University Shutters Energy Institute in Wake of Fracking Controversy

Gas boom. Expansion of drilling in U.S. shale gas deposits (outlined areas) had prompted the University at Buffalo to open a new research institute on the issue. But controversy over its first report has led to its closure.

U.S. Energy Information Administration

The University at Buffalo has closed a new institute devoted to the study of natural gas production after an outcry over a report the group published earlier this year. The Shale Resources and Society Institute was established at the school in April to study shale gas and hydrological fracturing, also known as fracking.

The institute's first report, released this past May, examined regulatory data from Pennsylvania to conclude that environmental problems from fracking "are being reduced … by enhanced regulation and improved industry practice." The study drew criticism from inside and outside the university over its analysis of the data and for omitting certain biographical details about its authors, including the fact that two had previously been paid by industry groups or advised regulators. The furor only increased when the university was forced to correct a press release that suggested the report had been "peer-reviewed"; outside experts had reviewed it, officials later clarified, but it was published by the school and not by an independent publication.

A university review released in September of the new institute found that the work complied with national and university standards for conflicts of interest. "The fact that the co-authors of the May 15 SRSI report have known industrial experience, having worked in the field for many years, in no way invalidates the results," the review noted, adding that no data from the report had been found to be incorrect.

But in an open letter published yesterday, university President Satish Tripathi wrote that an appearance of conflicts of interest played a role in the school's decision to disband the institute, which had received funding only from internal sources at the university. "Research of such considerable societal importance and impact cannot be effectively conducted with a cloud of uncertainty over its work," Tripathi wrote. "Conflicts-both actual and perceived- can arise between sources of research funding and expectations of independence when reporting research results. This, in turn, impacted the appearance of independence and integrity of the institute's research."

Tripathi added that his school's "policies that govern disclosure of significant financial interests and sources of support," though strong, were "inconsistently applied" in this case, without providing detail. A committee has been set up to determine how to "strengthen and clarify" such policies. "Every faculty member has a responsibility to ensure that conclusions in technical reports or papers are unambiguous and supported by the presented data,"" he added.

"I think it's a pretty sad commentary when controversial issues can't be discussed in an academic institution," regulatory attorney George Rusk of Ecology and Environment, an environmental consulting firm in Lancaster, New York, tells ScienceInsider. Rusk had reviewed the May report and found it "factual, well-documented, with good data," he says. Criticism of the report "really was a character attack on the people who wrote the report rather than a comment on the substance of the report itself," he says.

Professors at the university who were affiliated with the institute will keep their positions, the school said.