Whitewash: SUNY Buffalo Defends Controversial Shale Gas Institute

Sun, 2012-10-14 09:06Steve Horn
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Whitewash: SUNY Buffalo Defends Controversial Shale Gas Institute

On Friday, SUNY Buffalo's President's Office released a lengthy and long-awaited 162-page report upon request of the SUNY System Board of Trustees that delved into the substantive facts surrounding the creation of its increasingly controversial Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI). The report was published in response to concern among journalists, advocacy groups, “fracktivists,” and SUNY Buffalo professors and faculty that the university is transforming itself from a center of academia to a center for “frackademia.”

In the spirit of “best practices” of politicially-astute public relations professionals, the report came out late on a Friday afternoon, when few people pay close attention to news and reporters have left the office for the weekend. This tactic is known as the “document dump” or “Take Out the Trash Day,” in reference to a title of an episode of The West Wing.

Buck Quigley of ArtVoice noticed the report is actually dated Sept. 27, meaning SUNY Buffalo's been sitting on it for roughly two weeks, giving the public relations office plenty of time to craft a response narrative to offer to the press.

In actuality, the report is only 13 pages. The rest is Appendices. 

The Meat and Potatoes of the Report

Writing with regards to SUNY Buffalo's Academic Freedom and Conflict of Interest Policy, the President's Office stated,

To ensure transparency and adherence to rigorous standards of academic integrity, we focus on identifying and managing potential conflicts of interest. If the conflicts are determined to be unmanageable, UB will not accept the funding.

As with all research at UB, regardless of the source of the funding, it is [not] the role…of the funding source to dictate the conclusions drawn by faculty investigators. This core principle is critical to the preservation of academic freedom. UB recognizes that conflicts - both actual and perceived - can arise between sources of research funding and expectations of independence when reporting research results.

The report fails to discuss the Institute's long history of courting oil and gas industry funding. As we recently reported, the gas industry explicitly acknowledged that it targets universities as a key front for legitimacy in the eyes of the public in the ongoing shale gas PR battle within the Marcellus Shale basin. This was revealed at the same conference in which the industry acknowledged it was utilizing psychological warfare tactics on citizens.

Later in the report, the President's Office stated that it has “every expectation that the faculty will conduct their public and policy-related activities as professionals, basing their conclusions on rigourous evidence and methodology.” Yet, the President's Office has little ground to stand on here, given the flawed methodology of the Institute's first report, ruthlessly picked apart in May by the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI).

Responding to PAI's report, the President's Office said, “No concerns were raised by the relevant scientific community about the data used in developing the report's conclusion.” Given that the scientific community generally doesn't do rapid-fire responses to reports, it's not surprising that this is the case. 

On the flip side of the coin, given that four of the five peer reviewers for that report were on the payroll of the oil and gas industry, it's also obvious SRSI had its conclusions made before the “study” was ever conducted to begin with. In other words, it was an exercise in propaganda for the oil and gas industry, rather than science.  

In page seven of the report, the President's Office offers a revelatory nugget: SRSI has been in the works since 2007, predating what was then the looming rapid ascendancy of the North American shale gas boom. The Office wrote,

Beginning in late 2007, the first departmental discussions related to the potential for a research center focused on energy resources took place. This dialogue, which would continue over the course of the next four years, involved conversations of faculty members and experts in the field, in consultation with the department's alumni advisory board and the offices of the dean and department chair.

Importantly, the report also says industry insider and SRSI Director John Martin - owner of the consulting firm JP Martin Energy Strategy LLC - will serve in this capacity only until a tenured, full-time faculty member is chosen to direct the Institute and take his place. “This remains the ultimate intention of the Dean,” explains the report. “[T]oward this end, the Dean is engaged in a process to identify and appoint a full-time UB faculty member as the Institute's lead director.”

The obvious questions arise: Why wasn't this person chosen from the beginning, given a five-year head start to locate him/her? Why was there ever a need to bring in a non-faculty member and oil and gas industry insider like John Martin to run SRSI to begin with?

President's Office, Like Provost Charles “Chip” Zukoski, Says “No Industry Funding” for SRSI

The biggest whopper is located on page nine of the report, in which the President's Office stated, “To date, the University at Buffalo has received no industry funding for the [SRSI]. Its expenses, including the salary of its part-time director and co-director, have been paid entirely by the university's College of Arts and Sciences through discretionary funds.”

This is, at best, a half-truth and pure technicality. Though, to date, SRSI - in its infancy - hasn't received oil and gas industry largesse, that doesn't mean it isn't seeking this funding and won't obtain this funding in the near future, as we explained in our latest report with regards to Provost Charles “Chip” Zukoski's parallel “no industry funding” statement:

Two key details raise serious immediate red flags about Zukoski's claims of recieving “no industry funding.”

The first: in its initial call out for funding, the SRSI stated it was seeking three-year $1.14 million corporate memberships “to create a dynamic and impactful program.” Corporate members also are given a spot on the SRSI's Advisory Board, “ensuring focused alignment of purpose and deliverables,” according to the funding request form. Put another way, three-year corporate memberships would yield some sort of deliverable goods for oil and gas corporations - a quid pro quo, if you will.

Confirming this but leaving out all of the substantive details of how this will take place and from whom the funding will come from, the Chacellor's Office wrote that “SRSI will generate research support through competitive grants, philanthropy, and from the private sector.” “Private sector,” in English, means the oil and gas industry.

The second: on Sept. 13, Buffalo's ArtVoice released the fruits of a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. One of the documents, dated Aug. 7, 2011, read that a “funding plan for alumni and large corporations has been in the works for two years. A pitch to alumni and corporate interests in Houston is planned for October, following on two earlier meetings there in Spring, 2011.” Houston serves as the headquarters for numerous oil and gas corporations, and is a great place to go in search of funding for “frackademics.”

That same document also showed that the SRSI, as of Aug. 7, 2011, had already received money from IOGA of NY. It also states that SRSI has “good contacts with National Fuel, their wholly owned subsidiary Seneca Resources, and other resource companies involved in the [Marcellus Shale].” Beyond merely offering to fund the SRSI, IOGA of NY has also provided “organizational help,” according to the document.

IOGA's Board of Directors has representatives from Shell, Chesapeake Energy, and many other players in the unconventional gas sphere. National Fuel/Seneca “operates approximately 2,500 wells located in western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania…[and currently] owns approximately 730,000 acres of fee minerals, 260,000 acres of leased minerals and 100,000 acres of surface and timber rights throughout the region,” according to its website.

President's Office Conclusion: Remain Silent, Defend SRSI to the Death

The President's Office closes the report with a cleansing of its hands, saying it will take a laissez faire approach to the situation. The Office stated [page 12], “In the specific case of the SRSI, and as a general academic principle, it is not the role of SUNY, or any university, to dictate the conclusions drawn by faculity from their research, or the review faculty research before it is published.”

This conclusion was offered despite the fact that it's obvious what the research will yield: “deliverables” for the oil and gas industry, as we exposed in our previous report.

Despite this set of circumstances, it appears SUNY Buffalo's leadership will defend SRSI to the death.

Stay tuned for DeSmog's continuing coverage of the SUNY Buffalo SRSI affair and a forthcoming investigation digging into, of all things, SRSI's connection to the forthcoming fracking boom in the state of California.

Photo Credit: Suzanne Tucker | Shutterstock.com

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