Professionalism/Raymond Orbach, Charles Groat, and Fracking Research

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Background[edit | edit source]

Fracking, the shorthand phrase for hydraulic fracturing, is a type of drilling on land to get natural gas and crude oil.

Hydraulic fracturing[edit | edit source]

How does hydraulic fracturing work? According to Iain Stewart, a geologist, "[From the ground surface]. The drill goes down vertically, and it's going down, ultimately about 2 miles, but the point is that when it gets to depth, it does something really clever. It starts to bend 'round, and it goes horizontal. And then what happens, is you inject down millions of gallons of water, tons of sand, some chemicals, all the way down here. And what that does, is it fractures open naturally occurring cracks in the rock, and you create these fracs. And that allows gas that's been locked away in the rocks to leak out, and then move back to the surface."[1]

Policy debate[edit | edit source]

Hydraulic fracturing is a divisive issue in the United States. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 51% of Americans opposed fracking while 36% favored it, with the majority of Republicans favoring it and the majority of Democrats opposing it.[2] In recent years fracking has stimulated the production of natural resources in the U.S. such as oil and natural gas, stimulating the economy and increasing energy independence. Since 2000 the amount of natural gas and oil retrieved from fracking has increased, and in 2015 67% of all natural gas and 51% of all oil produced in the U.S. was from hydraulic fracturing [3][4]. Fracking provides energy companies with millions of dollars in oil and natural gas a day, which are used for transportation, heating, and electricity generation across the United States, however it faces heavy opposition because of its potential impact on the environment.

These opponents argue that fracking can result in increased fossil fuel reliance, increased earthquake incidence, methane leaks, and chemical pollution of drinking water. Furthermore, fracking involves the use of millions of gallons of fresh water which cannot be recovered due to the harmful chemicals that are added during the fracking process. A documentary called Fracking: the New Energy Rush demonstrates some of these concerns. A group of investigators led by Robert B. Jackson from Duke University examined the water methane levels of hundreds of private residences near a fracking site. Methane detectors that the group brought would go off near tap water sources in these residences and the group also demonstrated that the water was so saturated with methane that it could be lit on fire. This over-saturation of methane gases extended in a large radius around fracking wells. Jackson's group found methane levels that were 17 times higher than normal levels over a kilometer away from a fracking well. The group ultimately concluded that the methane leaks were likely due to mistakes made while sealing the fracking well and that a fracking well that was properly made should not have these effects. However, they noted that it is unlikely that fracking wells are ever properly constructed.[1] The concerns around increased fossil fuel reliance are closely related to the supply and demand of fossil fuels. Fracking increases the fossil fuel supply which in turn drives prices down. The drop in price allows people to use more of the fossil fuels.

Fracking Research[edit | edit source]

Many controversies surround research on hydraulic fracturing and its environmental impacts in the United States, one prominent figure in this controversy is Weston Wilson. In 2004 the EPA released a report on the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing which concluded "the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into CBM wells poses little or no threat to USDWs and does not justify additional study at this time." [5]. Weston Wilson, an environmental engineer working for the EPA at the time, blew a whistle on this report. In 2004 Wilson wrote a letter to congress claiming the EPAs conclusions contradicted their other finding that fracking does inject toxic fluids into underground sources of drinking water, and that five of the seven members on the peer review panel supporting the decision appeared to have conflicts of interest, and that they "may benefit from EPA's decision not to conduct further investigation or impose regulatory conditions" [6]. The members Weston Wilson identified included a petroleum engineer for BP Amoco, a technical advisor for Haliburton Energy Services, an engineer for the Gas Technology Institute, and two former employees of BP Amoco and Mobil Exploration [7]. Wilson was featured in the 2010 documentary Gasland, he left the EPA in 2010 when he retired after over 37 years of service as an environmental engineer [8].

The stakes for regulating or continuing with fracking are very high, and it is important that policy decisions be made based on unbiased and accurate research.

Charles Groat and the Disclosure Controversy[edit | edit source]

Charles Groat was a principal investigator at the University of Texas’ Energy Institute. While he was at the university, he released a paper reviewing the environmental risks of fracking. His paper suggested that the environmental risks of fracking were minimal. As the paper was distributed for review, many critics found that the paper was unbalanced in its analysis. Most agreed that Groat was downplaying the risks of fracking. As news of the paper spread, The Public Accountability Initiative (PAI), a watchdog organization, decided to look into Groat’s background. During their investigation, the PAI found that Groat was a paid board member of the Plains Exploration and Production Company (PXP). PXP has vested interest in fracking since it is the means through which company extracts natural gas. The PAI also found that Groat was paid upwards of 1.5 million dollars as a PXP board member. Groat’s failure to disclose his conflict of interest drew public outcry. Under pressure of this outcry, the University of Texas commissioned an outside panel to investigate.  The members invited were, Norman Augustine, the former National Academy of Engineering Chair, Rita Colwell, former National Science Foundation Director, and James Duderstadt, former President emeritus of the University of Michigan. Ultimately, the commission found that there was no definitive evidence of intentional data misrepresentation by Groat.  However, they agreed that the overall design, review, and release of the paper was flawed compared to contemporary standard. They also concurred with many critics that the paper was very unbalanced in its review. Just prior to the commission’s release of their findings, Charles Groat resigned along and the Energy Institute’s Director, Raymond Orbach, stepped down.

Ethics[edit | edit source]

The National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics writes that "Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner", and that "Engineers shall issue no statements, criticisms, or arguments on technical matters that are inspired or paid for by interested parties, unless they have prefaced their comments by explicitly identifying the interested parties on whose behalf they are speaking, and by revealing the existence of any interest the engineers may have in the matters" [9]. Publishing research without identifying potential conflicts of interest such as funding or inspiration is a violation of this code of ethics and of public trust. Researchers may feel they can conduct unbiased research regardless of where they get their funding from, and thus not have to identify it, however funding plays a role in shaping the field of research as a whole and the public deserves to see how it is doing so. Research that is not funded dies out regardless of its validity, and so funding biases a field of research even if the researchers themselves are completely unbiased, therefore not identifying conflicts of interest is allowing companies to turn research into a tool to advance their own agenda. Policy makers and the general public rely on valid, unbiased, and professional research to make their decisions, and researchers have a responsibility not to mislead them for their own or their funders benefit. The ethics violations found in fracking research damage the reputation of the field as a whole and bring into question the validity of all fracking research. In order to regain public trust and allow informed policy decisions to be made, greater transparency and ethics is needed among fracking researchers.

The Charles Groat case also raises questions regarding the distribution of responsibility. While Groat was the person who released the paper, the energy institute should also bear some responsibility for failing to catch Groat's conflict of interest. The University of Texas commission tasked with investigating the case seemingly agrees, stating that not only was the design and release of the paper flawed but also the review process. Some similar cases in other fields have seen more of the blame shifted to those tasked with oversight. For example, the FDA approved a new drug called Baycol to treat for high cholesterol in 1999. Shortly later, it was found that Baycol caused more than 100,000 deaths due to kidney damage. The FDA took much of the blame and Baycol is often considered one of the worst approval decisions that the FDA has made.

This fracking controversy is part of a larger debate over the role of funding in research. A related case is the role soft drink companies such as Coca Cola play in obesity research. Coca Cola has reportedly funded many researchers who question the negative effects of weight gain and sugary drinks [10]. Coca Cola has an invested interest in the effect of their product on consumers, as do fracking companies, so they will fund research in that field. It is the responsibility of researchers to identify any conflicts of interest to keep the field trustworthy, unbiased, and ethical.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. a b [1], Fracking: The new energy rush [Video file]. (2013). Retrieved April 29, 2017, from
  2. Swift, A. (March 30, 2016). "Opposition to Fracking Mounts in the U.S."
  3. EIA. (May 5, 2016) Hydraulically fractured wells provide two-thirds of U.S. natural gas production.
  4. EIA. (March 15, 2016). Hydraulic fracturing accounts for about half of current U.S. crude oil production.
  5. EPA. (June, 2004). Evaluation of Impacts to Underground Sources of Drinking Water by Hydraulic Fracturing of Coalbed Methane Reservoirs.
  6. Wilson, W. (October 8, 2004). Letter to Congress.
  7. Wilson, W. (October 8, 2004). Letter to Congress.
  8. Wilson, W. (October 11, 2011). Exclusive: EPA Whistle-Blower Warns EPA Must Not Buckle to Industry Pressure and Greenwash Fracking Yet Again
  9. NSPE. (July, 2007).
  10. Belluz, J. (October 20, 2015). The obesity paradox: Why Coke is promoting a theory that being fat won’t hurt your health.