Campus responds to disputed fracking claims

On August 29, 2012

  • The Shale Resources and Socitety Institue released this controversial report on May 15. Since the initial report, groups have contested its transparency and the university's involvement in the oil and gas industry and research. Courtesy of the Shale Resources and Society Institute

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."

Robert Galbraith, a UB law student and a researcher and analyst for PAI, said Considine has "significant conflicts of interest" because of previous work he has done that was pro-fracking; Galbraith was researching Considine before UB's report was issued.

Two passages from the SRSI report were lifted from pro-fracking pieces written by the lead authors and not properly attributed in the SRSI report, according to PAI.

Holstun said the authors' ties to the industry were not mentioned in the article itself, something he said was "following the worst standard, not the best standard." It's common practice, in most academic journals, to state: "I've been funded by this industry" and make the industry tie clear, Holstun said.

But Pitman feels the report had the appropriate disclosure. "I think it is absurd for people to suggest that any report would identify every source of funding that anyone has ever received," he said.

The four authors' academic affiliations were published on the front page of the report.

But the alleged conflicts of interest are not the only thing that concerned Galbraith and PAI.

"The biggest thing is that two of the main claims of the UB report were just flat out wrong," Galbraith said. "When it comes down to it, they made a claim that is totally unsupported by their data. Their data doesn't say what they say it says."

The SRSI report states the major fracking-related environmental violations declined from 2008 to 2011. But according to the PAI report the violations increased. "All the data that was used was clearly in the report," Pitman said. "PAI took data from the very report turned it around and said, 'Oh if you do the calculations this way something else happens.' So was the report honest and open and did it disclose all the facts and define all its terms? I think it did. People choosing to interpret things differently - absolutely fair enough - but you can't discredit the report if it's providing you the data you're choosing to look at differently."

But Galbraith disagrees, describing the SRSI report as "sloppy workmanship" and "bad scholarship." He said the language of the report is biased, and he is concerned about industry influence over academia.

The SRSI report was reissued in June to fix two typographical errors. In the original press release, the report was incorrectly described as "peer-reviewed." UB issued a correction.

"The report was not peer-reviewed as we in academia understand the anonymous peer-review process," Pitman said.

Pitman feels scholarship and politics are mixing too much together. He said a small group is trying to stifle the work of the institute. "If there is a threat to academic freedom it is because of the attitude of these activists saying 'you should do away with all this study on this political question,'" Pitman said.

Kristen Stapleton, an associate professor of history and director of Asian studies, was one of the 83 individuals who endorsed the letter.

 Stapleton's concerns reflect why fracking is such a heavily debated topic.

 "I am concerned about the great threat to our environment posed by the violent methods companies have developed to extract natural gas and want to be sure that our university, by establishing the institute, is not helping these companies improperly to make these methods seem safer than they are," Stapleton said in an email.

Stapleton feels that universities are best administered when faculty and staff are incorporated in decision making, which she doesn't feel is done well at UB.

Pitman said there will be a response to the letter to discuss what is true and isn't true and "put the insinuation and innuendo to rest." But as of now, no official plan of action is set.

Holstun feels the threat of academic freedom "is still out there and looming" until there is a free discussion of questions among people on campus.

"The threat to academic freedom that people don't typically associate with the threat to academic freedom is censorship," Holstun said. "But you can censor something by setting up an institute on campus that only addresses the pro-oil and gas sides of an issue and excludes people on the other side of an issue."

 Pitman knows the subject is controversial, but he said if Governor Cuomo actually allows fracking in New York State, conducting research to better understand regulations is pertinent.



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