SUNY to investigate UB's role in fracking

On September 14, 2012

  • NYPERG, in coalition with New Yorkers Against Fracking, protested Wednesday at the SUNY Board of Trustees meeting in New York City. Courtesy of John Armstrong


SUNY is demanding answers about UB's controversial shale institute.

On Wednesday, the SUNY Board of Trustees passed a resolution requiring UB to explain how its controversial shale institute was founded, how its directors were chosen and - most importantly to its critics - the role natural gas companies had in the founding of the institute. The vote to get more information was unanimous.

Bruce Pitman, dean of the college of arts and sciences, said the institute - called the Shale Research and Society Institute (SRSI) - is a purely academic endeavor that has no ties to industry. 

"Even though certain people do not want to believe it, the institute has not received industry funding," he said in an email. 

John P. Martin, the co-director of SRSI, is receiving $72,000 yearly for his part-time position. Pitman confirmed Martin's base salary as $60,000 with a monthly stipend of $1,000 for traveling expenses. Martin is only required to work at "25 percent effort," according to documents obtained by Artvoice as a response to a Freedom of Information Law request.

Some professors at UB find the number shocking.

 "Seventy-two thousand dollars for 25 percent of position suggests a far higher pay rate, like almost four times I think what your typical humanities professor in the College of Arts and Sciences makes" said Martha McCluskey, law professor and member of UB Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research (UBCLEAR). "It's kind of an eyebrow-raising amount."

The institute's budget is $40,000, which is from the College of Arts and Sciences' discretionary funds. Martin's salary is not part of this budget, Pitman said.

It is unclear what source is funding the salary.

Both McClusky and James Holstun, an English professor and UBCLEAR chairman, wrote a letter signed by 83 faculty members last month requesting the university's transparency. SUNY is now echoing those requests. The signers of the August letter were concerned about the university's ties to the oil industry, after a controversial pro-fracking report was issued by SRSI in May. 

Holstun, too, finds Martin's salary to be too high and questions what he has done since his employment in December. Holstun described him as "inaccessible."

"He's getting paid retroactively, it appears," Holstun said. "He hasn't responded to any of the criticisms of the first publication. He hasn't been receptive to phone calls. He hasn't been in Buffalo, as far as we can tell - he lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He's just been cashing his check."

The Spectrum emailed Martin at 6 p.m. on Thursday and did not receive a response by the time of press. Martin declined an interview with The New York Times in June when the controversy regarding SRIS's pro-fracking report first came out.

Martin was hired as co-director because "there was no full-time faculty member with the kind of background to lead an institute like this," Pitman said in an email. He said Martin's 17 years at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (a group that said it aims to improve the energy, economic and environmental well being in New York State) and position as co-director of the NY Governor's Carbon Capture Sequestration Group (a group that studied fracking for NYSERDA) made Pitman have no doubts about Martin's qualifications.

 However, McCluskey feels "there's s lot of non-clarity about the dual financial, conflicting financial interests of the institute co-director," because Martin works independently for JPMartin Energy Strategy LLC. His website states he "provides strategic planning resource evaluation, project management and government/public relation services to the energy industry, academic institutions and governments."           

McCluskey feels there was a "minimal amount of transparency and disclosure of a conflict of interest." She thinks it should have been noted that Martin is the owner of a business that has "financial interest" in the gas industry

These types of concerns are in part why 50 students stood outside of the SUNY Board of Trustees meeting on Wednesday, according to Rebecca Weber, the executive director of New York Public Interest Research Group, a group that exists in coalition with New Yorkers Against Fracking.

But the protestors' chants criticizing what they called UB's "junk science" were not ignored.

Following the meeting, Trustee Joseph Belluck met with the protesters. While Weber was speaking to the students, Belluck tapped her on the shoulder and introduced himself.

"When he came out, he turned to the crowd and said, 'We hear you,'" Weber said. "That was a really special moment for the activists. It's a rare thing that at the moment of activism, you get a result. So it was an incredible experience."

Pitman said the campus will fully respond to SUNY's request.

Within what was released from the Artvoice FOIL, there are also highlights some feel insinuate industry funding.

"We have already been successful in local corporate funding through the Independent Oil and Gas Association (IOGA) of NY and have good contacts with National Fuel," one of the documents states.

Pitman said this quote comes from a "proposal that was submitted by institute personnel and collaborating faculty members." But he said the proposal did not receive funding.

Another document within the published materials labeled "case for funding" says, "IOGA is keenly aware of our plans and has not only aided us with funding, but also organizational help."

Holstun feels the wording of some of the documents is ambiguous, but it "seems to say there is oil and gas money in the institute."

Pitman said people within the geology department have worked with IOGA in the past, and "there was good communication with several in industry and regulatory agencies." But he again reiterated that institute has received no industry funding.



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