UT Energy Institute Creates Three-Person Panel To Review Controversial Fracking Study

Alex Raisch

After an insurgence of public doubt, UT has named a three-person panel to review geology professor Charles Groat’s research study on hydraulic fracturing, a gas extraction method. Groat failed to reveal ties to the oil and gas industry, violating UT standard procedure on outside employment.

The panel does not have a time limit for reviewing the study. Gary Rasp, a spokesman for UT’s Energy Institute, which published the study, said any consequences Groat may face for failing to reveal ties are still unknown and appropriate action will be taken by UT Provost Steven Leslie.

“Provost Leslie has agreed to follow the panel’s recommendations regardless of what the panel finds. We will wait to see the panel’s conclusions and recommendations, which will give us guidance on how to proceed” Rasp said.

The panel is made up of three experts from varying fields and includes Norman Augustine, a former CEO of Lockheed Martin, a U.S. company specializing in emerging energy capabilities; James Duderstadt, a University of Michigan science and engineering professor and Rita Colwell, former president of the National Science Foundation.

Leslie ordered the review after reports by the nonprofit Public Accountability Initiative revealed Groat was a paid member of Plains Exploration and Production, a Houston oil and gas company.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of injecting sand, water and chemicals to harvest natural gas from shale beds underground. Groat’s study concluded there was no evidence to support that fracking led to the contamination of groundwater in the area.

“I ask that the panel assess the impact of Dr. Charles Groat’s failure to disclose his affiliation with Plains Exploration and Production both in the report and to the university,” Leslie said in a letter to Cowell in early August released to The Daily Texan. “Furthermore, I ask the panel to evaluate the impact Dr. Groat’s position as a member of the Plains Exploration and Production board of directors may have had on the substance of the report.”

Geological sciences professor William Fisher, a former dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences, said he does not believe this scandal will affect UT’s tier one research status.

“It’s hard to comprehend something that would constitute something so grievous as to affect tier one status,” Fisher said. “Tier one is built up from a lot of things, not just one particular publication.”

Fisher said a scandal where a professor takes money to alter his study is virtually unheard of.

“I’ve been here 52 years, and this is not anything I’ve seen,” Fisher said.

Lauren Birks, a research student in the McNair Scholars Program, which supports undergraduate student research to prepare them for doctoral work, has also never heard of an incident of this kind happening. If the panel finds that Groat did have a conflicting interest, Burks said she could see how that might tarnish UT’s image.

“I’ve never heard of a professor taking under-the-table money,” Birks said.