Fracking hearing airs claims about conflicts of interest, ‘misinformation’

Science 'overwhelmingly shows' practice can be done safely, says chairman of a House committee that increasingly favors pro-industry witnesses

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Oil and natural gas wells in Wyoming seen from above. 

Simon Fraser University/Flickr

A congressional hearing on hydraulic fracturing waded into the highly charged debate over the oil and gas extraction process Thursday, with each side accusing the other of misleading the public.   

“Activists have spread misinformation about the science in an attempt to convince Americans that there is no way fracking can be done safely,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. “The science overwhelmingly shows that hydraulic fracturing can be done in an environmentally safe manner.”

He focused on concerns about groundwater contamination, saying claims have been made based on the “possibility and not the probability” of risks, threatening the jobs and increased energy independence fracking has brought the country.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, the science committee’s ranking member, countered that communities face real challenges as a result of fracking — an industrial process that has brought wells alongside and within residential neighborhoods — and said their concerns won’t be allayed by dismissing them or preventing them from pursuing local bans, as Texas is on the verge of doing. She charged that the hearing was “designed to give a platform for the fracking industry to attack those who question the safety of practices within that industry.”

“This hearing is advertised as being about the science of fracking, but the majority’s witnesses consist of a state economic regulation and development official, a representative of a firm that was set up to run public relations for the fracking industry and a scientist who has been paid by one of the largest fracking firms in the country,” she said. “That does not sound like a promising panel to honestly examine scientific questions.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists said in an analysis last year that the House science committee, once known for calling on independent scientists for a large share of its witnesses, has become increasingly dominated by industry interests. By 2012, the last year of the group’s analysis, industry-affiliated witnesses outnumbered all others — scientists included.

On top of that, it can be hard to tell when seemingly independent witnesses have industry or other ties because the committee asks only for disclosures about government grants received, not about other potential conflicts of interest, said Yogin Kothari, senior legislative assistant at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

“Having more transparency and disclosure from witnesses would be helpful,” he said.

Conflict of interest was a theme that ran through the hearing.

Donald I. Siegel, chairman of Syracuse University’s earth sciences department, was called as a witness to discuss his recent large-sample study that found no relationship between methane in water wells and their proximity to oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. He took a moment during his testimony to defend himself against criticism raised in an InsideClimate News story that he didn’t disclose the study had industry funding and that one of his co-authors worked for the oil and gas company providing the samples.

Neither his peer reviewers nor the journal editors found fault with their initial disclosures, Siegel said, adding that the journal later asked for an expanded disclosure “in response to media pressure.”

Simon Lomax of Energy In Depth, an oil and gas industry group, said in his testimony that some of the research New York relied on when it decided to ban fracking in the state last year was produced by groups opposed to the  practice, with foundations of a similar bent helping to financially support those groups,  media outlets  that wrote about the studies and organizations active in fracking fights.

Lomax criticized one study in particular, which enlisted residents to sample air near oil and gas sites in their communities, because a number of the authors work for nonprofits critical of fracking — they disclosed their employers and mission “to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals” in the paper — while all three peer reviewers have been active in fracking-ban efforts, he said. Lomax called the production and use of such studies “an echo chamber to drown out the facts.”

Last year, Energy In Depth criticized the Center for Public Integrity over its investigation of air pollution in Texas communities with abundant oil and gas development but patchy monitoring because one of the nonprofit news organization’s funders is the Park Foundation, which supports groups active in researching fracking or fighting it. InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel were partners in the investigation.

Fracking critics have made the same echo-chamber charge about the oil and gas industry, which has aggressively pushed back against local bans, setbacks and other rules. The Public Accountability Initiative, a Park Foundation grant recipient, reviewed a long list of studies that Energy In Depth pointed to as evidence that fracking is safe and concluded that three quarters had “some degree of industry connection” and only 14 percent were peer-reviewed.

Sheldon Krimsky, a Tufts University bioethicist who wrote Science in the Private Interest, said the impact of agenda-driven nonprofits funding research hasn’t been studied. But the corrosive effect of industry funding of science is well documented, he said, with tobacco as just one example.

That’s why he’s worried about financial conflicts of interest, where parties stand to make or lose large amounts of money depending on what science finds.

“Corporations try to protect themselves,” he said. “Financial conflicts of interest are probably much more insidious than other kinds of conflicts of interest that don’t have financial consequences.”

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