Williams Pipeline Support Highlights Environmental Defense Fund’s Long, Cozy Relationship With Fracking Pseudoscience

Read time: 11 mins
The Narrows

By . Originally posted on Eyes on the Ties, the online news site of Public Accountability Initiative and LittleSis.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an environmental group with close ties to the corporate community, has taken a friendly approach to the explosion of the natural gas industry in the United States. In the early years of the fracking boom, EDF touted natural gas as a “bridge fuel” toward renewable energy. The organization helped to promote industry-funded misinformation by signing off on sham studies — for example from the University of Texas and the State University of New York at Buffalo — that claimed fracking was safe, but were fatally marred by basic errors in arithmetic and undisclosed conflicts of interest.

EDF’s pro-gas stance has moderated in the wake of increasing evidence that natural gas causes far more carbon pollution and other harmful impacts than originally claimed, and the group is now calling for a decarbonization of the US economy. However, EDF is still giving environmental cover to the natural gas industry. The organization has backed the CEO Climate Dialogue, a group formed “to urge the President and Congress to enact a market-based approach to climate change” whose members include major fossil fuel companies and utilities, like Shell and PG&E.

Most recently, EDF has been touting a study commissioned by the gas and electric utility National Grid and pipeline firm Williams Companies in support of their proposed Northeast Supply Enhancement pipeline under New York harbor, which has been met with strident opposition.

Pipeline Study Performed by Longtime Energy Industry Contractor

National Grid’s pipeline study was prepared by the consulting firm MJ Bradley & Associates, which lists a number of oil and gas industry firms as clients, as well as some government agencies and the Environmental Defense Fund. Comparing emissions from using natural gas for home heating and hot water to using heating oil and electricity, MJ Bradley concluded that permitting its clients to build the pipeline would actually lead to lower carbon emissions.

A significant part of MJ Bradley’s business appears to be issuing reports that bolster energy industry clients’ cases for new projects. According to the firm’s website, MJ Bradley helps “clients pursue clean energy solutions by operating at the interface between regulation, technology, and business strategy.” MJ Bradley also convenes energy industry coalitions, advancing its clients interests by “providing strategic and technical services, analysis, and information; coordinating the development of policy positions, outreach, and advocacy; and providing administrative support.” 

MJ Bradley’s past work on behalf of the fossil fuel industry has included two reports in 2011 and 2012 for the American Clean Skies Foundation, a front group established by the then-chairman and CEO of natural gas driller Chesapeake Energy to promote natural gas. 

MJ Bradley’s industry funding and advocacy orientation are causes for skepticism for environmental advocates, as is the endorsement of EDF, which has a history of elevating natural gas industry talking points disguised as empirical research.

Summit Elementary School playground in Butler County, Pennsylvania, with a fracking well in the background. Credit: Moms Clean Air Force, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Summit Elementary School playground in Butler County, Pennsylvania, with a fracking well in the background. Credit: Moms Clean Air ForceCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Oil and Gas Financiers on EDF’s Board

MJ Bradley & Associates’ study for National Grid is being hailed by the Environmental Defense Fund as a “groundbreaking” analysis that shows “there are places where new pipeline capacity can provide a net gain for climate.”

EDF has long taken a pro-natural gas posture. While other environmental groups worked from the early days of the shale boom to try to ban fracking, EDF argued that eliminating fossil fuels outright is not practicable and that environmentalists should instead work to make sure that fracking was done in such a way as to minimize the harm it inflicted on surrounding communities. 

This approach to natural gas mirrors EDF’s other partnerships with corporations like the retail giant Walmart or the Pennsylvania Energy Solutions oil refinery owner Carlyle Group. It also happens to align with the business interests of EDF’s funders and board members.

The Environmental Defense Fund board of trustees includes several investors with major financial stakes in the oil and gas industry, including the granddaughter of the “father of fracking” and an investor behind a fracked gas power plant seeking to expand its operations in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Notable EDF board members with significant oil and gas investments include:

  • Katherine Lorenz is the president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, the family foundation of the “father of fracking,” George Mitchell, Lorenz’s grandfather. The Mitchell Foundation’s $141.8 million in stock in fracking company Devon Energy accounted for 56% of the foundation’s total assets at the end of the 2017 fiscal year.
  • Julian H Robertson Jr is a senior advisor to and investor in Tiger Infrastructure Partners, a private equity firm launched in 2009 and focused on investing in natural gas infrastructure related to the shale gas boom. Tiger Infrastructure is an owner of the gas-burning Danskammer power plant in Newburgh, New York, which is seeking to expand its operations, threatening the health of area residents as well as the climate.
  • Stanley Druckenmiller has had investments in a number of fossil fuel companies through his family investment firm, Duquesne Family Office, though he has fewer today than he has in the past. Current Duquesne Family Office oil and gas investments include a $41.8 million stake in LNG exporter Cheniere Energy, a $32.4 million stake in Marathon Petroleum, a $14 million stake in New Fortress Energy, a $10.6 million stake in Southwestern Energy Co, $10.3 million stake in Cabot Oil and Gas, and a $9.5 million stake in Range Resources, as of March 31, 2019.
  • Susan Oberndorf is married to Bill Oberndorf, an investor who, until 2012, was a partner at SPO Partners, which had significant oil and gas investments. After leaving SPO Partners, Bill Oberndorf founded a new venture, Oberndorf Enterprises LLC, which is a major investor in Bonterra Energy, a Canadian oil driller.

EDF Lent Credibility to Sham Fracking Studies

Unlined waste pit for fracking wastewater in California. Credit: Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Unlined waste pit for fracking wastewater in California. Credit: Sarah Craig/Faces of FrackingCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Over the past decade, to quell the fears of communities threatened by the fracking boom and their representatives in government, the oil and gas industry began sponsoring studies from major universities claiming that concerns about drilling were unfounded. Many of these studies, especially in the early years of the boom, were misleading or outright dishonest, defining terms in much narrower ways than their common usage, reaching conclusions that were the direct opposite of what data showed, and claiming that they had been peer-reviewed when they had not been.

EDF lent some of these sham studies its credibility, signing off as an independent reviewer and promoting their incorrect findings on its blog. Two of these studies stand out in particular, due to the controversies they caused for the universities that published them, which led to resignations, changes to university ethics policy, and the shuttering of a newly formed shale gas institute.

The University of Texas at Austin study

A February 2012 study from the University of Texas at Austin was presented at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science proclaiming that there was no evidence of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing. The report had a major press roll-out and saw substantial coverage in the media. Scott Anderson, who was then the Environmental Defense Fund’s senior policy advisor for energy and who reviewed the section of the study on environmental impacts, wrote a blog post after the presentation titled “If The Problem Isn’t Hydraulic Fracturing, Then What Is?” 

When PAI reviewed this study, we found that it apparently had not even been completed before being rolled out to the public. Numerous sections were marked “draft” and many of its citations were blank. Despite UT Energy Institute director Raymond Orbach’s assertion that the report was “the first peer-reviewed analysis” of the environmental impacts from hydraulic fracturing, the paper had not been through an academic peer review process. Further, the central conclusion touted in the press was based on a selective interpretation of the term “hydraulic fracturing” to refer to a specific step in the natural gas production process rather than to the process as a whole. This misleading interpretation led the media and policymakers to believe that natural gas drilling had not contaminated groundwater, which was false. Finally, we found that Chip Groat, the study’s lead author had failed to disclose his $1.6 million stake in a fracking company. 

All of this either eluded Anderson, EDF’s senior policy advisor for energy, when he wrote about the paper, or was ignored.

After we reported on the study’s myriad shortcomings and undisclosed conflict, the University of Texas convened a panel to review the circumstances of its preparation and release. That panel ultimately found that  “the design, management, review and release of the study … fell short of contemporary standards for scientific work” and recommended its withdrawal. The panel found UT’s conflict of interest policies “poorly crafted and even less well enforced.” In the wake of the review, Chip Groat, the study’s principal investigator, retired from UT and Ray Orbach, the director of UT’s Energy Institute, resigned. The University of Texas also expanded its conflict of interest policies.

The blog post boosting the UT study is still active on the EDF website without correction.

Wells dot the desert atop the Permian Basin in Texas. Credit: © 2016 Laura Evangelisto.
Wells dot the desert atop the Permian Basin in Texas. Credit: © 2016 Laura Evangelisto.

The State University of New York at Buffalo study

In May 2012, the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB) published a report from its newly unveiled Shale Resources and Society Institute. That study — which was not written by a UB faculty member, but rather by a University of Wyoming economist with long-standing ties to the coal, oil, and gas industries — concluded that, due to environmental regulation, the rate and number of major environmental violations in Pennsylvania’s fracking industry had decreased from 2008 through 2011. Much like the UT report from earlier that year, the UB’s report was accompanied by an aggressive press roll-out that generated wide coverage of its conclusion. 

Immediately upon the report’s release, UB was forced to issue a correction to its press release, which — like the UT study — falsely claimed that the report had been subject to peer review. Rather than the traditional process of anonymous review by independent, qualified experts, the report had instead been simply been read before publication by a panel, which included EDF’s Scott Anderson.

PAI’s deeper analysis of the report found that, beyond the untrue claim of peer review, the central conclusions reported by the authors of UB’s report were the exact opposite of what their data showed. Rather than decreasing as the authors claimed, both the number of major environmental impacts and the rate of major environmental impacts actually increased during the period they analyzed.

We also found that the lead author of the UB study, a University of Wyoming economist named Timothy Considine, had plagiarized entire sections of the report from a prior paper he had written for the right-wing think tank the Manhattan Institute. Considine was also known for writing a series of reports for Pennsylvania State University on the fracking industry and failing to disclose that they had been paid for by a natural gas lobbying group.

To his credit, EDF’s Anderson was not as laudatory of the UB study as he was of the UT report. However, even though he reviewed drafts of the report, he appears to have missed its methodological flaws and outright false conclusions. In his blog post about the report, Anderson wrote “there’s a lot of good information to be gleaned from the study.” 

As with the UT report, PAI’s findings generated considerable controversy for the University at Buffalo. A coalition of UB students, faculty, staff, and community members circulated a petition to close the Shale Resources and Society Institute, prompting an investigation from the State University of New York board of trustees into the circumstances surrounding the founding and funding of the institute. In the face of the investigation, the University at Buffalo shuttered the institute.

Again, as with the UT study, EDF’s blog post on the UB report is still active without correction.

Conclusion

The Environmental Defense Fund’s strategy of corporate-friendly, so-called market-based solutions to climate change and other environmental problems has led it to elevate natural gas and fracking as a climate solution even as the global climate crisis has worsened. Now, even as climate scientists are telling us that we need to leave all remaining fossil fuels in the ground, EDF is stepping in to advocate for the construction of a new pipeline under New York harbor. EDF’s connections to investors profiting from oil and gas drilling as well as its past endorsement of shoddy fracking industry research create serious credibility issues about its endorsement of the Williams pipeline.

Main image: The Narrows as seen from Lower New York Bay, under which Williams Companies’ Northeast Supply Enhancement pipeline is proposed to run. Credit: Fazia_CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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