President Obama's choice to appoint Dr. Ernest Moniz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the next Energy Secretary has placed new scrutiny on academics who promote hydraulic fracturing as well as on the oil and gas industry public relation's machine. MIT's Energy Initiative, which Moniz directs, has received more than $125 million dollars from fossil fuel firms since 2006 when seed money from BP, Shell, Saudi Aramco and the Italian energy giant ENI helped launch the project.
“We have concerns given the importance of this position at this time in history where it's becoming clear that we need to enact policies that will aggressively combat climate change,” said Emily Wurth of the consumer advocacy group Food and Water Watch. “Dr. Moniz does not fit the bill.”
In return for millions of dollars from the fossil fuel industry, Moniz's Energy Initiative has churned out research to the industry's liking, most notably a 2011 report that finds “environmental impacts of shale development are challenging but manageable,” and that fracking is a “low-cost, short-term opportunity to reduce U.S. power sector CO2 emissions by up to 20%.”
That report, entitled “The Future of Natural Gas,” was produced in partnership with the educational non-profit (read: propaganda) Clean Skies Foundation, which was set up by fracking tycoon Aubrey McClendon in 2007. McClendon was forced to step down last year as CEO of Chesapeake Energy, America's second largest fracking firm, after Reuters revealed he was misappropriating millions in company funds for personal gain. Clean Skies has its own, mostly internet-based TV “news” network run by Branded News, the same outfit that operates an internet channel for the National Rifle Association. The foundation's stated mission is to “educate the American public about clean energy – particularly natural gas [sic].”
The 2011 Energy Initiative/Clean Skies report formed the basis of testimony Moniz submitted to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources later that year.
Enter biologist Robert Howarth. Howarth has never been invited to give testimony on Capitol Hill, although his work has appeared in the weekly newspaper The Hill, which covers policy goings-on in Washington. Howarth was awaiting the release of a report that he and his colleagues at Cornell University had been preparing for the past year and a half when he read something in the paper that startled him. Someone had illicitly obtained a copy of Howarth's report, the first comprehensive analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from hydraulic fracturing, and passed it to The Hill just days before Howarth and his team were set to go public with their findings.
“The industry was promoting shale gas as something that might actually be good for global warming,” said Howarth, “because it puts out less carbon dioxide to get the same amount of energy compared to oil or coal.” But his report, primarily funded by his university with a grant from the Park Foundation, estimates that on average between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of any given fracking well leaks methane into the atmosphere -- a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Based on his findings, Howarth says the greenhouse footprint of shale gas exceeds oil and coal.
The article in The Hill attempted to cast doubt on Howarth's research ahead of its publication. Christopher Van Atten, a Vice President with the oil and gas consultancy firm MJ Bradley and Associates, is quoted claiming that Howarth's information, which was gathered from the Congressional Governmental Accountability Office, academic sources and the drilling industry's own data, is based on “several key assumptions that are highly uncertain or based on limited data points.”
Among Howarth's fiercest critics were staffers at Energy Initiative. Melanie Kenderdine, the Initiative's associate director, attacked Howarth's research on CNBC, accusing him of deviating from accepted scientific standards. The timing of Howarth's findings couldn't have been worse for the Energy Initiative, which was about to release its “Future of Natural Gas” report.
“I think there's a problem at MIT and I'm sad about that,” says Howarth, who earned his PHD at the institute. “I'm very proud of them as an institution but they have taken a lot of money from the oil and gas industry and I think any objective observer can see it's influenced what they've put out in terms of research.” While toting the low carbon footprint of gas produced from fracking, the paper by Moniz and researchers at the Energy Initiative barely mentions the impact of methane, except to briefly suggest that the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency conduct further research into emissions -- an admission Howarth believes is due to his own work.
But the line between propaganda and science isn't just blurry at MIT. “The industry is increasingly funding studies across the country,” said Wurth, of Food and Water Watch. “And it's not surprising the studies they fund are in line with what the industry would like for them to be.”
For example, last year, the State University of New York in Buffalo shut down its Resources and Society Institute after the Public Accountability Initiative revealed the institute had distorted data in a study examining the impact of regulations on fracking in Pennsylvania. Researchers claimed regulations had reduced the environmental impact of fracking in the state, suggesting that drilling could be conducted safely in New York.
Yet, as the Public Accountability Initiative points out, “According to the report’s own data, the rate of major environmental accidents actually increased 36% from 2008 to 2011” and “major environmental events increased 900%.” It was later revealed that the report's lead authors had ties to the drilling industry, and that sections of the report were lifted from an earlier document written for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.
In a separate incident, two researchers were forced to leave the University of Texas at Austen in December after publishing a report that frequently lacked footnotes while claiming there was no link between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination. One researcher, Dr. Charles Chip Groat, failed to disclose the fact that he sat on the board of a fracking company; Groat had received $1.5 million in compensation from the Plains Exploration and Production Company at the time he released the report under the letterhead of the university.
Some unlikely players have also gotten mixed up in frackademia. Though they've since come under new leadership, the Sierra Club, a 120-year-old conservation organization, has up until recently promoted natural gas as a transition fuel. The group took funds from frackers, including approximately $25 million from the Chesapeake Energy, to go after the corporation's competitors in the coal industry. Some of that cash went towards funding research at Carnegie Mellon, which purports that fracking has a lower greenhouse gas imprint than coal.
Without frackademics at their disposal to substantiate claims that hydraulic fracturing is safe, drillers would have little evidence to justify their assertion that pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground and sucking out oil or gas is environmentally responsible. Exclude well-funded "scientists" like Moniz, and the pro-frack field is narrowed to misinformed citizens from dying agricultural towns lured by the prospect of leasing their land, and smiling salespeople in 30-second ad slots.
Take the new film "Frack Nation," an attempt to counter "Gasland," the movie that helped initiate widespread protests against the drilling practice across the U.S. Director Phelim McAleer claims his movie was financed by the “99%” through the crowd funding site Kickstarter, but donors include the head of publicity for Cabot Oil and Gas. And Cabot got a bang for their buck. The film portrays two residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania, as lone crazies after their water was turned to fire by the company.
Energy in Depth also got their money's worth. The drill industry PR group helped raise funds for the film and has sponsored screenings. Throughout the movie, McAleer works hard to convince anyone watching that only wacko environmentalists and Vladimir Putin would want to halt fracking. That's right, Putin. Frack Nation suggests that Russia's prime minister and his friends in the Russian oligarchy are funding the anti-fracking movement in the United States so that Russia alone can corner the global gas market.
But if the fossil fuel industry's lavishly paid research is so spot on, if their ads touting fracking's green credentials are so accurate, how then can drillers account for the hordes of people holding jars of contaminated water who banged on the doors of the American Natural Gas Alliance last summer in Washington? Or the bans on fracking that have been instituted by municipalities from Niagara Falls to Las Vegas? Or the residents of fracked communities who have chained themselves to equipment and blockaded roads leading to well sites?
They cannot. And by now, despite the gas industry's best PR efforts, the word frack has become profane -- even, fittingly, used as a substitute for the word fuck on the hit Sci-Fi show Battle Star Galactica. Few politicians dare to utter it, including President Obama who refers to fracking as “innovative drilling techniques.” When he signed an executive order last year that established a task force aimed at shaking more gas out of America's shale, he alluded to fracking as the “development of unconventional domestic natural gas resources.”
Even now that droughts in the Midwest and October's Superstorm Sandy have rendered climate change impossible to ignore, Obama continues to promote oil and gas drilling, prompting Stephen Stromberg in the Washington Post to describe the president's climate strategy as a “flying unicorn.” Given the dire warnings from the scientific community about climate change, Obama's approach might more accurately be portrayed as the Flying Unicorn of Climapocalypse -- because, in essence, fracking fits right into his imaginary efforts to tackle climate change.
In speeches, the president continues to tout natural gas as being somehow related to clean energy. But despite millions of dollars spent by the drilling industry on radio, television and internet advertising to make us believe it's true, many of the 99% remain unconvinced. A lot of Americans still aren't sold on the idea of injecting their country with thousands of hydraulic needles packed with millions of gallons of frack fluid in order to bloat the pockets of oil and gas firms. Though Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz is also doing his best to convince us, the true science on fracking is getting out. Just ask all those people whose water is on fire.
A press liaison at the Energy Initiative said Moniz was unable to comment on this story, since the scientist was on a fundraising tour and would be meeting with energy companies all week.