied to the industry — four with strong ties, two with medium ties and another four with weak ties. One “study” was a comment on a previous study rather than a study in its own right, though it was published in a peer-reviewed journal, and so was counted among the peer-reviewed studies. Another study could not be located to determine whether it had been peer-reviewed. Including studies that were listed multiple times, 17 percent were peer-reviewed with 13 tied to industry — six with strong ties, two with medium and five with weak ties.

Only one peer-reviewed study explicitly dealt with public health concerns, and it was industry-funded. In the wake of New York State’s fracking decision, which was based largely on its study of health concerns, the importance of public health studies has risen to the fore. Despite the size of EID’s list, there was only one peer-reviewed study that dealt specifically with public health concerns, and it was industry-funded. The other eight peer-reviewed studies that EID classified as “Public Health/Environment” dealt with methane emissions, though other studies on the list addressed water quality issues.

The list included retracted and discredited studies, including studies that made false claims of peer review.EID’s list of studies, compiled during 2014, includes two studies that resulted in corrective action by the universities that issued them — one was retracted, and the other led to the closing of the research institute that issued it. These studies were found to be marred by poor scholarship, undisclosed conflicts of interest and false claims of peer review. In November 2012, the State University of New York at Buffalo shuttered its Shale Resources and Society Institute after it was revealed that the major conclusion of the institute’s one published report was derived from a math error and that the report’s authors had undisclosed oil and gas ties. In December 2012 an independent panel convened by the University of Texas concluded that a report issued by the university’s Energy Institute “fell short of the standards of contemporary science.”

Prominent industry associations funded and issued studies. Seventeen of the studies were either funded or issued by API or the American Gas Association. This includes a set of guidelines and a PowerPoint presentation created by API for an industry workshop that were, nonetheless, presented as studies.

Government and industry hired the same consulting firms. ALL Consulting, IHS CERA and ICF International were contracted by both government agencies and industry associations to produce 15 studies on natural gas that were included on EID’s list. Three of the studies were performed under government contracts while the rest were either commissioned by industry associations or think tanks connected to industry. The industry contracts with these firms raise conflict of interest concerns and illustrate how diverse partners, beyond academia, are being engaged to produce “frackademic” research.

The list inflates a generally weak scientific case by including studies multiple times and listing “studies” that were actually blog posts, non-binding guidelines and PowerPoint presentations. Listed along with actual studies are a blog post from the oil-and-gas-funded EID, a set of guidelines issued by API and an American Petroleum Association press release. There were also three PowerPoint-style presentations. Seven of the studies on EID’s list were included multiple times, sometimes under different subject headings, as if to strengthen EID’s case. One study, a 2013 examination of methane emissions at gas drilling sites convened by the Environmental Defense Fund, was listed three different times in the list’s “Public Health/Environment” section. The industry-funded study was published in a prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which published a correction after several authors failed to disclose significant financial conflicts of interest.

The list is clearly designed to help convince legislators that there is a strong scientific case that fracking is safe, even though the great majority of the reports had some connection to the oil and gas industry.

EID itself, meanwhile, was launched in 2009 by IPAA. Though it calls itself “a research, education and public outreach campaign focused on getting the facts out” about shale oil and gas, a memo obtained by DeSmogBlog in 2011 reveals that EID was conceived by IPAA as “a state of the art online resource center to combat new environmental regulations, especially with regard to hydraulic fracturing.” Since its inception, EID has been a reliable source of oil and gas industry spin, promoting industry-friendly research, attacking environmental activists, and producing a film, Truthland, meant to rebut the anti-fracking documentary Gasland.

When researchers are discovered to have taken money from industry and then produced industry-favored reports, no matter their protestations of objectivity, we think of them as corrupt. Too often, however, both with politicians and academics, the funding isn’t disclosed.


The full report can be found on the Public Accountability Initiative’s website, public-accountability.org


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