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Column Let’s make sure ‘frackademia’ has no place in Ireland

We tend to assume that science equals ‘truth’ – but when fracking is the issue this isn’t always the case, writes Sian Cowman.

WE TEND TO assume that science is truth. Recently this has been proven false. In February of this year, those following the controversy around the natural gas drilling technique known as fracking saw headlines proclaiming ‘Study reveals fracking does not cause water contamination.’

Here was a study that gas industry officials could tout as proof that claims of contaminated water due to fracking are nonsense.

Until it emerged that the chief investigator of the study, Charles G. Groat, sits on the board of a Texas fossil fuel company, owns extensive shares in that company, and failed to disclose his conflict of interest.

The study was funded by the Energy Institute at The University of Texas. On their website, the Institute states that it “funded an independent study of hydraulic fracturing in shale gas development to inject science into a highly charged emotional debate.”

But according to the Public Accountability Initiative, who disclosed the conflict of interest, “the report was released as a rough draft and not ready for public release, and… the university’s press push around the report significantly mischaracterises and oversimplifies its findings.”

In fact, the section that contains the main finding of the report, that fracking does not contaminate groundwater – “Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Development” (pdf) – says on the first page “This section is still in draft form.”

Grey area

As well as that, the PAI stated that the central claim of the study – that fracking does not contaminate groundwater – “relies on a highly-specific and misleading definition of fracking.” What they mean by this is that the terms ‘hydraulic fracturing’ and ‘fracking’ can be understood in different ways.

To the industry, the terms mean the actual process of pumping fluids into the ground. When they talk about fracking they don’t include all the other associated processes, such as drilling, setting off explosions, storing waste water in containment ponds, injecting waste water into underground storage wells, transporting waste or gas, burning off gases, and more.

Even though the terminology used in Groat’s study may be a grey area, I believe that we should be able to trust in the impartiality of science. Unfortunately this kind of industry co-opting of scientific studies is becoming more common than you’d think. In some places university research that involves fossil fuel industry money or experts with industry ties has been dubbed ‘frackademia’.

Are we safe from frackademia in Ireland? In 2011, the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commissioned a report on fracking from the University of Aberdeen, which was subsequently published in May of this year. Concerns have been raised about the impartiality of the university.

Research funding

In a debate in the Oireachtas, Deputy Patrick Nulty asked Minister Pat Rabbitte for “his views on whether the university’s research will be impartial in view of the fact that this university is the hub of the oil and gas industry for the North Sea and also receives generous funding from the same industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter.”

Minister of State Fergus O’Dowd defended the university, saying that: “There is no question of getting a biased or one-sided report [...] Aberdeen University and other high quality universities are objective.”

The University of Aberdeen EPA report had one author, Dr David Healy. A quick search on the university’s staff pages reveals that two of Dr Healy’s research funders are Total E&P UK and BG International. Total E&P UK is part of Total Group, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, and BG International is “a world leader in natural gas”.

Dr Healy has said that while he does have some research projects funded by the hydrocarbon industry, he also has other funding sources, including national research councils and charitable bodies. “There is no bias,” he said.

It’s impossible to know if his report for Ireland was biased or not. But his report for the EPA did reference the compromised U of T study extensively, quoting it as one of “few published, peer-reviewed scientific reports into the potential environmental impacts of fracking,” when it was anything but. Even before the revelation about Groat’s conflict of interest, this study should not have been used as a source for the Irish report, given that sections are marked ‘draft’.

Industry influence?

On the plus side, Dr Healy’s report said that Ireland’s geology would require extensive study before fracking could take place. He also recommended extensive and careful monitoring in Ireland if fracking were to go ahead. But how would this be possible with the moratorium on hiring civil servants and the chronic under-funding of bodies such as the EPA?

The EPA are now in the process of commissioning a second report on fracking in Ireland. They responded to the recent calls for research free of industry influence by saying it “would be unlikely that anybody commissioned to write a thorough report on fracking in Ireland would not have some knowledge or experience of the fossil fuel industries.”

What they say is true – any researcher into fracking would have to have knowledge of the fossil fuel industry. But the issue is with researchers who are funded by industry.

There is a possible way to do this. German officials are dubious about fracking, and in North-Rhine Westphalia, officials have commissioned a study into fracking and are making researchers sign an affirmation (link in German) that they do not have any ties to the fossil fuel industry. The Irish EPA should do the same. Let’s make sure science is truthful.

Sian Cowman works with Young Friends of the Earth, a network of environmental activists that work to take action together to solve the environmental and social justice crises our planet faces. If you would like to get involved or learn more, you can contact

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