Fracking 101: The Cozy Relationship Between the Natural-Gas Industry and Academic Researchers

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Last week, the University of Texas provost announced he would re-examine a report by a professor who had pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from energy interests.

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Tim McDonnell/James West

Last week the University of Texas provost announced he would re-examine a report by a UT professor that said fracking was safe for groundwater after the revelation that the professor pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Texas natural gas developer. It's the latest fusillade in the ongoing battle over the basic facts of fracking in America.

Texans aren't the only ones having their fracking conversations shaped by industry-funded research. Ohioans got their first taste last week of the latest public-relations campaign by the energy policy wing of the US Chamber of Commerce. It's called "Shale Works for US," and it aims to spend millions on advertising and public events to sell Ohioans on the idea that fracking is a surefire way to yank the state out of recession.

The campaign is loaded with rosy employment statistics, which trace to an April report authored by professors at three major Ohio universities and funded by, you guessed it, the natural gas industry. The report paints a bright future for fracking in Ohio as a job-creator.

One co-author of the study, Robert Chase, is poised at such a high-traffic crossroads of that state's natural gas universe that his case was recently taken up by the Ohio Ethics Commission, whose chairman called him "more than a passing participant in the operations of the Ohio oil and gas industry," and questioned his potential conflicts of interest. As landowners in a suite of natural gas-rich states like Texas and Ohio struggle to to decipher conflicting reports about the safety of fracking, Chase is a piece in what environmental and academic watchdogs call a growing puzzle of industry-funded fracking research with poor disclosure and dubious objectivity.

"It's hard to find someone who's truly independant and doesn't have at least one iron in the fire," said Ohio oil and gas lease attorney Mark F. Okey. "It's a good ol' boys network and they like to take care of their own."

Chase got his petroleum engineering PhD from Penn State. In 2009, long after Chase left the university, it came under fire for a fracking report, widely cited by state politicians as evidence for opening up the fracking market, which an in-house investigator said "crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy." Early in his career, Chase worked as a consultant for many of the nation's biggest oil and gas developers, including Halliburton, Cabot, and EQT. In 1978 he began teaching petroleum engineering at Marietta College, the small Ohio liberal arts school where he remains on faculty today. In 2008, Ohio's then-governor Ted Strickland appointed him to the Ohio Oil & Gas Commission, an independant judiciary board that hears complaints from landowners and developers against the state's Division of Mineral Resources Management. And last year, he founded his own consultancy, Chaseland LLC, that helps connect landowners with gas companies seeking drilling rights, for which Chase collects a commission.

In February, Chase gave glowing testimony to Congress on the benefits of fracking, and included a swipe at anti-fracking advocates by citing the very same study now being investigated at the University of Texas. In recent years, Chase has taken his pro-fracking stance to the pages of Ohio newspapers to call for increased fracking and toassure locals of its safety; his latest column was soundly rebutted by a pair of Cincinnati geologists, who wrote that Chase had made "several misleading assertions." State officials tightened fracking regulations after a series of earthquakes in northeastern Ohio, including a 4.0 quake in Youngstown on New Year's Eve.

The founding of Chaseland was a bit too much for Oil & Gas Commission director Linda Osterman, who in Februaryasked the state ethics board to investigate Chase; they ruled that he would have to recuse himself from any Commission hearings involving companies or people he had worked with at Chaseland. Chase has only had to sit out once, Osterman told Climate Desk, on the Commission's most recent hearing, in which a local cattle farm disputed a permit given to Chesapeake Energy to drill on the farm's land, because he had consulted with Chesapeake. Otherwise, Osterman said, "I've never had any concerns about his ability to be impartial." Still, Osterman was concerned enough to initiate the ethics inquiry.

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