By Thomas Mullikin
While much has been said about funding of the University at Buffalo’s shale institute, the criticism ignores an “inconvenient truth” about energy-related research and how it is reported.
All too often, the focus is on the role the oil and gas industry plays in sponsoring studies and acquiring data about drilling in general, and especially production and extraction activities in U.S. shale formations. While it’s never stated (except by environmental activists), there is an underlying sense the findings are suspect because they come from the industry.
Having spent many years in the business of research and technical information gathering, I can say unequivocally that virtually all research is, to some degree, value laden. Humans conduct it. Humans have biases. Try as we may, it’s almost impossible to drain all of our personal opinions from the process of collecting, assessing and interpreting data. But that’s not really the point.
Rather, the point is that while industry-sponsored research is largely dismissed as skewed to support industry positions, research coming from industry critics largely gets a free pass.
For example, when Cornell professor Robert Howarth published research that concluded natural gas from shale was dirtier than coal, the story rocketed around the world. But no one took the time to report that Howarth was a dedicated opponent of hydraulic fracturing – the process by which the gas is extracted from shale – or that his research has been funded by the Park Foundation, an under-the-radar organization based in Ithaca that has given more than $3 million to interests committed to stopping shale gas development.
Similarly, a recent report from Earthworks generated a lot of headlines for its findings that state regulators were deficient in their oversight of drilling. Yet little to no attention was paid to the fact that Earthworks is also a beneficiary of the Park Foundation, as are the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, Food and Water Watch and the production company behind Gasland – none of which is a friend of fracking.
None of this is to suggest the debate over funding of the University at Buffalo’s shale institute – or the funding of any research – is unworthy of public discussion and scrutiny. But it does argue for a “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” approach:
If media and drilling critics are going to suggest, subtly or otherwise, that data coming from the industry is somehow tainted, then data coming from environmental activists and their supporters should be held to the same standard and examined under an equally intense spotlight.
Skepticism is always good. But given the importance of the energy debate, equal opportunity skepticism is even better.
Thomas Mullikin of Camden, S.C., is a lawyer, ecologist and climate change expert.