Scientist behind tainted fracking study now heading major Gulf restoration project


The scientist named to oversee the research arm of Louisiana’s massive Gulf restoration project left behind a major ethics scandal at the University of Texas, where a panel has blasted his role in authoring a deeply flawed pro-fracking paper without disclosing that he’s been paid $1.5 million over five years as a board member of a drilling company.

Charles “Chip” Groat — also a former director of the U.S. Geological Survey — was announced as February as the incoming first president of the non-profit The Water Institute of the Gulf, or TWIG, which has received $1 million in taxpayer funding from Louisiana and additional support from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The group’s mission is to provide the scientific underpinnings as officials prepare to spend more than $17 billion to restore the Gulf Coast, with some of the funding expected from settling claims against BP for the 2010 spill.

But the same month that Groat’s appointment was announced, a major academic scandal began brewing over his work as director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas in Austin. Groat was the primary author of a report — which received widespread media attention — claiming no link between hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas and groundwater contamination. Although it contained caveats, the paper was seen as a boost for the oil-and-gas industry at a time when increasing episodes of water and air pollution from fracking, as well as a possible link to earthquakes, were making headlines.

But questions emerged about the report — as well as criticism — almost immediately. In July, a watchdog group called the Public Accountability Initiative revealed that not only was the report’s evidence for lack of a pollution link seriously flawed, but that Grout had failed to disclose his ties to a major fracking company. It was learned that the Texas professor had been paid an estimated $1,5 million in cash and stock as a director of Plains Exploration and Production Company, a major drilling firm. The group noted that Groat’s 2011 compensation of $400,000 was double what he had received from the university — yet Groat’s industry ties were not disclosed in the report, nor were they known to his boss at the school’s Energy Institute.

In August, the University of Texas commissioned an independent three-member panel to review both Groat’s paper and the circumstances behind it. Its report was issued late last week, and it is a scathing indictment of what some critics called “Frackademia” — growing conflicts of interest with industry-backed or tainted research — and of Groat’s ethical conflicts in this instance. In addition to blasting the professor’s failure to disclose his industry ties, the independent analysis outlines a number of fundamental flaws in the research, including:

  • Because of “inadequacy” in conflict of interest policies at UT at the time, “conflict of interest and disclosure policies were largely ignored.”
  • The report itself was presented as having scientific findings, but much of it was in fact “based on literature surveys, incident reports and conjecture.” The review goes so far as to say that “the term ‘fact-based’ would not apply to such an analysis” and it lacked a “rigorous, independent review” of its findings.
  • The summary of the study, which was widely distributed and trumpeted by a UT press release, failed to include many of the caveats within the actual report. Some of the conclusions were “tentative,” the review says, and the press release and presentation of the report at a scientific conference in February was “inappropriately selective” and “seemed to suggest that public concerns were without scientific basis and largely resulted from media bias.”
  • The study was also not ready for distribution, as Public Accountability Initiative noted in July. The drafts in the study “were not subjected to serious peer review and therefore were not ready to be considered for public release as fact-based work.”

The report finds that Groat’s research is so badly tainted it should be completely withdrawn, and it calls for new procedures at the University of Texas to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. Meanwhile, Groat — who initially only took a leave of absence from the university — has now resigned, although he claims that’s because of his new job in Louisiana and not because of the scandal. The head of the Energy Institute has also resigned.

What does Groat have to say for himself?

Chip Groat, the UT professor at the center of the controversy, says in an email to StateImpact Texas that he should have made a disclosure. ”However, I continue to be disturbed by the assumption by many that a university faculty member with financial connections to industry cannot be unbiased,” Groat writes. “This blanket indictment isn’t fair to most faculty members or most industries. I am also concerned that my retirement is being linked to controversies related to the report. My retirement is linked to my very fulfilling position in Louisiana, which began February 1 when I took leave from the university, before any controversy emerged. Since I am no longer affiliated with UT, I will leave this unpleasant episode behind me.”

Seriously? Look, this is a lot worse than just an “unpleasant episode,” and it is heavy baggage that Chip Groat will carry with him for the rest of his career.

In the big picture, this “episode” shows that the rise of “Frackademia” needs to come to a crushing halt, that our top independent research universities need to say ‘no” to the corrupting influence of easy cash from Big Oil and Gas. This was not an isolated incident — a similarly tainted report also emerged this year from the State University of New York at Buffalo — and people who want a clean environment and good health need to stay vigilant to prevent or expose similar conflicts.

Closer to home, Chip Groat has demolished his credibility to guide the very important The Water of the Gulf project. He needs to resign his position, or else the project’s directors need to replace him immediately. The Gulf Coast has been battered in the last decade, first by Hurricane Katrina and then by BP’s negligence; it’s critical that the dollars that have been freed up to restore the coastline and our quality of life be spent as wisely, and as ethically, as possible. Groat is not up to that task.

To read coverage from about the formation of The Water Institute of the Gulf, please check out:

To read news coverage from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about the Groat-authored report, go to:

The Public Accountability Initiative’s work on “Frackademia” can be found here:

Last week’s report from StateImpact Texas on the independent report critical of Groat and the University of Texas can be found here:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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