A University at Buffalo geologist picked by the state to study the links between hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes is now coming under scrutiny for his ties to the oil and gas industry.
Critics have taken aim in recent days at Robert D. Jacobi, a longtime UB professor hired last year by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to do a seismology study as part of its environmental review of the controversial drilling process known as “fracking.”
Jacobi also serves as a senior geology adviser for the EQT Corp., a drilling company based in Pittsburgh.
“Couldn’t they find someone who wasn’t on the industry payroll to study seismic impact, or was that actually the point – to hire an industry consultant to give gas companies a free pass on the question of fracking and earthquakes?” said Kevin Connor, director of the Buffalo-based Public Accountability Initiative, one of the vocal fracking opponents.
“This is the definition of a financial conflict of interest,” Connor said. “He’s working for both the gas industry and the regulators, and he should not be doing both simultaneously.”
The issue was first raised in a story by Bloomberg News, following a legislative hearing this week with DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens. Martens discussed the seismic review and the upcoming release of the environmental study.
Jacobi, meanwhile, fully discloses that he has worked as an adviser for both private industry and environmental groups for more than 20 years.
The UB professor said he has worked across the entire Appalachian basin in New York State documenting fault systems and their effects, which is why the DEC contacted him in January 2012 to study the potential risks.
“If you want someone with no knowledge, or only a smattering, then by all means take someone off the street,” Jacobi said in an email to The Buffalo News. “However, I have worked always with integrity and honor in the structural field, and in New York State there is really about only one choice if you want detailed knowledge of faults across the state.”
When reached by phone, Jacobi said he completed his work for the state last summer. He would not discuss details of the study but hinted that his critics might feel differently about the situation if they saw his data.
“I can understand why these people, at first glance, think this,” Jacobi said. “In this case, I don’t agree with it.”
Connor, however, also pointed out that Jacobi had served as co-director of UB’s ill-fated Shale Resources and Society Institute, which was created to bring an academic perspective to the fracking controversy. The university shut down the institute in November amid mounting public scrutiny and criticism following its initial report.
Jacobi, on the other hand, said that report was written by another director. Jacobi was primarily focused on organizing the institute’s board of directors and establishing and teaching courses for the institute, he said.