Shale Industry Resorts to Conspiracy Theories to Explain Opposition to Fracking

As evidence mounts concerning the hazards of fracking, the oil and gas industry is increasingly trying to redirect public discussion of the topic, focusing instead on the funding behind the environmental groups rather than the actual science of the matter.

Aside from showing a certain desperation, the tactic is especially disingenuous since this industry has no small experience with astro-turf campaigns and buying faux research to promote its interests.

Again and again, it has turned out that scientific research downplaying the risks of fracking or hyping the benefits of the shale gas rush was actually funded by the oil and gas industry, and oftentimes, that funding was not properly disclosed.

In 2010, Penn State administrators retracted a study by Timothy Considine, which predicted tens of thousands of jobs and billions in revenue from the shale rush, when a local watchdog group, the Responsible Drilling Alliance complained that the study had been funded by a shale industry group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, but that funding was never disclosed, which school administrators later labeled a “clear error.”

In 2012, the State University of New York at Buffalo shut down its Shale Resources and Society Institute after the Public Accountability Initiative revealed that research it produced was severely flawed and that its authors never disclosed their industry ties. (DeSmog also investigated conflicts and undisclosed funding at the Institute.)

It's a problem repeated enough that it's often referred to simply in shorthand: frackademia.

With all this attention focused on how research is funded, many shale gas boosters, like bloggers at Energy in Depth, a PR organization formed by the oil industry, have begun trying to turn the criticism around.

They've focused on the role played by several non-profit foundations, claiming that research funded by these foundations and endowments should be treated just as skeptically as research funded by shale companies.

It's a false equivalence, a child's “I'm rubber but you're glue” taunt. But, in some instances, it's helped the industry turn around narratives told in the press.

“Critics pounced on the funding sources for both studies,” one newspaper wrote as it covered two scientific reports published recently on fracking.

One paper, a Penn State study funded by the drilling industry, concluded that geologic pressures would keep fracking chemicals trapped deep underground forever (though it did not address the millions of gallons of chemical-laced wastewater produced by each shale gas well), labeling fracking “not a risk to groundwater”. That study was funded by the unconventional drilling industry, which one Food and Water Watch organizer called “a red flag,” and was published by a journal launched in 2013, the Journal of Unconventional Oil and Gas Resources.

The other, conducted by Yale University and published in Environmental Health Perspectives (a journal funded by the National Institutes of Health and the federal government), was a survey that found people living near fracked wells were twice as likely to report breathing problems as those who lived further away.

A Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman told the newspaper the Yale study was “done in partnership with a local activist group, and was designed to put selective and unproven data behind a pre-determined and biased narrative.”

The focus of his ire? The Heinz Endowment, one of several large non-profits that's gotten involved in researching fracking's environmental impacts as the shale rush spread nationwide over the past decade.

Of course, research is always at risk of being influenced by the real-world interests of the people who participate or who cover its costs. That's why universities have detailed conflict of interest policies that require researchers to disclose any personal financial interests they might have, as well as the source of their funding, so that readers can take that into account as they assess the credibility of a paper's conclusions.

To be sure, understanding the policy goals of any given funder is a vital part of putting research into context – but if a company has a direct financial stake in the outcome, that research should often be read with an even larger grain of salt. While shale drillers stand to lose enormous sums if fracking is banned or more closely policed by regulators, it's not clear what various foundations or endowments would stand to personally lose or gain themselves financially.

Notwithstanding that distinction, bloggers at Energy in Depth have attempted to circulate a bizarre conspiracy theory, founded on the claim that non-profit foundations ginned up fears over fracking. Nationwide opposition to fracking, they claim, is driven by an anti-fracking “industry” created by a small set of elite funders.

Investigating or discussing fracking's hazards, these bloggers argue, is actually a ploy by these foundations, perhaps aimed at prodding an irrationally frightened public to donate more money to their cause or perhaps simply because the foundations are led by people possessed by a deep ideological hatred of fracking.

A couple of non-profits, the Park Foundation and the Heinz Endowment, have drawn particular ire from the industry.

To hear EIDs rendition is to believe that the Park Foundation is a political funder on par with the Koch Brothers and that a few shadowy players like Park secretly spawned the anti-fracking movement, which would dissipate were it not for the lavish tens of millions of dollars that this organization distributes to a small band of rabble-rousers.

“The Park Foundation’s footprints are everywhere it seems,” one EID blog mused last year.

Despite being transparently inaccurate, this conspiracy theory has started to get traction in the press. National Public Radio, for example, riffed on it in 2012. Forbes recently ran a lengthy two-part series focused on various groups that were all funded by a single foundation. One conservative site labeled the Park Foundation “the 1%,” an apparent reference to the Occupy slogan – which, coming from the oil and gas industry, which includes some of the largest multinational corporations in the world, sounds a lot like the pot calling the kettle black.

That's not the only acute flaw in the industry's logic.

First, let's get the horse and the cart in the right order. The anti-fracking movement preceded the start of the involvement of the major foundations like Heinz and Park – in fact, the movement's growth tracks pretty well with the expansion of shale gas drilling itself nationwide.

According to the oil industry's own tally, the Park Foundation's first fracking-related grant was made in 2008, about a half a decade after the shale drilling rush began to emerge in Texas's Barnett shale. The Heinz Endowment began researching the issue around the same time.

But by then, some environmental groups were already working hard, having opposed the “Halliburton loophole” back in 2005, when it was first passed as part of the Bush administration's heavily-criticized Energy Policy Act. Keep in mind that the Halliburton loophole is specifically centered on whether fracking would be regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

And even before that, concerns about fracking's hazards had already come to national attention. Back in 2004, the Los Angeles Times published a major expose on the Bush administration and fracking, highlighting the Halliburton loophole and profiling Weston Wilson, who blew the whistle on EPA's dismissive approach to fracking's hazards.

The deepest flaw in EID's conspiracy theorizing has to do with proportionality.

Last year alone, the American Petroleum Institute, one of the oil and gas industry's largest mouthpieces, spent more than $235 million on messaging and other activities to promote its views on drilling. The Marcellus Shale Coalition spent nearly $10 million in 2012. And there are many smaller state-level oil and gas industry associations and lobbying groups.

The Park Foundation's total spending on fracking-related projects? $6 million. Spent over 5 years, making its average annual funding $1.2 million.

(PR Watch also crunched the numbers, showing how Energy in Depth has overstated Park's funding).

As for Heinz, until last year, the Heinz Endowment was headed by Bobby Vagt, who at the same time also served as a board member of Kinder Morgan, a gas pipeline company active in many shale regions. As of August 2013, the Endowment held investments in numerous oil and gas companies, including Devon Energy (fracking in Texas's Barnett shale since 2002 and the first to use horizontal drilling there), Anadarko Petroleum (invested $6 billion in the Marcellus shale and a major player in Texas's Eagle Ford) and Southwestern Energy (“at the forefront” in the Marcellus and Fayetteville shales, per its website).

Between 2010 and 2013, the Heinz Endowment made more than $10 million in gas-drilling related grants – but not all of that went to groups that oppose fracking. Last summer, the Endowment made headlines for its conflicting approach to fracking: funding environmental organizations opposed to shale drilling along with groups taking a pro-fracking stance.

The Heinz Endowment has since cut its ties to the pro-drilling Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD), distanced itself from the idea that drilling for a non-renewable resource like shale gas could be accurately labeled “sustainable”, and Mr. Vagt has stepped down.

But for a group allegedly motivated by an inflexible ideology, Heinz has supported a wide range of fracking policy goals. “Aside from the CSSD involvement, which many believe was folly, they’ve backed groups both tolerant of fracking and in flat-out opposition,” Inside Philanthropy notes.

It's worth noting that Park family money, in the form of a foundation dubbed the Triad Foundation, also goes to fund deeply conservative organizations, including climate-change deniers. Triad, a spin-off of the Park Foundation formed in 2003, gives money to colleges and local groups. “It also provides five-figure grants to [the] Heritage [Foundation], along with other traditional adversaries of environmental activists, such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute,” E & E Publishing reported in 2012.

None of that fits neatly into EID's claims.

One final point: while conspiracy theorists may insinuate that foundations are scaremongering in order to raise funds, this claim fails to hold any water when it comes to these large institutions – which are funded by investments, not by contributions from the public.

A look at the 990 form filed with the IRS by Heinz immediately reveals that their income comes from “Dividends and interest in securities,” not contributions or gifts. The Park Foundation's 990 shows a single gift – $49 million worth of stock from Dorothy Park, including shares of Chevron, ExxonMobil and Schlumberger.

To be sure, foundations and endowments have helped many environmental organizations and academic researchers fund their work – DeSmog among them. But this funding usually comes in the form of small grants, tens or occasionally hundreds of thousands of dollars – small potatoes compared to the sums spent by the industry.

They want to find a large institution to vilify,” Jon Jensen, Executive Director of Park, told the Chronicle of Philanthropy last year “and to create a conspiracy around this.”

Unfortunately for EID bloggers, it's a conspiracy theory that crumbles to pieces when given a closer look.