Charles Groat

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'

After an insurgence of public doubt, UT has named a three-person panel to review geology professor Charles Groat’s research study on hydraulic fracturing, a gas extraction method. Groat failed to reveal ties to the oil and gas industry, violating UT standard procedure on outside employment.

The panel does not have a time limit for reviewing the study. Gary Rasp, a spokesman for UT’s Energy Institute, which published the study, said any consequences Groat may face for failing to reveal ties are still unknown and appropriate action will be taken by UT Provost Steven Leslie.

“Provost Leslie has agreed to follow the panel’s recommendations regardless of what the panel finds. We will wait to see the panel’s conclusions and recommendations, which will give us guidance on how to proceed” Rasp said.

The panel is made up of three experts from varying fields and includes Norman Augustine, a former CEO of Lockheed Martin, a U.S. company specializing in emerging energy capabilities; James Duderstadt, a University of Michigan science and engineering professor and Rita Colwell, former president of the National Science Foundation.

Leslie ordered the review after reports by the nonprofit Public Accountability Initiative revealed Groat was a paid member of Plains Exploration and Production, a Houston oil and gas company.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of injecting sand, water and chemicals to harvest natural gas from shale beds underground. Groat’s study concluded there was no evidence to support that fracking led to the contamination of groundwater in the area.

“I ask that the panel assess the impact of Dr. Charles Groat’s failure to disclose his affiliation with Plains Exploration and Production both in the report and to the university,” Leslie said in a letter to Cowell in early August released to The Daily Texan. “Furthermore, I ask the panel to evaluate the impact Dr. Groat’s position as a member of the Plains Exploration and Production board of directors may have had on the substance of the report.”

Geological sciences professor William Fisher, a former dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences, said he does not believe this scandal will affect UT’s tier one research status.

“It’s hard to comprehend something that would constitute something so grievous as to affect tier one status,” Fisher said. “Tier one is built up from a lot of things, not just one particular publication.”

Fisher said a scandal where a professor takes money to alter his study is virtually unheard of.

“I’ve been here 52 years, and this is not anything I’ve seen,” Fisher said.

Lauren Birks, a research student in the McNair Scholars Program, which supports undergraduate student research to prepare them for doctoral work, has also never heard of an incident of this kind happening. If the panel finds that Groat did have a conflicting interest, Burks said she could see how that might tarnish UT’s image.

“I’ve never heard of a professor taking under-the-table money,” Birks said.

While the independent review of UT’s fracking study is still ongoing, University officials said they do not intend to update the study with an acknowledgment that geology professor Charles Groat is a paid board member of Plains Exploration & Production Co., a company that performs hydraulic fracturing.

UT encountered criticism last week after the Public Accountability Initiative, a nonprofit watchdog group, reported Groat, the fracking study’s lead author, and his involvement with the company. University officials said they do not plan to amend the study online.

“It would raise more questions if we began to edit the report that exists online before that review is complete,” UT spokeswoman Tara Doolittle said. “It would also be inappropriate to remove a published report from the public view, particularly given the questions that have been raised about it.”

According to the watchdog group’s report released last Tuesday, Groat made $413,900 through Plains Exploration & Production Co. in 2011. Since then, the University has by criticized by the Public Accountability Initiative and various Internet blogs for not including Groat’s board position on his fracking report. The study concluded that fracking does not impose an environmental threat to groundwater.

Provost and executive vice president Steven Leslie announced Wednesday that the University would hire an external, independent team of experts to review the report. Doolittle said the panel has not yet been selected.

“We are still working on the panel,” Doolittle said. “Once the members are identified, I’m sure we’ll note that in some way on the Energy Institute site, but we will not alter the content of the report while the review is being conducted.”

Despite the plans to review, Doolittle said the University and Energy Institution do not think the report is flawed.

“Aside from the issue of disclosure, which has been widely reported, we have received no evidence that the research itself is flawed,” Doolittle said. “That will be for the independent review to decide.”

Groat has not returned The Daily Texan’s requests for comment.

The University will hire an outside group of experts to review a UT professor’s now controversial study regarding the effects of fracking, a method used by many companies to extract natural gas, on the environment.

Provost and Executive Vice President Steven Leslie announced UT’s intent to review geology professor Charles Groat’s fracking study Tuesday after media reports surfaced that Groat received compensation from an oil company during his research, which turned out to be false. Last week, the Public Accountability Initiative, a non-profit public interest research watchdog group, reported Groat has been a member of the Plains Exploration & Production Company’s board for several years. The company does hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Texas and other places around the country. Since the report came out, critics have claimed Groat’s financial ties to the company present a conflict of interest.

Environmentalists have opposed fracking because of concerns to its impact on groundwater. Groat’s report on fracking, which was published by UT’s Energy Institute, claims that fracking has a minimal effect on groundwater contamination.

“The most important asset we have as an institution is the public’s trust,” Leslie said in his statement. “If that is in question, then that is something we need to address.”

UT spokeswoman Tara Doolittle said the team of experts to review Groat’s research has not been selected yet.

“We are working on that now, but we have not identified who they will be yet,” Doolittle said. “We hope it will be soon.”

Doolittle said she did not have an exact timeline for the selection of the team of experts. In his statement, Leslie said UT hopes to have an evaluation on Groat’s study within a few weeks.

Since the Public Accountability Initiative’s report on Groat’s ties came out last week, critics have said Groat should have disclosed his position on the Plains’ board in the study. Doolittle said employees are required to annually make requests for employment outside the University, and while Groat had done so in the past, he did not do so this year.

Leslie said in his statement that Groat was reminded of his obligations to report all outside employment.

“If the University had known about Dr. Groat’s board involvement, the Energy Institute would have included that information in the report,” Leslie said.

Groat did not immediately return The Daily Texan’s request for comment. He told the Austin American-Statesman Tuesday that he did not think revealing his role with the Plains Exploration & Production Company was necessary because he did not write the final report. Groat said he merely coordinated the work of other researchers who wrote the report.

There is no direct link between fracking and contamination of groundwater, according to preliminary results of a study by UT’s Energy Institute.

Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, involves shooting high-pressure water mixed with sand and other chemicals into shale rock causing it to shatter and release natural gas. Though fracking has been used for decades, environmentalists have recently become concerned the process may be polluting ground water, said Charles Groat, geology professor and Energy Institute associate director and project leader.

Research began in May to separate fact from fiction, Groat said. He said the Barnett, Marcellus and Haynesville shales, areas which range from Northeast Texas to the Northeast U.S., have been scientifically tested.

“The basic thing we found out was that the subject so many are concerned about is not actually happening,” Groat said.

Reports of groundwater contamination are rare, Groat said, and when they occur, fracking is not to blame. Rather, above-ground leaks, the mishandling of waste water and poor casing or cement jobs could be causing the contamination.

“If you spill something or something leaks, those are things you have to pay attention to,” Groat said. “Those are problems with anything, though, and not specific to shale fracking.”

This study covers a six-month period and Groat said much more research is needed to find the long-term, cumulative effects and risks of fracking. His study will continue for the remainder of 2011, but he said he recommends an additional baseline study be implemented to learn more about long-term effects.

“Things go on in and around the surface that we need to pay attention to,” Groat said. “Accidents happen, but being educated can prevent them.”

For the remainder of the study, Groat and his team will interview residents of fracking areas, review popular media concerns of fracking and make suggestions on government regulations of the method.

Electrical engineering freshman Shawn Bhalla said he will feel more comfortable about fracking when more research is done.

“I still think there needs to be more safety precautions set in place,” Bhalla said. “I think we will be able to frack with more efficiency [after more research is done.]”

Electrical engineering junior Leonardo Gomide said this study proves how much scientists still need to learn.

“This really shows how little we know about what we are doing to the environment and how quickly things change in the engineering field,” Gomide said.

Printed on Thursday, November 10, 2011 as: Energy Institute research disproves harmful effects of fracking