Research on hydraulic fracturing continues as UT adapts new disclosure guidelines

Andrew Messamore

Research on hydraulic fracturing continues at UT as researchers adapt their policies to meet new University-wide conflict of interest guidelines.

A two-year study completed in February on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, by the Bureau of Economic Geology found the Barnett Shale gas reservoir of North Texas has reached peak potential and is set to remain viable while slowly declining in productivity through 2030. The Bureau of Economic Geology is a research unit in the Jackson School of Geosciences.

A separate study on fracking on the Barnett Shale is also under way in the UT Energy Institute, where researchers are examining the impact of fracking on water quality, water use and the possibility of fracking-induced earthquakes. The study is expected to be completed in the late summer or early fall. 

In the wake of two failures to disclose potential conflicts of interest in UT affiliated research last year, the UT System approved stronger disclosure policies. The new guidelines require an independent University official to determine whether a conflict of interest exists instead of leaving the determination up to individual research units. The guidelines also require researchers to disclose all outside funding regardless of its source.

One aspect of the new standards, which came into effect in January, requires that the University create a publicly searchable database of full-time faculty and staff for research approval requests and disclosures of professional activity outside of the University.

This database has not been launched, but the University hopes to create a functioning website by May, University spokesman Gary Susswein said.

The University has also required publicly available information on new research, including related press releases and FAQs, to disclose potential conflicts of interest in response to recommendations from a University commissioned report by an outside panel on research disclosure policy released last November. 

In a press release on the Geology study, researchers disclosed that the co-principle investigator of the study, Scott Tinker, sits on the board of three oil and gas companies and receives compensation from them. Two other researchers involved in the study own stock in oil and gas companies, the press release said.

“The researcher complied very willingly to the new standards,” said John Bird, spokesperson for the Geology Foundation and the Jackson School of Geosciences. “They know it’s important to bolster public confidence in their research.” 

The Geology study, which was funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, has not released a full summary report of findings to the general public, although five separate manuscripts of findings are being peer reviewed by research publications.

Mark Blunt, program manager for the Bureau of Economic Geology, said the decision not to publish a summary report is made on a case-by-case basis.

“It was the decision made with this study,” Blunt said. “It depends on the type of research and what the topic calls for. There may be a summary article that might be prepared and submitted too in the near feature, but as far as a comprehensive review, that’s what’s been released in five separate manuscripts.”