Campus responds to disputed fracking claims
Published: Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11
Eighty-three UB faculty and professional staff members are calling for university transparency in relation to the Shale Research and Society Institute (SRSI). After a summer of conflict, controversy and national attention, members of UB continue to respond to questions of the university’s involvement in the oil and gas industry and research.
But according to Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Bruce Pitman, SRSI is being transparent, and he is unsure of how to “satisfy the insinuations” that imply the institute received funding from the oil and gas industry.
On Aug. 23 an open letter authored by James Holstun, an English professor; Martha McCluskey, a law professor; and Stephen Halpern, a political science professor, was published in UB Reporter addressed to the UB administration. The letter received the endorsement of 83 UB affiliates. Many of those involved with the letter are also members of the UB Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research (UBCLEAR), an organization formed after a report issued by a political watchdog group raised concerns about the May report SRSI issued.
The SRSI report emphasizes that state oversight has made natural gas drilling safer. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock through the use of chemicals, sand and water under high pressure.
The letter’s main request is transparency; it calls for information about the founding, funding, governance and oil industry ties to SRSI.
Information members of UBCLEAR, like Holstun, don’t think has been made apparent. One of the top concerns of members of UBCLEAR is the affiliation the authors of the SRSI report have to the oil industry, and if SRSI was at all funded by the industry.
“People choose not to believe [SRSI received no industry funding] and they keep a story going by insinuation,” Pitman said. “But we are very clear: the institute has received no funding. The report has received no funding from industry. I don’t know what more to say.”
Holstun feels it’s conceivable the money was delivered to the institute with UB taking a cut. The specifics of the funding are still unclear to Holstun and members of UBCLEAR because of the UB Foundation, which handles all donations given to the university and is not subject to the Freedom of Information Law. Which means they don’t have to make any documentation – including funding – public upon request.
SRSI may take industry funding in the future, according to Pitman. But he said the institute is currently not ready to do so.
It’s hard to see what UB gained in the negative press that followed the university this summer, according to Holstun.
“It’s not like we’re destroyed by this,” Holstun said. “But there has been a great deal of press about UB’s involvement in this controversy, and the low standards of scholarship exhibited by [SRSI’s] first publication, which came out with the name ‘University at Buffalo’ attached to it. Unfortunately, it appears to be an attempt to exploit our name and we didn’t benefit from it. Nobody else has benefited from it either.”
The Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) issued the report that brought negative attention to SRSI in May, about a week after the SRSI report came out. The ties the lead authors of the SRSI report, Timothy Considine of the University of Wyoming and Robert Watson of Pennsylvania State University, have to the oil industries were not fully disclosed, according to PAI.
“Conflict of interest is in the air and it is very much a matter of concern nationally,” Holstun said. “The idea that as universities move more and more toward public/private partnerships there needs to be absolute clarity about the relationship with industry. Unfortunately, we do not yet have that clarity about the Shale Resources and Society Institute.”