Fracking update: UB continues to deny industry funding claims

UB says money only went to lecture series

On September 21, 2012

  • UB will continue to deny industry funding claims despite impending investigation. Courtesy of John Armstrong


SUNY Trustee Joseph Belluck thinks UB's controversial fracking institute should be shut down.

In a meeting in New York City on Sept. 12, he said the controversy over the institute threatens to undermine SUNY as a first-class research institute and suggested the Shale Research Society and Institute (SRSI) be dissolved.

Belluck blamed the controversy on College of Arts and Sciences Dean Bruce Pitman, who oversees the institute, and on UB President Satish Tripathi.

"I think Satish has really failed to address this in the right way," Belluck told the trustees.

SUNY trustees decided they did not yet have enough information to vote on the institute. Instead, they unanimously passed a resolution to investigate the founding and funding of SRSI. The meeting was recorded and put online by SUNY over the weekend.

The university is currently responding to SUNY's requests, according to UB Spokesman John Della Contrada.

University officials have repeatedly said no industry funding went into the institute itself. This weekDella Contrada said the oil and gas industry did, however, help fund the April 2011 lecture series sponsored by the geology department that spurred the creation of the institute a year later.

In particular, he said the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York donated $5,000 to the Marcellus Shale lecture series, which cost $12,900. Other funding included:

·      $5,000 from Otis Eastern Service, Inc, a leading pipeline contractor

·      $2,000 from Lenape Enterprises, no information available

·      $200 from Chautauqua Energy Management, a producer of oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania and New York

·      $200 from Reserve Energy Exploration, a privately held company focused on oil, natural gas and renewable energy projects

·      $250 from Tectonic, a New York engineering firm

·      $200 Minard Run Oil Company, an independent oil company in Pennsylvania

"If the talk series is not part of the institute - if it's just an independent talk series - then it is unlike any such series I have ever organized or attended in that it fails to acknowledge the moneys that paid for it: in this case, $12,900 in support from oil and gas and affiliated companies," said James Holstun, an English professor and chairman of the UB Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research (UBCLEAR), in an email.

He feels the basic principles of academic ethics that require acknowledgement and thanks to the donors should have occurred at the talk series and "not more than a year later, under intense public and [SUNY] trustee pressure."

SRSI was founded in April 2012 and produced its first report in May. The report came out under UB's name and suggested fracking is not as detrimental to the environment as many experts say. The report was immediately criticized for its findings, its numerical inaccuracies and the authors' connections to the oil and gas industry. In addition, a UB press release claimed the report was peer reviewed. After a watchdog group questioned the review process and the report as a whole, UB reissued the press release saying it had not been peer reviewed.

Belluck is not the only one to question the institute's validity. Since its inception in April, UB faculty and community members have asked UB administrators to explain how the institute got started, who is funding it and what - if any - ties it has to the oil and gas industry. They have also expressed outrage over the salary of John P. Martin, one of the institute's co-directors, and his perceived conflict of interest as an oil and gas insider.

Pitman has defended Martin's hiring and has insisted the institute has not received any industry funding and that it is a purely academic endeavor with an approximately $40,000 start-up budget, not including salaries.

According to the SRSI website, the institute has a $177,442 annual budget.

"The $40,000 was an estimate of operating costs and support. [It] does not include personnel costs," Della Contrada said.

The actual amount posted on the website for operating support and staff support is $48,600. Although Pitman originally answered The Spectrum's questions on SRSI, since Wednesday, he has deferred all questions to Della Contrada, stating the UB spokesperson "is the appropriate person to respond."

The additional $128,842 left in the $177,442 budget is allotted for personnel costs, including "salary, fringe and other benefits" for the institute's co-directors, Martin and Robert Jacobi. The funds are coming from a University at Buffalo Foundation account and a "state operating account," according to the SRSI website.

Martin's part-time salary of $60,000 annually and a $1,000 monthly stipend for travel was released last week after Artvoice filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request.

 Several UB faculty members, including Holstun and law professor Martha McCluskey, feel a combined $72,000 salary is too high for an employee only required to work 25 percent of his time.

Holstun is a founding member of UBCLEAR, a group of 25 community and faculty members who want the university to explain exactly how the institute started and has been funded. He is convinced documents obtained by Artvoice via a FOIL prove the oil and gas industries have helped and/or plan to help fund the institute.

 The document, a one-page description of SRSI's goals and fundraising strategies, shows a commitment by the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York (IOGA).

"IOGA of NY is keenly aware of our plans and has not only aided us with funding, but also organizational help," the document states. In the subsequent bullet point, it states, "Through our Marcellus Shale lecture series last spring, we reached out to local citizenry as well as government and environmental activist concerns and were able to make numerous contacts."

Holstun said the document is evidence that IOGA funded SRSI.

Della Contrada said the IOGA money referred to in the one-page document went to the lecture series, not the institute. After the lecture series, "faculty and administrators saw sufficient interest to make an institute viable," Della Contrada said.

Holstun doesn't feel the lecture series properly disclosed the industry funding received - something that echoes his concerns regarding the entire institute. He wants the administration to release all documents relating to founding, funding and governance of SRSI.

"This is precisely the sort of thing we have to fear with the Institute itself, if it ever should actually come alive again: that it will be supported by money from the oil and gas industry, laundered through the UB Foundation, which is currently immune to FOIL requests, so that UB peddles its legitimacy for an under-the-table corporate contribution," Holstun said. "Nobody has the right to degrade the University at Buffalo in this way."



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