UT’s scape’Groat’

In July, UT garnered unwelcome attention when the Public Accountability Initiative, a Buffalo-based non-profit, reported that the Plains and Exploration Company (PXP), which extracts natural gas from Texas shale using hydraulic fracturing or fracking, had paid UT geology professor Charles “Chip” Groat $413,900 to serve on its board, more than twice his professor’s salary. This was problematic because Groat had led a UT Energy Institute research team that issued a study in February concluding no direct link exists between fracking and groundwater contamination.

The University reacted by publicly admonishing Groat—University Provost Steven Leslie told reporters, “Dr. Groat has been reminded of his obligations to report all outside employment per university policy,” and announcing in August a three-person panel of outsiders unaffiliated with UT to review the Energy Institute’s fracking study. But if the episode’s only takeaway message is that Groat misled the University, larger points have been missed:

Groat’s PXP board membership was one of several problems the PAI report identified in the UT fracking study. Both the Texan, in an editorial published prior to PAI’s report, and PAI in that report questioned the UT Energy Institute’s press release about its study, which oversimplified the findings by stating: “Study Shows No Evidence of Groundwater Contamination from Hydraulic Fracturing.” The study itself was a 400-page-long review of news coverage about fracking and previously reported scientific findings rather than new experimentation, along with numerous typos and editing marks, the study contained 54 sources, which were cited in the text but not found in the listed references. The PAI report declared a claim by Energy Institute Director Ray Orbach “that the report was peer reviewed” unfounded.

“[I]t doesn’t appear it was even edited,” the PAI report said about Groat’s study.

A university with so many ties to the oil and gas industry should have taken abundant cautions before endorsing a report so apparently favorable to that industry, particularly since questions about industry-funding conflicts related to fracking research had arisen previously when Pennsylvania State University researchers released a 2009 report. When easily identifiable and quite frankly embarrassing mistakes were pointed out, the University should have taken ownership of the problem instead of simply seeking to scapegoat Groat.

An August press release announced the three-person review panel and gave the reason for the inquiry: “Groat failed to disclose ties to the energy industry. That failure to disclose information has generated controversy about the reliability of the report.” The press release made no mention of the exaggerated, original press release, which both the PAI and the Texan noted was chiefly responsible for the propagation of a misrepresentative conclusion, or the study’s other errors such as the unfounded sourcing.

Unquestionably, Groat should have reported his potential conflict. But, as the UT ethics rules stood at the time, Groat was not required to fill out a financial disclosure conflict of interest form because the Energy Institute study was funded by the university. The UT Board of Regents recently expanded those disclosure requirements in an August 23 meeting. Kevin Connor, a PAI researcher, told The Texan he learned about Groat’s board membership and payment from PXP “by Googling his name.” If Connor could use Google to find Groat’s potentially conflicting PXP board position, why didn’t UT officials before giving Groat’s report the go-ahead at least check if he still had outside employment and if it was with an oil and gas company? That and the other errors PAI raised were ones a more scrutinizing employer could have found. The notion that Groat’s failure to disclose his PXP payment represents the whole or even crux of the problem with the UT Energy Institute study creates too convenient a rationalization for a university that aspires to be a leading authority on energy issues but has in recent months failed to show leadership or authority.

Printed on Tuesday, September 4th, 2012 as: UT's scape 'Groat'