A Poisoned Well? Fracking Studies Stir Doubts
Considine, who believes the benefits of fracking far outweigh the costs, attributed the shuttering of the Shale Resources and Society Institute at SUNY Buffalo to politics.
"There's a lot of politics going on at the University of Buffalo about shale, and I think the politics ruled the day," he said. He added that a new version of the study will soon be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
"There is no debate about whether natural gas development creates jobs. It does," he said. "We're arguing about the magnitude."
Industry money flows to universities, professors
Last year, for the first time since 2009, Penn State did not release an updated version of the paper co-authored by Considine and Watson, since no current Penn State faculty members at Penn State would sign onto the project. Engelder, the Penn State professor who is one of the leading pro-fracking figures in academia, said he turned down Watson's "last minute" appeal to sponsor the report, "purely for the reason that I'm a geologist and this is a study of the economics as much as anything on the impact of the Marcellus Shale and the state of Pennsylvania."
Both Engelder and Watson acknowledge having been paid throughout the years to consult for the oil and gas industry. (Considine says he has "no financial interest" in the industry.) Engelder said that, dating back to 2007, industry consulting has amounted to an average of one third of his income each year. Universities require faculty to disclose consulting connections on conflict of interest forms, though these forms are not easily available to the public.
"I should point out that this policy was instituted when it was discovered that good faculty will leave academia when the salary differential between industry and academia becomes too large," Engelder said in an email. "The idea was to allow faculty the experience of a direct exposure to industrial problems while attempting to narrow the relatively wide gap between industry and academic salaries. It is really in the best interest of the university to keep the best faculty."
Engelder, who said industry has spent about $6 million to fund his research over his 35-year career, pointed to the peer review process as a safeguard against slanted scholarship. His work "is reviewed by other people who understand the science, and it would be reasonably easy for these people to recognize when a piece of science has been torque by the industry," he said. Yet the peer review process is not automatic. Papers presented at conferences, for instance, are often not peer reviewed, though they do often find their way onto the Internet for potential citation by interested parties. And sometimes papers are simply issued to the public without rigorous peer review.
Avner Vengosh, a Duke University professor whose fracking research has been lauded and criticized by both sides of the debate, said there is no simple answer to the question of whether fracking is safe. Vengosh has tried to work with industry, but has not sought industry funding for his own research. He said the question for industry-funded scientists and universities is this: "If your researchers are finding results that could hurt the industry, are you having the freedom to make it publicly available?" He added that it is not difficult for scientists to "do some very fine-tuning manipulation that can change the message of the study" if they so desire.