University of Texas to Review Report on Gas Fracking Impacts

The University of Texas at Austin will assemble a group of independent experts to review its February report on gas fracking after reports said the professor who led the study is on the board of a gas driller.

The review could be completed in weeks, Steven Leslie, university provost and executive vice president, said in a statement yesterday. The university’s Energy Institute released a report Feb. 16 on the effects of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that was proposed and presented by Charles Groat, associate director of the Energy Institute and former director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Groat has been on the board of Plains Exploration & Production Co. since 2007, a relationship he didn’t disclose in the report. Raymond Orbach, director of the university’s Energy Institute, said that he learned of the connection from a Bloomberg reporter’s inquiry.

“We believe that the research meets our standards, but it is important to let an outside group of experts take an independent look,” Leslie said in a statement.

The university announced the Feb. 16 report with a headline entitled “New Study Shows No Evidence of Groundwater Contamination from Hydraulic Fracturing.” The study cost $270,000, none of which came from industry sources, according to university spokesman Gary Rasp.

Report Released

The Public Accountability Initiative, a Buffalo non-profit that says it focuses on corruption in business and government, this week released a report on the Groat study. The group receives funding from organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation and United Republic, which favor transparency in government.

As the U.S. enjoys a natural-gas boom from fracking, producers are supporting research at established universities that arrives at conclusions that counter concerns raised by critics, Bloomberg News reported on July 23. In some cases, such as the Groat study, industry ties are not fully disclosed.

In fracking, millions of gallons of chemically treated water and sand are forced underground to break up rock and allow gas to flow. The Texas report found that while there have been surface spills of fracking wastewater, there is no evidence of groundwater contamination from fluids injected thousands of feet below the surface.

Some environmental groups say fracking threatens drinking water and have called for curbs on the process. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study of the potential impact of fracking on ground water.

Board Member

As a board member, Groat receives 10,000 shares of restricted stock a year, according to company reports. His holdings as of March 29 totaled 40,138 shares, worth $1.6 million at the July 19 closing price. He also receives an annual fee, which was $58,500 in 2011, according to filings. Houston-based Plains Exploration is fracking in shale formations in Texas, company spokesman Ed Memi said in an e-mail.

“Dr. Groat has been reminded of his obligations to report all outside employment per university policy,” Leslie said. “If the university had known about Dr. Groat’s board involvement, the Energy Institute would have included that information in the report.”