The University of Texas at Austin (UT) has pulled a 2012 report that was supportive of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and shale gas development following a review of the study by an independent panel that found researchers failed to disclose a conflict of interest.

The report by the UT Energy Institute, “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development,” was released early this year and was “a synthesis of various white papers written about hydraulic fracturing” (see NGI, Feb. 20).

“The members of the review committee emphasize that they make no judgment as to the merits or demerits of hydraulic fracturing; this is not an area of their collective expertise nor is it an area of focus for this review,” the committee said in the summary of its report on the study. “The authors simply conclude that the particular report…was severely diminished by the failure of the principal investigator to disclose a clear conflict of interest — albeit, we are satisfied, without ill intent. Similarly, the many caveats presented in the body of the report simply were not adequately reflected in the public presentation of the report — as is supported by the tone of the media’s coverage of the effort.”

The report found that water contamination related to gas production in water wells within some shale gas areas (such as the Marcellus) could be traced to natural sources and likely was present before the onset of shale gas operations. The report also found that while some states have been proactive in overseeing shale gas development, most regulations were written before the widespread use of fracking. Media coverage of fracking was found to be “decidedly negative,” with few news reports mentioning scientific research related to the practice. In addition, surface spills of fracking fluids overall were found to pose more risks to groundwater sources than from fracking itself. And the lack of baseline studies for shale gas development made it difficult to evaluate the long-term, cumulative effects and risks associated with fracking.

The principal investigator, Charles Groat, retired last month from his UT faculty position, and Energy Institute Director Raymond Orbach also resigned. Orbach had no direct role in overseeing Groat’s report, the university said. A search is under way to recruit new leadership at the institute.

The investigation found that some researchers who worked on the report failed to file conflict of interest disclosures and that Groat failed to disclose “a material financial relationship as a member of the board of directors of Plains Exploration and Production.” The other researchers told the committee that their work was unchanged either by or at the urging of Groat. In a statement the university emphasized that “the content of the report…was not under review for validation or criticism and that the panel ‘found no evidence of intentional misrepresentation’ by the authors.”

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