A Poisoned Well? Fracking Studies Stir Doubts
Academics defend industry ties
The SUNY Buffalo study was authored in large part by Timothy Considine, who is now at the University of Wyoming, and Robert Watson, a former Pennsylvania State University professor who is now retired. The pair has been criticized by anti-fracking activists for generating what the activists claim is industry-friendly scholarship.
In 2009, when Considine was at Penn State, the two men collaborated on a report for the university's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences that found natural gas production could generate $13.5 billion for Pennsylvania and almost 175,000 jobs by 2020. The study also said that Pennsylvania should not tax natural gas production and that "[p]roposals to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act pose yet another serious threat to the development of the Marcellus Shale and other unconventional gas sources."
The study, which was affixed with the Penn State logo, was funded by the Marcellus Shale Association, a coalition of oil and gas companies. (The connection was not initially disclosed; the report was later reissued with the disclosure.) Critics, including the nonprofit Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, derided the report as pro-industry advocacy, noting that other estimates found a smaller economic impact from fracking. Eventually the dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, William Easterling, said in a letter that the report contained flaws and "may well have crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy."
The study was nonetheless reissued on a yearly basis, and the jobs estimate was revised upward. Pro-fracking lawmakers and figures from industry used it to argue for fracking in Pennsylvania without taxation or certain regulations. Citing the study, Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a fracking proponent, repeatedly referenced the university at a committee hearing, saying that "Penn State University -- I'm still quoting -- also concluded that federal regulation was a serious threat to Marcellus [Shale] development."
Watson, who is now retired, strongly denies claims that his scholarship is slanted toward industry. "That's baloney," he said. "I was a faculty member at Penn State for 30 years, and the one thing I can say about Tim [Considine] and I, we're not academic whores."
"I consider myself to be an honest man. And this is not to beat the drums, I'm an evangelical Christian also," he added. "And as a consequence, I'm very serious about maintaining the highest level of ethics with respect to both my personal life and my professional life. If somebody came in and tried to twist my arm with respect to the work I was doing, I'd throw them out of my office."
Considine, like Watson, said that his research is not influenced by funding sources.
"There's a lot of unfair things that are being said out there and I think the public is being disserved by the scare tactics that a lot of these groups are engaging in over fracking," he said. In a follow-up email, he added, "I have no agenda to promote," pointing to his past work at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, where he wrote reports on natural gas.