Shale study’s lead author faces ‘green’ backlash

College distances itself from fracking findings

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Faced with mounting criticism, the State University of New York at Buffalo is distancing itself from a Marcellus Shale gas-drilling study released earlier this month by the school’s own Shale Resources and Society Institute.

But the report’s lead author is defending the work by the fledgling institute, saying Monday that it’s being mischaracterized by environmental activists who oppose any additional domestic fossil-fuel production.

“I stand by the work,” said Timothy Considine, University of Wyoming professor and one of three researchers who penned the institute’s survey, adding that he and his colleagues aren’t at all surprised by the green backlash it has generated.

“This whole debate [about fracking] has been so polarized,” he said.

Released earlier this month, the report concludes that Pennsylvania regulators have done an effective job cutting down on environmental incidents within the state’s burgeoning natural-gas industry, a sector driven almost entirelyby hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial practice of using water, sand and chemicals to crack deep underground rock and release huge quantities of natural gas.

Its authors, including SUNY-Buffalo employee and institute Director John P. Martin, have come under increasing fire from critics who say they’ve spun figures from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection in order to cast a favorable light on fracking and the companies that employ it.

Now, the university is now running away from the study, the first significant work produced by the institute, the formation of which was announced April 5.

“The findings presented in a recent report produced by the Shale Resources and Society Institute are the work of the authors, and any conclusions drawn are their views, not the views of the institution,” the school said in a statement Friday night. “Some criticisms of the authors’ conclusions have been raised. [The university] will examine all relevant concerns, in accordance with the university’s strong commitment to academic and research excellence.”

The most scathing rebuke came from the nonprofit Public Accountability Initiative, which last week released a lengthy point-by-point rebuttal of the survey’s methods and findings.

It asserts that “the report’s central conclusions are false,” and that those who compiled it, most notably Mr. Considine, massaged the facts in an effort to convince the public that fracking has grown safer over the past four years.

The PAI’s complaints, and the study’s authors’ responses, come down to how one chooses to view the data. For example, the initiative pointed out that, between 2008 and August 2011, the total number of environmental incidents in Pennsylvania tied to fracking increased by 189 percent.

That’s true, but the number of natural-gas wells drilled during the same period increased from 170 in 2008 to more than 3,500 by August 2011, the last month examined by the survey. While the raw number of “environmental events” has gone up from 90 in 2008 to 260 through the first eight months of 2011, that near-tripling pales against the 20-fold increase in well numbers.

“That’s a key aspect of interpretation. If you look at the number of highway deaths, you have the same problem. You have to correct by some factor, like the rate of traffic,” Mr. Considine said. “You have to do that in drilling, too. If they stopped drilling entirely, there would be zero environmental events.”

Only 25 of the 845 environmental events in Pennsylvania from 2008 through August 2011 were considered “major” incidents. They included land spills, site-restoration failures and well blowouts.

Critics contend that the study glosses over the fact that the number of major events shot up from one in 2008 to 10 in 2011. As a percentage of wells drilled, that equates to 0.6 events per 1,000 wells in 2008, and 0.8 events per 1,000 wells drilled in 2011.

Mr. Considine doesn’t dispute those calculations, but says either number indicates that such events are very rare and that the similarity between the two numbers suggests that Pennsylvania’s existing drilling regulations are sufficient for environmental safety.

“It’s really only a handful of incidents,” he said. “The bottom line is, the rate of major environmental events associated with these wells is less than 1 percent.”

Critics have also assailed Mr. Considine for conducting gas industry-funded research in the past, including a 2010 report on the future economic effects of the Marcellus Shale boom.

The environmental-impact study, however, was not paid for with industry dollars, according to Mr. Considine and University at Buffalo officials.

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