The Fossil Fuel Industry Hid the Truth about Its Funding of Fracking Research

Photo: Penn State/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a fossil fuel trade association, has tried to use the reputation and credibility of universities and its scientists to promote natural gas.

Industry interests have too often skewed the outcome of academic studies of fracking, producing questionable, industry-friendly reports from several universities—a phenomenon that has been dubbed “frackademia.” While industry funding does not inherently mean biased science, it is essential that all reported studies list funding sources, examine all evidence objectively, and disclose any conflicts of interest held by study authors.

“Companies attempt to borrow the prestige of the university,” Thomas O. McGarity, law professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a scholar on issues of corporate interference in science, told the New York Times. As a result, he says, “Universities have to be absolutely transparent.” One trade association, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, has on several occasions tried to use the reputation and credibility of universities to promote fracking. The membership of the Marcellus Shale Coalition consists of a long list of natural gas companies including CONSOL Energy, Chevron, Range Resources Corporation, and Sunoco.

Pennsylvania State University has played a central role in research on fracking as the industry has grown in the state. Some of this research is secretive, because the school’s industry partners value confidentiality to keep their competitors from learning about the research that the company is doing. Besides creating pipelines for students to work in industry, industry players are using these university partnerships to give the resulting research an appearance of independence when it is, in fact, compromised.

For example, a 2009 study by Penn State researchers found that a tax on natural gas production in Pennsylvania would harm the state’s economy. The study received funding from the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s predecessor, the Marcellus Shale Committee, and the final report failed to disclose that the study’s lead author had ties to the oil and gas industry.

In 2012, that same author was funded by the Marcellus Shale Coalition to conduct a study for the Shale Resources and Society Institute, an industry-funded initiative at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The study stated that regulations had made unconventional oil and gas development safer in Pennsylvania, and concludes that fracking could therefore be done safely in New York. The report falsely claims that fracking-related water pollution in Pennsylvania had declined in recent years, and it borrows entire passages from a different report without proper citation. The report also fails to reveal that the authors had close ties to the oil and gas industry, and had regularly received funding for their studies from the Marcellus Shale Coalition. (SUNY Buffalo closed the institute after a group of faculty and students called for an inquiry into the improper relationship between some of its professors and the natural gas industry.)

These relationships between industry and universities were formed at a time when it was especially important for the fossil fuel industry to heed the best available independent science as it navigated new energy territory and attendant regulatory burdens in New York and Pennsylvania. Instead, the industry has too often used its relationships with these universities to further a clear science agenda that has resulted in the deception of regulators and the public about the actual impacts of fracking to the environment, public health, and economy.

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