A recent study that showed the percentage of wells in Pennsylvania with pollution events has declined, thanks at least in part to the state’s regulation of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), contained “significant errors and distortions” which undermine its conclusions, according to an analysis released by the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI), a nonprofit research organization based in Buffalo, NY.

The analysis raises questions about both the study and the University at Buffalo’s (UB) Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI), which authored the study of data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The UB researchers concluded that fracking is becoming safer in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, thanks at least in part to the state’s regulation of the practice (see NGI, May 21).

But data in the report actually shows that environmental risks have increased between 2008 and 2011, according to PAI. And key passages of the SRSI report “were copied directly, without attribution, from a pro-fracking Manhattan Institute report authored by several of the same individuals,” according to PAI, which said the report’s “pro-industry spin” was due to the “strong industry ties” of some of its authors and reviewers.

“The report’s inaccurate and biased analysis and the authors’ conflicts of interest suggest that the University at Buffalo is being used as an academic front for gas industry misinformation, rather than as a venue for independent, informative analysis,” said PAI director Kevin Connor. “This is an unfortunate example of industry spin being given much greater weight than it is worth, and the University at Buffalo is implicated in this deception.”

PAI’s approach to the data was not the same as SRSI’s, resulting in an apples to oranges comparison, according to University of Wyoming professor Timothy J. Considine, who was the study’s lead author.

“They’re confusing levels with rates,” Considine told NGI. “They’re pointing out that the total number of environmental events went up over the sample period, but that’s because the industry was drilling a lot more wells. If you look at the events per well, they went down steadily.” The incidence of major events during the period did increase — from 0.6% to 0.8% — “but the point is that the incidence of major events remained below 1%,” he said. “They’re really kind of splitting hairs. It’s still a very low rate of major environmental events.”

In their study of 2,988 violations from nearly 4,000 natural gas wells processed by DEP between January 2008 and August 2011, the UB researchers said a total of 1,844 (62%) of the violations were administrative and preventative in nature, while 1,144 (38%) were environmental in nature. The researchers found that the percentage of environmental violations (as opposed to polluting environmental events) in relation to the number of wells drilled declined from 58.2% in 2008 to 30.5% in 2010, and was down to 26.5% during the first eight months of 2011.

One implication of the data is that state regulation of fracking could mitigate future problems in other states, the researchers said. Proposed regulations in New York could have helped avoid or mitigate the 25 major events which were identified in Pennsylvania, according to the report.

Contrary to PAI allegations, “UB has received no industry funding for SRSI,” and the institute’s expenses and the salary of its part-time director John P. Martin “have been paid entirely by the College of Arts and Sciences using discretionary funds, which come from sources that include indirect cost recovery from research grants, investment income and unrestricted gifts,” according to E. Bruce Pitman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UB. The university “will examine all relevant concerns, in accordance with the university’s strong commitment to academic and research excellence,” he said.

The UB study was not “peer-reviewed,” as it was originally described, though drafts of the report “were reviewed by several individuals with expertise in related areas, who provided comments to the authors,” according to an editor’s note issued since the study’s release (see NGI, May 28).

The SRSI was formed in April to conduct and disseminate research to guide policymakers on issues relating to fracking and the development of energy resources and to educate students and the public. Martin is founder and principal consultant of JPMartin Energy Strategy LLC, which provides strategic planning, resource evaluation and other services to the energy industry, academic institutions and governments. Robert Jacobi, the center’s co-director, is also a senior geology adviser for Pittsburgh-based EQT Production.

Last year the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Energy Policy and The Environment issued a report which concluded that the economic benefits of developing shale natural gas resources in New York are “enormous” and vastly outweigh the “small” environmental costs (see NGI, June 13, 2011).

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