Pushing reset at the Energy Institute

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On Tuesday, UT announced that Thomas Edgar, a chemical engineering professor, will be promoted to interim director of the research-scandal-plauged UT Energy Institute. We hope Edgar will bring fresh air and cultural change to the Institute, which last year presented and published a study ridden with grammar and citation errors that concluded that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) does not directly cause groundwater contamination. In July, the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI), a Buffalo-based nonprofit, reported that the Plains and Exploration Company (PXP), which extracts natural gas from Texas shale using fracking, had paid one of the study’s authors, Charles “Chip” Groat,  former UT geology professor, the author of the study in question, $413,900 to serve on its board, more than twice his professor’s salary. “It doesn’t appear it was even edited,” the PAI report said about Groat’s study. After a University-appointed task force reviewed the study and the possible conflicts of interests its publication and PXP’s payments to the professor created, Groat retired and Ray Orbach, then director of the Energy Institute resigned. Temporarily replacing Orbach, Edgar wants to move on, but the damage inflicted as a result of the flawed study, its author’s conflicts of interest, particularly given the funding the University receives from the oil and gas industry, scarred UT’s reputation.

“We had a case of [a] report [that] did not get finished officially before the presentation deadline to be adequately reviewed,” Edgar said in an interview with the Texan recently, “So that was one of the problems [with] the nature of the report from a purely technical standpoint … [but that] has nothing to do with the conflict of interest situation with Dr. Groat.”

Edgar has several clear goals that he believes will raise the Institute’s profile favorably. He intends to make the pre-publication review processes more rigorous “so that something that goes out the door isn’t going to be subjected to criticism later because we didn’t do our due diligence … I personally will be reviewing anything that goes out the door as well.”

Edgar also wants to make the Institute’s idea-generating mechanism more far-reaching by soliciting faculty from outside the Institute’s walls, citing the “science, engineering, law and business schools” as resources for future study ideas.

What does Edgar think about fracking? Do we know enough to drill with the new technology at the feverish rate at which companies are doing so, specifically in South Texas?

He avoids taking sides: “I believe fracking can be done in a responsible way, as long as people behave responsibly and do the right thing… I personally think that we need to be open about this, we need to let people know what’s going on, we also need to know, is there any impact of doing this? It’s a matter of public record to divulge this, we can’t just say, ‘No, it’s proprietary,’” he says about recent efforts to force fracking companies to divulge the list of chemicals they use. Have the staff and faculty at the Institute resisted Edgar’s effort to change its culture?

“The people who were considered to be the cause of the problems are not here anymore,” he said. “I’m looking at restructuring what we do here, we’re going to have a lot more people involved focusing on what we are trying to accomplish rather than what has happened in the past, and that hopefully is going to recharge what we’re doing.”