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Fissures appear in scientists’ assurances about safety of fracking

Nexen’s Inc.’s shale gas rigs in the Horn River Basin, B.C. are pictured. Fracking, which involves blasting large volumes of water and chemicals into deep layers of shale rock in order to release trapped pockets of natural gas, has been criticized by environmentalists.

David Olecko/Nexen

When the research team from the University of Texas at Austin took the stage at the Vancouver Convention Centre early this year, they knew they had a big audience.

Journalists from around the world were attending the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting and many of them had come to the press conference, where a new study on the environmental impacts of fracking was to be released.

Across North America, including in British Columbia where gas exploration is booming, the industry has been under intense scrutiny. One concern is that groundwater is contaminated when a chemical-laced slurry is injected deep underground, to release gas by fracturing rock formations.

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Charles Groat, of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, promised big news on that front. And he didn't disappoint, delivering a definitive statement that the widely held environmental concerns about fracking were simply unfounded.

"The bottom line [is that] we found no direct evidence that hydraulic fracturing itself – the practice of fracturing the rocks – had contaminated shale groundwater or was causing concerns," said Dr. Groat at the February event.

That was then. Now a review panel appointed by the University of Texas has taken a hard look at Dr. Groat's report, and has concluded his study "fell short of contemporary standards for scientific work."

Not only was the work suspect, reported the panel, but Dr. Groat himself was in a troubling conflict of interest.

"In studies of controversial topics, such as the impact on public health and the environment potentially stemming from shale-gas hydraulic fracturing, credibility hinges upon full disclosure of any potential conflicts of interest by all participants and upon rigorous, independent reviews of findings. This study failed in both regards," stated the panel, which released its findings Friday.

"Dr. Groat, failed to disclose his material financial relationship as a member of the board of directors of Plains Exploration and Production, a gas exploration and development company," stated the panel, which was appointed to investigate after a non-profit group, the Public Accountability Initiative, raised questions about the independence of the research.

"When asked at the [Vancouver] press conference … about the independence of the work … [Dr. Groat] replied, 'This study was funded entirely by University of Texas funds,' not taking the opportunity to comment on his own financial interests," stated the review panel.

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The Globe and Mail and other major media covering that press conference reported that the University of Texas had found there was no evidence to support concerns that fracking damages groundwater.

"You were misled," said Kevin Connor, director of the Public Accountability Initiative, who raised questions on Dr. Groat's conflict. "The science isn't there."

Mr. Connor said Dr. Groat's report, which the University of Texas has now withdrawn, is similar to a fracking study at the State University of New York at Buffalo, which was also recently withdrawn because of questions about its credibility.

"I think the oil and gas industry is really desperate to go full speed ahead with fracking, and through various means and mechanisms are trying to get out in to the public debate, academic studies that absolve the industry," he said.

In a press release, accepting the findings of the review panel and announcing strict new conflict-of-interest guidelines, the University of Texas noted that Dr. Groat has since retired and Raymond Orbach has resigned as director of the Energy Institute.

In British Columbia, where the gas industry is racing to tap into vast shale deposits in the northeast, the government has been assuring first nations that fracking is not causing any environmental harm. The groundwater is safe, the government says. It is now clear there is reason to doubt that.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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