A natural-gas driller’s group has canceled a Pennsylvania State University study of hydraulic fracturing after some faculty members balked at the project that had drawn criticism for being slanted toward industry. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, which paid more than $146,000 for three previous studies, ended this year’s report after work had started, said Kathryn Klaber, coalition president.
The earlier studies were co-written by former Penn State professor Tim Considine, an economist now at the University of Wyoming who has produced research on economic and energy issues under contract to trade associations. The first study, in 2009, initially failed to disclose its industry funding and was used by lawmakers to kill a state tax on gas drillers. It was characterized as advocacy for producers by groups such as the nonprofit Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center in Harrisburg.
“It’s been a hot potato,” said Michael Arthur, co- director of the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research at Penn State, who is one of at least two faculty members who declined to take part in this year’s project. “People are a little more thoughtful about hopping in.”
Without at least one full-time faculty member, the externally funded study can’t be researched and published under Penn State’s name, said William Easterling, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.
Drilling companies, amid criticism that producing gas by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, damages the environment, are funding university research that at times reaches conclusions that counter the concerns of critics, Bloomberg News reported in July. At least two schools are examining their external relationships after complaints.
The University of Texas at Austin is reviewing a February study on fracking after reports said the professor who led the project is on the board of a gas driller. State University of New York at Buffalo trustees are reviewing a report on the school’s Shale Resources and Society Institute. In May, the institute issued a study on the environmental record of fracking in Pennsylvania that drew attention to the role of gas companies in creating the institute, according to a Sept. 12 memorandum.
Fracking, in which millions of gallons of chemically treated water and sand are forced underground to break shale rock and free trapped gas, has lowered energy prices, created jobs, and enhanced national security, according to a task force formed by President Barack Obama’s Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
Tube segments at Southwestern Energy Co.'s natural gas production site, at the Marcellus Shale formation in Camptown, Pennsylvania. Photographer: Julia Schmalz/Bloomberg
Critics say the benefits may not outweigh the environmental and health risks. Fracking has been linked to groundwater contamination in Pennsylvania, high ozone levels in Wyoming and to headaches, sore throats and difficulty breathing for people living close to wells in Colorado.
Since 2009, more than 5,000 wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from New York to West Virginia. The formation may contain 141 trillion cubic feet of gas, enough to meet U.S. demand for about six years, according to the Energy Department.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pittsburgh-based drillers group, paid Penn State for the three economic-impact studies beginning in 2009, according to John Hanold, senior associate director of Penn State’s Office of Sponsored Programs.
Considine in June said work on the 2012 report was in progress. Last month, Klaber said Considine was collecting data and “working with Penn State to determine what the report looks like.”
Now, Klaber says that the group is getting the data and analysis needed from publicly available government sources on the economics of gas drilling.
“While third-party studies have played, and can play, an important role in measuring and forecasting our industry’s growth and impact, this critical information is now more accessible than ever,” Klaber said in an Oct. 1 e-mail.
The 2009 report was first released without acknowledging funding by the shale-gas group. That report and updates bore the logo of Penn State, leading some to conclude the university supported its findings, Arthur said.
“It came out with Penn State slapped all over it and it was never reviewed by any of their peers,” Arthur said. “It’s really only the opinion and the results of the research of those three authors.”
Subsequent studies by other researchers have found that gas drilling created fewer than half the jobs projected by Considine in 2009. The initial report also said a severance tax proposed by then Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, would drive drillers to other states. Considine’s findings were cited by state lawmakers. Rendell eventually dropped the proposal.
Considine has conducted research under contract for industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute and the Wyoming Mining Association.
In a 2009 report for the mining group, Considine said Wyoming coal would lower U.S. energy costs by $280 billion a year. Global warming emissions from burning coal could be reduced by planting trees and using technology still in development to capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks, he said in the report.
In a 2010 report for the Washington-based petroleum group, Considine said Marcellus Shale gas in New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia would generate $16 billion in economic output and 184,000 jobs. The project relied on the same computer model used in the Penn State report.
Considine declined to comment. “Thank you for your inquiry,” he said in an Oct. 1 e-mail. “On further reflection, I have no comment regarding this matter.”
In a June 27 interview, he said, “This whole idea of industry funding biasing research is preposterous.”
“You look at universities all around the country. There are billions of dollars flowing from companies to do basic R&D,” he said.
Considine was still on Penn State’s faculty when the 2009 report was commissioned, Easterling said. Seth Blumsack, assistant professor of energy policy and economics at Penn State, co-wrote the 2010 and 2011 versions.
Blumsack said he was asked within the past year to participate in the 2012 report and declined. Arthur said he was approached in August by Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State. Arthur declined, saying that some might question his objectivity were he part of the project.
“I think there was rosiness to the report,” Arthur said in an interview. “I think that can be documented.”
Engelder also declined to take part.
“I really would like to occupy the middle ground in the industry v. anti-driller scrum,” Engelder said in an e-mail.
“I would speculate that some of them have just made a calculated decision that getting out there and being involved in this report isn’t the best thing for the way they would like to be seen by the outside world,” Easterling said.
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