The University of Texas (UT) at Austin has withdrawn a prominent study of the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” the controversial process used for extraction of natural gas from shale formations. An investigation had revealed that the lead investigator, Charles “Chip” Groat, has financial interests in the natural gas industry, which he did not disclose in his report. In the wake of the investigation, Groat retired from his UT faculty position; Raymond Orbach, director of the Energy Institute at UT, which conducted the study, has resigned as well.
Groat’s report, Separating Fact From Fiction in Shale Gas Development, was released on Feb. 16, 2012. The UT press release announcing the study that day bore the headline “New study shows no evidence of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing.” The Fact From Fiction report said the researchers found “no evidence of aquifer contamination from hydraulic fracturing chemicals in the subsurface by fracturing operations” and “no leakage from hydraulic fracturing at depth.” Groundwater contamination, they wrote, can happen in conventional oil and gas operations and is “not unique to hydraulic fracturing.”
The university withdrew the report after an independent investigation commissioned by the university revealed that Groat had conflicts of interest that he failed to disclose in the study. According to Bloomberg News, Groat sits on the board of Plains Exploration & Production Co. (PXP), where he receives 10,000 shares of stock a year and an annual fee that came to $58,500 in 2011.
In announcing the results of the independent review, UT stressed that “the content of the report — a synthesis of various white papers written about hydraulic fracturing — was not under review for validation or criticism” and that the review panel “found no evidence of intentional misrepresentation” by the study’s authors. The panel made various recommendations regarding the university’s internal procedures around conflicts of interest and disclosure.
As a result of new technologies like fracking, natural gas is the world’s fastest-growing fossil fuel. Fracking involves injecting pressurized fluid into a rock layer to create fractures that allow extraction of the gas. Critics believe that fracking endangers groundwater supplies.
Drawing and map credit: EPA