A panel charged with reviewing the preparation and distribution process for a University of Texas at Austin study on hydraulic fracturing in shale gas development has delivered its report. The report pointed out that conflict of interest and disclosure policies were ignored in the study’s preparation, and that the term “fact-based” shouldn’t apply to the study because there were “relatively little scientific data presented, or according to the authors, available to be presented.” If you can recall, the Public Accountability Initiative pointed out there was an apparent conflict of interest involved with the study – which found no evidence that fracing contaminates groundwater –in that Charles “Chip” Groat was a director at Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production, receiving financial compensation, while leading the hydraulic fracturing study released by the UT Energy Institute. Groat also served as a geological sciences professor at UT-Austin, but has since retired from his faculty position. The non-disclosure threw the study into the spotlight, caused some to question its findings, and impacted the study’s – and in turn the university’s – credibility. The act gave ammunition to naysayers who oppose fracing, although the study found otherwise. A simple disclosure might have eliminated some of the brouhaha, but the lack of disclosure revealed that cloud of secrecy that sometimes casts suspicion and a negative light on the oil and gas industry. The panel was asked to examine whether the university’s conflict of interest policies were sufficient and followed, whether the report accurately reflected the white papers on which the study’s findings were based, whether the white papers reflected the scientific material on which they were based, and any actions that should be taken by the university. The panel determined that the “design, management, review, and release” of the study “fell short of contemporary standards for scientific work. Primary among the shortcomings was the failure of the principal investigator [Groat] to disclose a conflict of interest that could have had a bearing on the credibility a reader wished to assign to the resulting work.” The panel also concluded that the report summary “failed to reflect either the tentative nature of the conclusions reached in the white papers or the often strong caveats conveyed by their individual authors” and found media releases and oral presentations to be “inappropriately selective in the use of material from the white papers such that they seemed to suggest that public concerns were without scientific basis and largely resulted from media bias – hence requiring no significant modification in the current regulatory and enforcement regimes.” The university didn’t come out unscathed either. Although the university agreed with the panel’s findings and said “public trust in the integrity of UT Austin’s research has always been of highest importance to the institution,” the panel had recommendations for improvement for the university. According to the report, these included: • Maintaining, enforcing, and monitoring policies governing conflict of interest, conflict of commitment, and financial and relationship disclosure for university personnel; • Examining all project participants’ roles and contributions and documenting this information in reports and presentations; and • For the UT Energy Institute, enforcing such policies and developing more effective methods for project design, management, and review, and developing a quality control framework for public relations and media activities. The panel also suggested removing the study from the website and giving senior contributors a chance to redraft papers into suitable forms for peer-reviewed scientific or academic journals. Companies, and others out there, should learn something from this situation. Be transparent and honest. You never know when a watchdog group, like the Public Accountability Initiative, or news reporters will uncover such information. This is exactly the kind of situation that watchdog groups and watchdog teams at media outlets look for while working to protect the interests of the public. And the university should be commended for not dropping the issue and making an effort to correct the problem by not only putting together the panel but following through with its recommendations. The report, released earlier this month, comes after examining about 400 pages of documents, reviewing video, and conducting in-person interviews. Showing the review panel practices what it preaches, the report noted ties of some of its reviewers to the oil and gas industry. Norman R. Augustine, the panel’s chair and retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, served on ConocoPhillip’s board of directors until 2008 and holds stock in that firm and Phillips 66, but has deferred compensation. Rita Colwell, a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park and Johns Hopkins University, holds stock in several firms involved in oil and gas activities, and she receives an honorarium as chair of the BP-funded Research Board of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative. James Duderstadt, a professor at the University of Michigan, served on CMS Energy’s board until 2004 and holds shares in the firm in trust. The company, the report said, halted its exploration and development activities a decade ago. Following suit, in full disclosure, I am a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin. However, the university no longer gets cash from me, nor do I get any from them. Contact the author, Velda Addison, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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