We here at the Current let out our own little sigh of frustration when UT professor Charles "Chip" Groat and his team presented some preliminary findings of their supposedly-independent report on fracking last November. Headline writers across the state (hell, country) had a field day citing Groat et al's work saying fracking, the process of shooting chemically-charged water thousands of feet underground to break up oil- and gas-rich shale (like South Texas' own Eagle Ford), isn't linked to groundwater contamination -- a seminal concern for environmentalists that have criticized the practice. The dailies reacted with similar vigor when the group released the final version of its report this February with a press release heralding: "New Study Shows No Evidence of Groundwater Contamination from Hydraulic Fracturing."
The real findings of the 400-plus page report were, of course, much more involved. Unlike the EPA's findings in Pavillion, Wyoming, Groat's team found no such direct link between fracking and water contamination. Still, researchers cited a number of other issues surrounding the process, like surface spills of toxic flow-back or well blowouts -- which the study found were under-reported -- that could put groundwater at risk.
But first impressions matter, and the buzz around Groat's report delivered a glowing one for industry (he presented November's findings to a Fort Worth audience of industry reps, O&G regulators and local officials).
So why the rosy press release touting the final report? The Buffalo-based Public Accountability Initiative has this answer: Groat himself has a big stake in oil and gas.
In a report the group released this week, titled "Contaminated Inquiry", PAI outlines how Groat since late 2006 has sat on the board of directors for Houston-based oil and gas drillers Plains Exploration and Production (PXP). It's something he didn't disclose in the report or to UT officials, who told the Austin American-Statesman they only recently found out about Groat's connection to the company when a Bloomberg reporter started sniffing around for a story on university researchers with ties to industry delivering industry-friendly reports. Bloomberg's report this week mentioned Groat in a troubling review of other industry-friendly university research on fracking, saying "producers are taking a page from the tobacco industry playbook: funding research at established universities that arrives at conclusions that counter concerns raised by critics."
SEC filings show that since 2006 Groat has received over $400,000 in cash payouts and over $1.3 million in stock for his work with PXP. In 2011, Groat's compensation from PXP, a mixture of cash and stock, came in at $413,900, more than double his 2012 UT salary of $173,000. His total PXP stock holdings are valued at $1.62 million.
"Groat said in a number of places that this report wasn't dependent on industry funding, and while that technically may be true, the fact that he has this big undisclosed conflict of interest is really significant," said Kevin Connor, an author of this week's PAI report. "Why would industry pay for the study when they're already paying the lead author of the report?"
Charles "Chip" Groat
Connor added: "There was an extreme disconnect between the content of that report and the press release, which was picked up far and wide . . . It highlighted this very industry-friendly message, and it was clearly led by a gas industry insider."
Groat answered some questions via email Tuesday, telling the Current he only organized the fracking report, coordinating research and reporting those results. Said Groat:
"[T]he nature of my role as organizer of the report did not in any way influence or modify the results of the study which were determined by the individual investigators. Therefore my connection with PXP had no bearing on the outcome of this study. Clearly there are those who would like to use this connection to discredit the study and there is nothing I can do or say to diminish the perception they are fostering. The Public Accountability Initiative report takes great liberties with interpreting information in ways that build their impugning of our report."
Still, why didn't Groat disclose his relationship with PXP from the start? His answer:
"That was my call. Since I knew I would not influence the results I didn't feel it was relevant. Obviously others feel differently about the need for disclosure and I don't dispute their reasons for feeling this way."