Baking & fracking

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Does baking a cake make a mess in the kitchen? No, not literally. The chemical changes that occur when cake batter sits in a hot oven do not directly cause spills, greasy counter tops and other reasons for clean up.

Most bakers, however, will respond to that question about a mess more broadly. They will tell you “baking a cake” starts when they line up flour, eggs and sugar on a counter, ends when they confront a sink full of dirty dishes and definitely makes a mess.

Consider similar questions about the purported mess resulting from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking is a method of natural gas extraction, which involves injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into soft, shale rock underground.

To geologists, “fracking” is the isolated act of fracturing the shale for the purposes of gas extraction. But to so many others ­­— lawmakers, regulators and landowners, especially — “fracking” begins when a geologist instructs an energy company to drill a fracking well on someone’s property, ends when the company leaves the same property and definitely makes a mess.

This summer, the Governor of New York is reconsidering a 2008 moratorium on fracking in parts of New York state. As a result, protestors have once more thrown the question of fracking’s consequences into the national spotlight and tied up Albany phone lines. The protestors express fears that fracking will cause irreversible harm to groundwater. To the protestors, their concerns about fracking focus on both its before-and-after consequences ­­—­­ including ground spills and mishandling of wastewater.

Where does UT fit into this picture of cake-baking, fracking and New York protestors?

Start with the UT Energy Institute, which was founded in 2009 “on the notion that colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to conduct independent and impartial scientific research,” according to its website. The Energy Institute aims to “inject science and fact-based analysis into what is often a contentious dialogue, and in doing so bring clarity to the debate that shapes public policy on energy issues,” the website says.

In February, the Energy Institute published a study about fracking and distributed an accompanying press release bearing the headline, “Study Shows No Evidence of Groundwater Contamination from Hydraulic Fracturing”. The study specifically argues that the baseline data available about the groundwater sources fracking wells are purported to have contaminated is too limited. Therefore, the study argues, researchers cannot draw conclusions that fracking caused contamination.

Charles “Chip” Groat, a geology professor and the lead researcher on the study, said that researchers defined fracking in the isolated sense — apparently he means not in the broadly defined (as in cake-baking from flour spills to dirty dishes) sense.

The Energy Institute’s study also analyzed media coverage about fracking and assessed it as, overall, “decidedly negative.” Such negative media coverage, the Energy Institute study concludes, spawns the hasty and inaccurate assumptions about fracking causing groundwater contamination.

Read in its entirety, the study’s most compelling point calls for more research and more restraint: “[T]he most rational path forward … is to develop fact-based regulations of shale gas development based on what is currently known about the issues and at the same time, continue research where need for information to support controls in the future.”

But by using the headline “no evidence of groundwater contamination” in its press release, the Energy Institute oversimplified its own study’s conclusions and thereby contributed to the media’s misreporting about fracking.

The fracking debate needs clarity not oversimplification. The oversimplified headline of the Energy Institute’s press release errs on the side of favoring the fracking industry’s viewpoint. Notably, UT gets significant funding from companies with stakes in the natural gas industry.

Review of news stories published, broadcast or posted after the Energy Institute’s press release in February suggests that the headline dominated what reporters told the public. Most of the media coverage of the Energy Institute’s study failed to mention its finer points. For example, the point that better regulations are needed for processes related to natural gas extraction. CNN, Fox News, The Houston Chronicle and the Natural Gas Alliance all ran stories or emphasized a quote that parroted the press release’s headline. Notably, the Fort Worth Star Telegram captured the subtleties of the study, but only in a second-day story.

The Energy Institute’s study cost $270,000 to produce, according to a University spokesperson. The Institute’s $1.3 million operating budget, most of which comes from the state’s Available University Fund, paid for most of the study’s costs. Some funding for the study came from individual colleges, including $100,000 from the College of Engineering. Natural gas companies did not contribute directly to the funding of the study. There is no evidence that the researchers were influenced or conscious of any industry funding. But could all of the researchers be entirely unaware of UT’s money from natural gas companies?

Regulated and determined to be safe, fracking could be a boon for this state’s economy, and an answer to the worrisome questions about U.S. reliance on foreign oil. But by releasing a study in a hurry with an accompanying press release that ballyhooed conclusions about fracking not contaminating groundwater, the Energy Institute contributed to public confusion about the fracking industry. Within the realm of possibility: Further research will show fracking, or at least fracking-related processes, have environmental consequences. By coming out so hurriedly and with a press-release headline so strongly overstating the conclusions drawn by the study, the Energy Institute muddied the waters.

— The Daily Texan Editorial Board