Revised conflicts of interest statement published for methane emissions study

Madlin Mekelburg

UT faculty announced Monday that the University will continue to review its conflict of interest policy, weeks after chemical engineering professor David Allen came under fire for his involvement in a hydraulic fracturing study. 

The study was published in a national science journal, which allegedly neglected to disclose several conflicts of interests, including those of Allen.

The study, led by Allen and published in “The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,” or PNAS, sought to clarify gaps in current scientific literature by taking measurements of methane emissions from 190 hydraulic fracturing — better known as fracking — sites across the country. UT officials said that the review is routine.

The study received criticism from bloggers and public accountability organizations, including the Public Accountability Initiative, following its
publication because a statement issued with the study said the authors asserted no conflicts of interest.

The correction noted Allen’s previous involvement with ExxonMobil, one sponsor of the methane study, as a consultant in 2012.

Juan Sanchez, vice president for research at the University, said the University requires all researching professors to disclose any potential conflicts of interest.

“There is a ‘conflict of interest official’ at the University that will look at those disclosures and, either [by] himself or in collaboration with others at UT, will make a determination on if the financial interest is a conflict of interest or not,” Sanchez said.

Hillary Hart, Faculty Council chairwoman and civil engineering lecturer, said Monday that UT faculty and staff are in the process of creating a new conflicts of interest policy more specific to campus while the UT System is finalizing a new general policy. Hart said these policies should be complete by the end of
the semester. 

The updated statement addresses several of the questions raised by accountability organizations, including the employment of the study’s co-author Jennifer Miskimins. The study originally stated she only worked at the Colorado School of Mines, but the revised statement acknowledges she was working at Barree & Associates, a company which provides fracking-related services as well. Miskimins declined to comment for the story. 

UT spokesman Gary Susswein said researching professors only disclose their own potential conflicts of interest to the University, not those of collaborating professors. Susswein said science journals have a separate conflict of interest policy all authors have to go through.   

Allen said he followed the standard method of disclosing potential conflicts of interest when submitting the study for publication and requested that all co-authors of the study detail any potential conflicts. He said the co-authors originally claimed no reportable conflicts of interest.

“When questions were raised at the time of publication about whether our disclosure was complete, I immediately contacted the PNAS editorial staff and all of my co-authors, requesting additional information,” Allen said. “We submitted all of the additional information provided by the authors to the PNAS editorial staff. The PNAS editorial staff then decided what additional information should be provided along with the article.”

The Public Accountability Initiative also criticized the study for the high level of involvement of industry sponsors that helped fund the study and host the researchers at the well sites. Allen said the involvement of the companies was essential because it allowed the researchers to have access to the sites and the ability to install measurement tools.

“In analyzing and interpreting measurements, the companies often had detailed technical understanding of the operations that helped inform the data analysis,” Allen said. “While the companies provided input at all stages of the study, it is important to note that all of this input was provided with parallel input from Environmental Defense Fund and the Scientific Advisory Panel.”

Allen said the attention the study has received is warranted because of the subject matter of the study.

“We performed this work because of the lack of measurement data on methane emissions in natural gas production,” Allen said. “The amount of attention that the study has received is an indication of the need for data on this important topic.”

The Public Accountability Initiative did not respond to requests for comment.

Clarification: The first sentence of this story was revised for clarification. It originally read: “UT faculty announced Monday that the University will review its conflict of interest policy, weeks after chemical engineering professor David Allen came under fire for his involvement in a hydraulic fracturing study.”