Chip, what were you thinking? That's the awkward question prompted by the news that geologist Charles "Chip" Groat, former head of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and now associate director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas (UT), Austin, didn't disclose a potential conflict of interest involving a study of the environmental impacts of a controversial gas drilling technique.
In February, UT Austin released a lengthy report on the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a type of drilling ever more widely used to extract natural gas from shale. The study was led by Groat, who has years of government service under his belt, including nearly 7 years at the helm of the USGS. The report and its press release highlighted the finding that fracking hasn't contaminated ground water. And when the report was made public at this year's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of ScienceInsider), Groat emphasized the study's independence, as it was funded by the university.
It turns out that Groat did not disclose, not even to the director of the institute, Raymond Orbach, that he serves on the board of Plains Exploration & Production Co. (PXP), which conducts fracking in the United States. A report released yesterday by the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI), a nonprofit organization in Buffalo, New York, lays out Groat's significant financial stakes and concludes that Groat's financial ties are a "particularly glaring conflict of interest that may have affected the overall reception of the report if it had been properly disclosed."
Groat dismissed the concerns in an e-mail to Bloomberg, which ran a story yesterday about industry influence on academic studies of fracking. He told Bloomberg that he did not try to influence the conclusion of the report's several authors : "I made no modifications or alterations of their findings, some of which were not particularly pleasing to the shale-gas industry. Disclosing my Plains board position would not have served any meaningful purpose relevant to this study."
Groat's compensation has been sizeable, compared ith his academic salary of $173,000. PXP paid Groat $413,900 in cash and stock for the fiscal year ending 31 December 2011 for his service on the board, and has awarded him nearly $1.6 million in stock alone since he joined in 2007, according to SEC filings. Orbach told Bloomberg that Groat should have disclosed his ties to PXP, but that his position did not influence the study's conclusion.
According to the PAI report: "The lapse is significant in the case of the UT report, given the public importance of the issue, the report's bold, industry-friendly claim on such a controversial topic of inquiry."
Groat did not immediately respond to a request for comment from ScienceInsider.
In a blog post, David Wogan, an energy and policy writer in Austin and a former student of Groat, cites the UT Austin ethics policy—that research should be "free from any actual or apparent institutional or personal conflict of interest"—and expressed disappointment. "Shouldn't these ties have been disclosed to the public? Where was the University's due diligence? Did they not know a prominent faculty member was pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year? At the very least, Dr. Groat should have removed himself from the study."