Jim Efstathiou August 28, 2012
Controversial ... a Cabot Oil and Gas natural gas drill at a hydraulic fracturing site in Springville, Pennsylvania. The Marcellus Shale Gas Field extends through parts of New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Photo: Getty Images
A US university faculty is seeking more information on industry ties to an institute created to study fracking for natural gas.
A group of 83 professors and staff from the State University of New York at Buffalo has requested documents on the founding and funding of the school's Shale Resources and Society Institute, according to an August 23 "open letter" to the university administration in the UB Reporter, an online faculty newspaper.
The institute released a report in May that didn't acknowledge "long-term" ties by its authors to the gas industry while it seeks more than $US1 million in corporate funding.
A US boom in natural gas production from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has raised concerns that ties between industry and academic research may compromise scholars' independence. Other universities have responded to similar concerns.
"A number of questions have been raised about whether the institute was really intended to provide independent academic inquiry," the faculty members said in their letter.
"Only complete transparency can dispel the shadow now cast over UB."
A university spokesman, John Della Contrada, did not return a phone call or email seeking comment on the faculty action.
In fracking, millions of litres of chemically treated water and sand are forced underground to break shale rock and free trapped gas.
While shale gas production has lowered energy prices, created jobs and enhanced national security, fracking has been blamed for groundwater contamination.
Regulators in New York have banned fracking while environmental rules are drafted. The New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, is considering a plan that would allow fracking in five counties near the Pennsylvania border.
In April, the newly formed Shale Resources and Society Institute issued a report that found drillers in Pennsylvania had reduced by half the rate of blowouts, spills and water contamination since 2008.
Potential environmental problems could be "entirely avoided or mitigated" under New York's proposed rules, the shale institute's report says.
The Public Accountability Initiative, a Buffalo non-profit organisation that focuses on corruption in business and government, said the report contained errors and didn't acknowledge "extensive ties" between its authors and the gas industry.
Last month the University of Texas at Austin announced it would convene a group of independent experts to review its February study on gas fracking after reports that the professor who led the study is on the board of a gas drilling company.
Charles Groat, associate director of the university's Energy Institute and former director of the US Geological Survey, proposed the study, selected the researchers, edited its summary and presented it to the American Association for the Advancement of Science on February 16.
Mr Groat also sits on the board of Plains Exploration & Production Company, a relationship he didn't disclose in the report or to his boss. Company filings show that last year he received more than $US400,000 in compensation from the Houston company, which has fracking operations in Texas.
The university announced on August 14 that Norman Augustine, former chief executive of the defence contractor Lockheed Martin, will lead the panel. Mr Augustine is also a former board member at the oil and gas producer ConocoPhillips.
Kevin Connor, president of the Public Accountability Initiative, said Mr Augustine's ties to the oil industry raise questions about the panel's independence.
Mr Augustine over almost 20 years received "millions of dollars" in stock and compensation from ConocoPhillips, Mr Connor said.
"It is extremely troubling that the university chose an energy industry insider to chair the panel," Mr Connor said in a statement.
Steven Leslie, the university's executive vice president and provost, said one of the reasons that he wanted Mr Augustine "to take the lead of this committee is because of his long-standing board relationship with Conoco".
"Because we want the truth, we wanted to have this panel led by someone who knew all of the elements in detail and who had credentials and reputation that were impeccable," Mr Leslie said in an interview.
Mr Augustine is a former member of the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The panel's other members are James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, and Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation.
Pennsylvania State University now requires faculty research to be submitted to university officials before it is published, said Michael Arthur, co-director of the school's Marcellus Centre for Outreach and Research. A 2009 report on the economic impact of gas drilling in Pennsylvania's portion of the Marcellus shale was released without disclosing industry funding.