The attack of the frackademics

March 11, 2013

Peter Rugh examines the corporate-backed public relations campaign to portray natural gas as "clean" energy--and hydraulic fracturing as environmentally sound.

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S decision to appoint Dr. Ernest Moniz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as the next Energy Secretary has placed new scrutiny on academics who promote hydraulic fracturing, as well as on the oil and gas industry public relations machine.

MIT's Energy Initiative, which Moniz directs, has received more than $125 million from fossil fuel corporations since 2006, when seed money from BP, Shell, Saudi Aramco and the Italian energy giant ENI helped launch the project.

"We have concerns given the importance of this position at this time in history where it's becoming clear that we need to enact policies that will aggressively combat climate change," said Emily Wurth of the consumer advocacy group Food and Water Watch. "Dr. Moniz does not fit the bill."

In return for millions of dollars from the fossil fuel industry, Moniz's Energy Initiative has churned out research to the industry's liking--most notably a 2011 report which concludes that "environmental impacts of shale development are challenging but manageable," and that fracking is a "low-cost, short-term opportunity to reduce U.S. power sector CO2 emissions by up to 20 percent."

Frackademic goes to Washington
Frackademic goes to Washington

That report, entitled "The Future of Natural Gas," was produced in partnership with the educational (read: propaganda) nonprofit Clean Skies Foundation, which was set up by fracking tycoon Aubrey McClendon in 2007. McClendon was forced to step down last year as CEO of Chesapeake Energy, America's second-largest fracking firm, after Reuters revealed he was misappropriating millions in company funds for personal gain.

Clean Skies has its own, mostly Internet-based TV "news" network run by Branded News, the same outfit that operates an Internet channel for the National Rifle Association. The foundation's stated mission is to "educate the American public about clean energy--particularly natural gas [sic]."

The 2011 Energy Initiative/Clean Skies report formed the basis of testimony Moniz submitted to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources later that year.

ENTER BIOLOGIST Robert Howarth. Howarth has never been invited to give testimony on Capitol Hill, although his work has appeared in the weekly newspaper The Hill, which covers policy goings-on in Washington.

Back in 2011, Howarth was awaiting the release of a report he and his colleagues at Cornell University had been preparing for the past year and a half when he read something in the paper that startled him. Someone had illicitly obtained a copy of Howarth's report, the first comprehensive analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from hydraulic fracturing, and passed it to The Hill just days before Howarth and his team were set to go public with their findings.

"The industry was promoting shale gas as something that might actually be good for global warming," said Howarth, "because it puts out less carbon dioxide to get the same amount of energy compared to oil or coal." But his report, primarily funded by his university with a grant from the Park Foundation, estimates that, on average, between 3.6 percent and 7.9 percent of any given fracking well leaks methane into the atmosphere--and methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Based on these findings, Howarth says the greenhouse footprint of shale gas exceeds oil and coal.

But the article in The Hill attempted to cast doubt on Howarth's research ahead of its publication. Christopher Van Atten, a vice president with the oil and gas consultancy firm MJ Bradley and Associates, is quoted, claiming that Howarth's information--which was gathered from Congress' Governmental Accountability Office, academic sources and the drilling industry's own data--is based on "several key assumptions that are highly uncertain or based on limited data points."

Among Howarth's fiercest critics were staffers at the Energy Initiative run by Ernest Moniz. Appearing on CNBC, Melanie Kenderdine, the Initiative's associate director, attacked Howarth's research and accused him of deviating from accepted scientific standards.

"I think there's a problem at MIT, and I'm sad about that," says Howarth, who earned his PhD there. "I'm very proud of them as an institution, but they have taken a lot of money from the oil and gas industry, and I think any objective observer can see it's influenced what they've put out in terms of research."

While touting the low-carbon footprint of natural gas produced from fracking, the paper by Moniz and researchers at the Energy Initiative barely mentions the impact of methane, except to briefly suggest that the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency conduct further research into emissions--an admission Howarth believes is due to his own work.

BUT THE blurry line between propaganda and science isn't only a problem at MIT. "The industry is increasingly funding studies across the country," said Wurth, of Food and Water Watch. "And it's not surprising that the studies they fund are in line with what the industry would like for them to be."

For example, last year, the State University of New York at Buffalo shut down its Shale Resources and Society Institute after the watchdog Public Accountability Initiative revealed the Institute had distorted data in a study examining the impact of regulations on fracking in Pennsylvania.

Researchers claimed regulations had reduced the environmental impact of fracking in the state, suggesting that drilling could be conducted safely in New York. But as the Public Accountability Initiative points out, "According to the report's own data, the rate of major environmental accidents actually increased 36 percent from 2008 to 2011" and "major environmental events increased 900 percent." It was later revealed that the report's lead authors had ties to the drilling industry, and that sections of the study were lifted from an earlier document written for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

In a separate incident, two researchers were forced to leave the University of Texas at Austin in December after publishing a report claiming that there was no link between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination. The report frequently lacked footnotes for its assertions. Plus, one of the researchers, Dr. Charles "Chip" Groat, failed to disclose the fact that he sat on the board of a fracking company--Groat had received $1.5 million in compensation from Plains Exploration and Production Co. at the time he released the report under the letterhead of the university.

Some unlikely players have also gotten mixed up in frackademia. Though it's since come under new leadership, the Sierra Club, a 120-year-old conservation organization, has up until recently promoted natural gas as a transition fuel. The group took funds from frackers, including approximately $25 million from Chesapeake Energy, to go after the corporation's competitors in the coal industry. Some of that cash went toward funding research at Carnegie Mellon, which purports to prove that fracking has a lower greenhouse gas footprint than coal.

Without frackademics at their disposal to back up their claims, drillers would have little evidence to justify their assertion that pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground in order to suck out oil or gas is environmentally responsible. Exclude well-funded "scientists" like Moniz, and the pro-fracking field is narrowed considerably--mainly to smiling corporate salespeople and misinformed residents of dying agricultural towns who have been lured by the prospect of leasing their land.

Take the new film Frack Nation, an attempt to counter Gasland, the award-winning movie that helped inspire spreading anti-fracking protests. Frack Nation director Phelim McAleer claims his movie was financed by the "99 percent" through the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, but donors include the head of publicity for Cabot Oil and Gas.

And Cabot got some bang for their bucks. The film portrays two anti-fracking residents of the Pennsylvania town of Dimock as lone crazies--even though their water became flammable after fracking got underway. Energy in Depth also got its money's worth. The drilling industry PR group helped raise funds for Frack Nation and has sponsored screenings.

Throughout the movie, McAleer works hard to convince viewers that the only people who want to halt fracking are wacko environmentalists and Vladimir Putin. That's right, Putin. Frack Nation suggests that Russia's iron-fisted prime minister and his friends in the Russian financial oligarchy are funding the anti-fracking movement in the U.S. so that Russia can corner the global gas market by itself.

BUT IF the fossil fuel industry's lavishly paid-for research is so spot on and if their ads touting fracking's green credentials are so accurate, how can the drillers account for the hordes of people holding jars of contaminated water who banged on the doors of the American Natural Gas Alliance last summer in Washington, D.C.? Or the bans on fracking instituted by municipalities from Niagara Falls to Las Vegas? Or the residents of fracked communities who have chained themselves to equipment and blockaded roads leading to well sites?

They can't. And by now, despite the gas industry's best PR efforts, the word frack has become profane--even, fittingly, used as a substitute for the word "fuck" on the sci-fi show Battlestar Galactica.

Few politicians dare to utter the word--including Obama, who refers to fracking as "innovative drilling techniques." When he signed an executive order last year that established a task force aimed at shaking more gas out of America's shale, he alluded to fracking as the "development of unconventional domestic natural gas resources."

Even now that droughts in the Midwest and October's Superstorm Sandy have rendered climate change impossible to ignore, Obama continues to promote oil and gas drilling, prompting Stephen Stromberg in the Washington Post to describe the president's climate strategy as a "flying unicorn."

Given the dire warnings from the scientific community about climate change, Obama's approach might more accurately be portrayed as the Flying Unicorn of Climapocalypse--because, in essence, fracking fits right into Obama's imaginary efforts to tackle climate change.

In speeches, the president continues to tout natural gas as somehow related to clean energy. But a lot of Americans still aren't sold on the idea of injecting the planet with hydraulic needles packed with millions of gallons of frack fluid in order to bloat the pockets of oil and gas firms. Though Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz is also doing his best to convince us, the true science on fracking is getting out. Just ask all those people whose water is on fire.

A press liaison at the Energy Initiative said Moniz was unable to comment on this story--since the scientist was on a fundraising tour and would be meeting with energy companies all week.

First published at

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