UT Energy Institute

Greg Nemete, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, speaks at the energy symposium hosted by the University of Texas Energy Institute on Thursday evening. Nemete’s presentation covered his research on alternative energy systems and the influences of energy policies on the public. 

Photo Credit: Jenna VonHofe | Daily Texan Staff

Students can measure their energy use through technological tools.

That’s what Greg Nemet, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin in the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, told students during an energy symposium Thursday in the Peter O’Donnell
Jr. Building.

Nemet, who studies models of alternative energy systems, explained how energy policies influence the lives of college students. His research shows students should be able to analyze their energy use with technological tools.

“Young people have more at stake on energy and climate issues than anyone else,” Nemet said. “My greatest source of optimism in addressing these profoundly difficult challenges is that we have lots of smart people setting out on careers and thinking about ways
to engage.”

The energy symposium discussed research methods that could explain the process of technological change in energy and its interaction with public policy. 

Nemet talked about the influences of past technological changes and the effects of energy policies on future technological outcomes. 

The talk was held by the UT Energy Institute, a body of scholars from multiple schools and research institutes within UT, whose members study a variety of energy issues. The Institute holds weekly energy symposiums with different speakers to introduce students and faculty to energy
policy questions.

Carson Stones, global policy studies graduate and teaching assistant for the symposium, explained how attendees benefit from the Institute’s events.

“Attendees can expect to get access to cutting-edge research, which is highly relevant to today’s most difficult energy questions,”
Stones said.

The Institute gives students the opportunity to broaden their educational experience by creating a community around energy issues of importance to the University. The talks are organized around four main pillars: policy, education, research and
commercialization.

International relations and global studies senior Alaina Heine said she attends the weekly events and explained how the insights of different speakers
influence students.

“Learning about a holistic look on energy, politics and economics gives a different view of every sector,” Heine said. “The level of speakers is incredible and allows students the opportunity to speak with graduate students with
different viewpoints.”

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.”

In July, UT garnered unwelcome attention when the Public Accountability Initiative, a Buffalo-based non-profit, reported that the Plains and Exploration Company (PXP), which extracts natural gas from Texas shale using hydraulic fracturing or fracking, had paid UT geology professor Charles “Chip” Groat $413,900 to serve on its board, more than twice his professor’s salary. This was problematic because Groat had led a UT Energy Institute research team that issued a study in February concluding no direct link exists between fracking and groundwater contamination.

The University reacted by publicly admonishing Groat—University Provost Steven Leslie told reporters, “Dr. Groat has been reminded of his obligations to report all outside employment per university policy,” and announcing in August a three-person panel of outsiders unaffiliated with UT to review the Energy Institute’s fracking study. But if the episode’s only takeaway message is that Groat misled the University, larger points have been missed:

Groat’s PXP board membership was one of several problems the PAI report identified in the UT fracking study. Both the Texan, in an editorial published prior to PAI’s report, and PAI in that report questioned the UT Energy Institute’s press release about its study, which oversimplified the findings by stating: “Study Shows No Evidence of Groundwater Contamination from Hydraulic Fracturing.” The study itself was a 400-page-long review of news coverage about fracking and previously reported scientific findings rather than new experimentation, along with numerous typos and editing marks, the study contained 54 sources, which were cited in the text but not found in the listed references. The PAI report declared a claim by Energy Institute Director Ray Orbach “that the report was peer reviewed” unfounded.

“[I]t doesn’t appear it was even edited,” the PAI report said about Groat’s study.

A university with so many ties to the oil and gas industry should have taken abundant cautions before endorsing a report so apparently favorable to that industry, particularly since questions about industry-funding conflicts related to fracking research had arisen previously when Pennsylvania State University researchers released a 2009 report. When easily identifiable and quite frankly embarrassing mistakes were pointed out, the University should have taken ownership of the problem instead of simply seeking to scapegoat Groat.

An August press release announced the three-person review panel and gave the reason for the inquiry: “Groat failed to disclose ties to the energy industry. That failure to disclose information has generated controversy about the reliability of the report.” The press release made no mention of the exaggerated, original press release, which both the PAI and the Texan noted was chiefly responsible for the propagation of a misrepresentative conclusion, or the study’s other errors such as the unfounded sourcing.

Unquestionably, Groat should have reported his potential conflict. But, as the UT ethics rules stood at the time, Groat was not required to fill out a financial disclosure conflict of interest form because the Energy Institute study was funded by the university. The UT Board of Regents recently expanded those disclosure requirements in an August 23 meeting. Kevin Connor, a PAI researcher, told The Texan he learned about Groat’s board membership and payment from PXP “by Googling his name.” If Connor could use Google to find Groat’s potentially conflicting PXP board position, why didn’t UT officials before giving Groat’s report the go-ahead at least check if he still had outside employment and if it was with an oil and gas company? That and the other errors PAI raised were ones a more scrutinizing employer could have found. The notion that Groat’s failure to disclose his PXP payment represents the whole or even crux of the problem with the UT Energy Institute study creates too convenient a rationalization for a university that aspires to be a leading authority on energy issues but has in recent months failed to show leadership or authority.

Printed on Tuesday, September 4th, 2012 as: UT's scape 'Groat'

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

Carey King, research associate of the Jackson School of Geosciences, gives opening remarks for the UT Energy Symposium Kick Off Thursday evening.

Photo Credit: Kat Loter | Daily Texan Staff

Students will have a new way to engage with energy experts after the UT Energy Symposium kicked off with a talk Thursday on the ways energy consumption has changed society.

The symposium, a new guest speaker series on energy issues hosted by the UT Energy Institute, featured Carey King, a research associate at the Jackson School of Geosciences and research fellow at the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, as its first guest lecturer. King discussed energy’s effects on the economy, society, environment and public policy.

“As time goes on, energy uses change,” King said. “Before the era of fossil fuels, basically, you spent all of your time farming. Then, instead of horses and buggies, we had tractors and combines. Energy consumption for food production dropped to three hours a day. So what do we do then? Well, you might spend that time and energy in school listening to a lecture.”

King said energy is more than just a field devoted to scientists because fuel, whether in the form of a sandwich providing nutrition or gasoline powering a car, is consumed by all human beings. The symposium will present information not generally available to undergraduates at a level they can understand, King said.

Students registered for the symposium will receive a one-hour credit for taking part in the lectures if they have received clearance from their academic departments, but public affairs graduate student Kristen Lee said she had other reasons to register.

“I’m really interested in natural resources and environmental policy, and energy is a big part of that,” Lee said.

After King’s lecture, Lee said she is more excited about upcoming speakers.

“I really enjoyed it,” Lee said. “I thought he was really eloquent. I’m really looking forward to the variety of speakers.”

Spokesman Gary Rasp said the Energy Institute decided to create the 15-week lecture series in an effort to offer the student body greater access to energy experts and increase undergraduates’ participation after receiving feedback that indicated a niche for the series existed.

“We had learned from interacting with students and faculty that there was a real hunger on campus for an energy-related speaker’s program,” Rasp said. “Once we gauged that appetite, we thought it would be very beneficial to our student body.”

The Institute selected Varun Rai, an associate professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, to direct the symposium. Rai teaches a course on the political economy of global energy and advanced policy economics. He said he originally envisioned the symposium as an interconnected network of students and professors holding a dialogue with top energy experts. Rai said that while many undergraduates showed interest, there was little interaction between experts in different disciplines that addressed the broad scope of energy related industries, technologies and policy.

“The biggest challenge is to allow undergraduates to hear from the best of the best to explore work and research,” Rai said. “We wanted to bring everyone together, so students would hear from the best.” 

Printed on September 2, 2011 as: Symposium educates on energy issues.