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Tina Casey headshot

New Fracking Report Reveals Network of Deceit: Big Green Radicals Bite Back


Greenpeace has teamed up with a Colorado newspaper, the Boulder Weekly, to rip the thin veneer of academic cred away from the fracking industry's PR blitz in the state. According to the report, entitled Frackademia, the lobbying effort pivoted on industry-funded research conducted at the University of Colorado, Boulder Leeds School of Business.

Greenpeace itself was marked as a "Big Green Radical" in a separate oil and gas industry lobbying effort last year meant to undermine the credibility of several high-profile environmental groups, but apparently name-calling is not a particularly effective tactic against the organization.

Fracking and state fracking bans

In Colorado, local communities face an uphill climb when it comes to banning fracking, an oil and gas drilling method that involves pumping millions of gallons of chemical brine underground at high pressure. The oil and gas industry has successfully taken cities to court over local fracking bans, and cash-strapped communities are an uneven match with the industry's legal teams. High court decisions in Ohio and New Mexico have also cast a long shadow of doubt over the legal authority of local communities to restrict state-regulated energy sector activities.

The situation is different in New York state, which this year shifted from a long-running statewide fracking moratorium to an outright ban. While the moratorium was under way, local fracking bans had the support of an earlier decision confirming their right to ban fracking under their existing zoning powers, handed down by the state's highest court.

Zoning also factors into the fracking fight in Pennsylvania. In that state, one result of former Gov. Tom "wardrobe malfunction" Corbett's ties to the fossil fuel industry was an attempt to impose statewide zoning regulations in support of fracking. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against the new zoning scheme in 2013, and it also affirmed the right of local communities to impose fracking bans under their zoning powers.

Pennsylvania's new governor, Tom Wolf, reinstated a ban on fracking in state parks and forests when he took office in January, and under his tenure the state is cracking down on drilling violations. But he seems to have taken a statewide ban off the table, at least for now.

The fracking lobby focuses on Colorado

That brings us back around to Colorado and the new Greenpeace fracking report. Without a statewide ban, the fracking fight comes down to local communities, pitting local economic factors against public health and environmental risks. That's where a strong public relations effort comes in.

According to Greenpeace researcher Jesse Coleman, the CU-Boulder Leeds School of Business was "co-opted by fracking industry PR firms and the Koch brothers" to develop supposedly objective studies in support of fracking." The project involved a partnership between the school and the Common Sense Policy Roundtable (CSPR), which Coleman describes as "a front-group funded by the oil and gas industry:"

"This partnership was formed to produce economic studies that benefit the fracking industry’s PR strategy," Coleman said. "CSPR paid the university to host the studies and fully controlled the priorities of the researchers."

Specifically, Coleman cites a 2014 study, titled 2014 Fracking Ban Report:
"The report, published during a major political storm regarding local control over fracking, found that allowing affected communities to hold some regulatory power over fracking would hurt Colorado’s economy — a position favored by the industry. The report, which was paid for by CSPR, did not mention the group’s financial ties to the fracking industry."

Coleman further notes that CSPR is a "a nonprofit created by Starboard Group and EIS Solutions to control and fund the research conducted by the University of Colorado, Boulder," and that the timing of the study was part of a strategic plan developed by the two public relations firms. The findings were used to mobilize "grassroots" groups and to influence a state-level task force in support of fracking.

Documents obtained by Greenpeace and the Boulder Weekly also indicate additional CSPR-related economic impact research projects in which the funding industry exercised an unseemly degree of control -- namely, the American Petroleum Industry and associated trade groups such as the Western Energy Alliance.

The other University of Colorado fracking studies

While the fracking industry seems to have made friends over at the Leeds School of Business, earlier this year TriplePundit took note of another CU-Boulder fracking study with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) as a lead partner. That study demonstrated a strong connection between earthquakes and fracking wastewater disposal.

In 2012, CU-Denver's School of Public Health produced a study of airborne pollutants related to fracking and reached this alarming conclusion, according to its media office:

" ... [A]ir pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing or fracking may contribute to acute and chronic health problems for those living near natural gas drilling sites."

On the other hand, in November 2014, CU-Boulder's media office went far out of its way to pitch an industry-friendly interpretation of a study from its College of Engineering and Applied Sciences with a press release titled, "Major class of fracking chemicals no more toxic than common household substances."

Notably, the press release provided no link to the published study other than to say that it was published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, so we did a little snooping around and found it under the somewhat less remarkable title, "Analysis of Hydraulic Fracturing Flowback and Produced Waters Using Accurate Mass: Identification of Ethoxylated Surfactants."

The study is anything but a general endorsement of fracking fluid safety. It deals with a new method for identifying surfactants (surfactant is fancyspeak for detergents, many of which are common to both industry and household use). In the study abstract, the authors simply conclude that their technique provides a new measuring tool that would enable the "fingerprinting" of surfactants in fracking fluid, with the aim of improving water-quality monitoring.

The study authors are also careful to acknowledge all of the direct supporters of the study, one of which is Multi-Chem, part of the Halliburton oilfield services network. For what it's worth, the press release cites other partners but excludes Multi-Chem.

Just about six months after that study, CU-Boulder swung in the opposite direction with a June 2015 press release headlined, "New study identifies organic compounds of potential concern in fracking fluids." The study of groundwater contaminants in fracking fluid, by the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, found 15 organic compounds of "potential concern" due to their ability to persist and travel in groundwater from one location to another.

The study additionally found that only two of those compounds were relatively common from well to well. While that finding may seem inconsequential compared to the "hundreds" of hazardous substances commonly cited in opposition to fracking, the devil is in the details. The lead researcher concluded that these compounds "could result in potentially hazardous exposures following spills or well failures.”

For the record, the study may have also skipped a few compounds. The press materials note that it was based on information culled from the voluntary industry database FracFocus. FracFocus participants are free to exercise their trade secrets privileges, so the database is not all-inclusive.

Be that as it may, the new study boasts a notably reliable slate of funders compared to certain of CU's other efforts, namely the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Image credit: 1) Flickr/Jeff Foster 2) Courtesy of Greenpeace via LittleSis

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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