There are dark clouds hanging over the streets and fields of this country, clouds filled with dirty money that rains down on media newsrooms, think tanks, congressional committee members and university research institutes with the intention of buying influence. At a time when the economy is weak and funds are scarce, these backroom contributions are intended to sway the opinions of those that the public has entrusted to provide accurate information on critical issues, where public and environmental safety are often directly pitted against the profits of those providing the money.
Fortunately, there are cracks between those clouds, formed by watchdog groups, who see to it that sunlight can still shine through so that the corrupting influence of these dark forces can be exposed for what they are.
Take the fracking debate that has been heating up all over the land.
Following the lead of the tobacco and the oil industries, natural gas producers have attempted to use doubt as a means to forestall any meaningful action to regulate their activities, despite clear evidence of contamination of water supplies, earthquakes and other environmental consequences that they would prefer to see left underground. They have funded a number of university research programs to bolster their claims and add legitimacy to their arguments while playing fast and loose with the facts.
But now they have been caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Three times in the past three months, university research programs funded by oil and gas interests have been discredited due to lack of scientific rigor and conflicts of interest.
Most recently, at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Charles Groat resigned in the midst of controversy when an independent review of a study performed by a team he led found numerous errors and flaws, as well as a conflict of interest.
The study, entitled, “Fact-based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development,” claimed that there was no link between fracking and water contamination. However, when a watchdog group called the Public Accountability Initiative uncovered the fact that Dr. Groat was on the payroll of a natural gas fracking company called Plains Drilling and Exploration to the tune of $1.6 million, an independent investigation was ordered. As the result of the investigation, Dr. Raymond Orbach, the head of the university’s Energy Institute, also resigned. No doubt both of them will have jobs waiting for them in the gas industry.
The same group blew the whistle on similar shenanigans at the State University of NY at Buffalo. This time, it was a study by the university’s Shale Resources and Society Institute which was shut down after independent reviewers found that the study showed “significant bias towards the oil and gas industry.”
The grassroots effort that exposed the corruption included English professor Jim Holstun, who challenged the credibility of the report, along with a petition containing 10,500 signatures. The ensuing investigation revealed, once again, that one of this study’s authors, John P. Martin, also had financial ties to the industry.
Finally, a similar fiasco-to-be was nipped in the bud at Penn State, when several faculty members withdrew from a similar study in progress. Without any faculty participation, the study could not be published under Penn State’s name. The advocacy group, Marcellus Shale Coalition, paid $148,000 for three previous studies, but pulled the plug on this latest one when the faculty members declined to participate.
The whole thing became, in the words of Michael Arthur, co-director of Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, and one of the faculty members who refused to take part in the study, “a hot potato,” after the previous studies were exposed as advocacy by the nonprofit Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. The earlier reports were co-written by Tom Considine, who has since left Penn State for the University of Wyoming, where he apparently still works closely with the oil and gas industry. Those reports failed to disclose their industry funding sources.
I’m not at all sure that this kind of corrupt backroom maneuvering is what made the U.S. the great economic powerhouse that it is today, though I expect, human nature being what it is, that there was always a certain amount of this kind of thing going on.
But I would much rather believe that it mostly came from the kind of innovation that I wrote about last week regarding this very same subject.
We have discovered a relatively clean and very abundant energy source beneath our very feet. But the only way we know how to get at it today is dirty, dangerous and potentially devastating to our environment. So, we have at least two ways that we can proceed. One is to lie and pretend that there really is no problem, or spread misinformation and doubt so that we can go in and get that energy right now. A second way is to use our ingenuity to develop more advanced methods to get that energy in a way that is safe and non-polluting, even if it might cost a bit more. Then, of course, there is a third way, which is to rethink our relationship to energy consumption and to redesign our cities, homes, and transportation systems so that we use far less energy than we do today. Keeping in mind that our thoughts of today create our world of tomorrow, which approach would you prefer to see us pursue?
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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