The use of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” by the oil and gas industries has been controversial because of the potential risks it may cause to people and the environment. Hydraulic fracturing uses water, sand, and chemicals to pressurize and fracture rocks to free oil and natural gas deep underground. However, fracking can contaminate water, pollute the air, and trigger earthquakes.
In 2012, University of Texas at Austin (UT) professor Charles “Chip” Groat led a study for the Energy Institute at UT that concluded there was no link between fracking and contamination of groundwater. Months later, an independent review by the nonprofit watchdog group Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) revealed that Groat sat on the board of Houston-based drilling and fracking company, Plains Exploration and Production Company. In 2011, the company had paid Groat $400,000, which was more than double his salary at UT. Groat had also received $1.6 million in company stock since 2007. One of the shales examined in Groat’s study was being drilled by Plains Exploration at the time.
UT launched an independent review of the research, which concluded that the study was unscientific in its approach. The review found that the research relied on literature reviews and conjecture rather than independent scientific research. The review also found that UT researchers who studied the health effects of fracking did not participate in this study and there was no evidence of participation by fracking experts.
When asked about the failure to disclose his financial ties in the report, Groat stated in an email, “The reason hasn’t changed – my role in the study was to organize it, coordinate the activities, and report the results. …The results were determined by the individual investigators, not me and I did not alter their conclusions.” He added, “Disclosing my Plains board position would not have served any meaningful purpose relevant to this study.”
Financial ties between universities and industry partners are common. For example, UT has received multimillion-dollar donations from companies such as ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil and from oil mogul Jon Brumley. Rice University’s Baker Institute receives funding from Chevron and Shell. The University of Wyoming and Pennsylvania State University have also received millions from energy companies.
David Wogan, an energy policy researcher and former student of Groat’s, described the benefits of industry funding and expertise to advance research. But he also noted that potential ties or conflicts of interest should be made clear. He wrote in Scientific American, “At the very least, Dr. Groat should have removed himself from the study. …Private industry brings a lot of knowledge, experience, and funding, all things that are useful in research. …But where do you draw the line and distinguish between an appropriate relationship, and…one that compromises the goal of providing unbiased research?”
Later in 2012, Groat retired from UT. Prior to the developments about Groat, the university had begun revising and expanding its conflict of interest rules and procedures. UT Provost Steven Leslie stated, “The most important asset we have as an institution is the public’s trust. If that is in question, then that is something we need to address.”