Is Oil Industry Funding of a Fracking Study a Problem? Let's Ask an Oil-Funded Expert

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Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

Is Oil Industry Funding of a Fracking Study a Problem? Let's Ask an Oil-Funded Expert

The New York Times had a report yesterday (9/18/13) on a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on methane releases associated with natural gas fracking. The study, Times reporter Michael Wines writes, "bolsters the contention by advocates of fracking–and some environmental groups as well–that shale gas is cleaner and better than coal, at least until more renewable-energy sources are developed."

Wines was upfront about the fact that the study was backed by energy companies with a financial stake in its results. But he suggested that that really wasn't such a big problem:

The study's connection to the petroleum industry–among its sponsors and financiers are Shell, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Exxon Mobil and Chevron–may lead some to question its objectivity, some outside experts said. But most said the research and the reputations of the researchers appear solid.

"Previous studies that have gotten a lot of attention have had red flags jumping out all over them. This one didn't," said Michael A. Levi, the director of the program on energy security and climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations. In an e-mailed statement, Shell’s president, Marvin Odum, called the study "a prime example of key groups–that may not have the exact same interests–working collaboratively and taking a science-based approach" to the methane problem.

So the president of Shell doesn't think that Shell's sponsorship of the study is anything to worry about–that's not a big surprise. But the guy from the Council on Foreign Relations didn't see any "red flags"–that's reassuring, right?

That depends on how eager you are to be reassured. CFR, like most establishment think tanks, gets funding from the corporate sector. In the case of CFR, these funders are called "corporate members." If you look at the roster, under the category of "Founders" (those who give "$100,000+"–per year, I assume, though that isn't clear), you'll find Exxon Mobil and Chevron (as well as Hess, another oil company). Included in the "President's Circle" (donors of at least $60,000) is Shell (along with BP). A number of other oil companies are listed as "Affiliates."

So to find out whether oil industry funding might have influenced a study, Wines went to someone who works for a think thank with numerous oil industry funders–including at least three of the companies who funded the study in question. And he didn't see any "red flags."

But perhaps Michael Levi isn't aware of his institution's petroleum backing? Perhaps CFR insulates its scholars from the influence of its funders (though in promoting "corporate membership," CFR sure gives the impression that corporate donors get the run of the place).

Well, Levi's full title is David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change. And who, you might ask, is David M. Rubenstein?

Aside from being a vice chair of CFR's board of directors, he's the co-founder and co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, one of the world's largest private equity firm, noted for its ties to George W. Bush, James Baker and other high-level political figures. Energy is one of the investment fields Carlyle specializes in, and it recently escalated its energy holdings by buying a $424 million stake in NGP Energy Capital Management (for "Natural Gas Partnership"). Discussing the NGP purchase, Rubenstein (Bloomberg, 12/20/12) explained, "Energy, and particularly carbon-related energy, is the single most attractive global area in which to invest today."

And his senior fellow for energy and the environment doesn't think energy industry backing is a problem for an environmental study. Not much of a surprise there, either.

What might Wines have learned if he had talked to–and quoted–an expert who didn't have the same kind of energy industry ties that made the study at hand so problematic? Steve Horn of Desmog Blog (9/16/13) might have pointed out to him that "one of the report's co-authors currently works as a consultant for the oil and gas industry, while another formerly worked as a petroleum engineer before entering academia"–something many people would consider a "red flag."

Horn could also have pointed him to the critique of the study by Cornell University's Robert Howarth, who noted that "this study is based only on evaluation of sites and times chosen by industry":

Many other scientists have proven over the past 2 years that you can measure methane emissions from gas development without industry cooperation, for instance by using aircraft to fly over operations. Many studies have now been published, and many more presented at national scientific meetings, on methane emissions using techniques which capture the emissions at regional scales and do not require industry permission to sample… All of these studies are reporting upstream [well pad] emission estimates…10- to 20-fold higher than those reported in this new paper….

How can we explain this huge discrepancy?… [Industry does] it better when they know they are being carefully watched. When measurements are made at sites the industry chooses and at times the industry allows, emissions are lower than the norm.

So non-industry-funded studies have consistently found much higher rates of methane release, and there's reason to believe that those results are more comprehensive. That's kind of a red flag, wouldn't you say? Or maybe you wouldn't–if your salary depends in part on the generosity of Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Shell.

Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas is editor of EXTRA! Magazine at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He is the co-author of Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website.

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