Feb. 6 (Bloomberg) -- New York’s study of potential links between hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes may be tainted by the selection of a university geologist and gas-industry consultant to lead the review, drilling critics said.
Robert Jacobi was picked by the Department of Environmental Conservation for a seismology study as part of its environmental review of the drilling process known as fracking, Lisa King, an agency spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. Jacobi is a University at Buffalo professor and has advised drillers for two decades.
“It raises questions about whether the DEC is just following the lead of industry on this or is taking their work seriously,” Kevin Connor, director of the Public Accountability Initiative, a Buffalo-based group that studies ties between business and government, said in an interview. “Is there a pattern of regulatory capture at the DEC?”
It’s the second time the agency under Governor Andrew Cuomo has picked a consultant on fracking that raised concerns. A 2011 study on the economic effects of fracking was conducted by a firm that says it helps companies secure permits for pipeline and gas-storage projects.
Jacobi, who has taught at the state university for more than 30 years, has advised various gas drillers since 1994, according to a resume released by the university. He has been a senior geology adviser for Pittsburgh-based EQT Corp., a natural gas drilling company, since last year.
Consultants used by the state should be “be free of conflict and impartial,” Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an e-mail. “It is not good optics to retain consultants who are viewed as not meeting this standard.”
Jacobi said his EQT role doesn’t pose a conflict with the state work.
“I was contracted by EQT to provide consulting services relating to their geology program, projects and initiatives,” Jacobi said in an e-mail. “In the same manner, I was hired as a consultant to provide services for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.”
Jacobi said his focus has been on identifying and predicting faults and fractures and implications for fracking and storing carbon underground. He has won research grants from agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey and Energy Department.
Jacobi has also worked for groups that oppose fracking, such as the Concerned Citizens of Cattaraugus County in western New York, Emily DeSantis, a DEC spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. He’s considered the premier geologist on fault lines in New York state, publishing more than a half-dozen articles and reports over the last decade, she said.
His findings will be included in an environmental study due Feb. 13, DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens said Feb. 4 at a legislative hearing in Albany.
“Is he independent enough to provide sound information to regulators?” Connor said. “It’s muddied by the question of a current financial conflict of interest.”
Martens said he asked for the seismic review after New York City officials questioned the potential effects of fracking on the tunnels that carry drinking water from upstate reservoirs to the city.
“We hired an outside independent expert to look at the issue,” Martens said.
The agency also hired Gene Florentino, principal geologist for Lancaster, New York-based Ecology and Environment Inc., to work on the seismology study, King said. His company produced the August 2011 report on economic impacts from fracking.
The company “positioned itself to respond to industry demands for permitting well development and take away pipelines required to move shale gas to market,” according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing for the year ended July 31.
Florentino declined to comment in a Feb. 4 phone interview.
Researchers have said wastewater from fracking, which is injected underground, may be tied to an increase in earthquakes in the central U.S. Demand for disposal wells has increased as fracking for gas in shale has expanded. The technique, in which a mix of water and chemicals is shot into shale to free trapped gas, also produces millions of gallons of wastewater for each well.
New York has banned fracking as it studies its effects on the environment and develops regulations. The drilling process poses a dilemma for Cuomo, a 55-year-old Democrat, as he balances the prospect of the type of economic development seen in North Dakota and Pennsylvania against calls from environmental groups that say drilling will damage drinking water supplies and make farmland unusable.
“Governor Cuomo made a promise to let the science alone drive his decision,” Katherine Nadeau, water and natural resources program director for Environmental Advocates of New York, said in an e-mail. “If he intends to keep that promise he must empower unbiased experts openly, and honestly review fracking’s true public health and environmental impacts.”
Jacobi served as a director of the Shale Resources and Society Institute at the University at Buffalo, an office that SUNY shut seven months after it opened citing ties to the industry the college’s president said cast a “cloud of uncertainty” over its work.
Jacobi’s resume was released by the university in a report on the institute. It showed that from 1994 until 2008 he was a consultant to drillers such as Talisman Energy Inc. and Anschutz Corp. From 2007 to 2011, he was director of special projects for Norse Energy Corp.
The institute released one report that found drillers in Pennsylvania had reduced by half the rate of blowouts, spills and water contamination since 2008.
“He was getting paid for this, and even the most well-intentioned person can’t help but be a little biased as a result,” state Senator Tony Avella, a Queens Democrat, said in an interview yesterday.