Fracking and academic freedom II

Some professors shielded from oil/gas attacks, thanks to tenure

Robert Howarth

While certain faculty members around the country have felt the heat from the oil and gas industry for raising questions about the possible health impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” not all have been canned.

Not all are like Geoffrey Thyne, a researcher highlighted in the Aug. 16 issue of Boulder Weekly who blames controversial comments he made about fracking for the fact that he is no longer employed by the Colorado School of Mines or the University of Wyoming.

Luckily, controversial research is sometimes still protected by tenure, or by the university itself.

Robert Howarth, who holds an endowed chair at Cornell University called the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, is another faculty member who has been targeted by the oil and gas industry because of his research.

“Unlike Thyne, I’m a tenured professor, which gives me some protection,” Howarth tells BW. “The tenure is the important thing.”

Howarth, who began working at Cornell in 1985, says he started his research on fracking about three years ago, specifically focusing on the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas extraction in hopes of filling a void in the research at the time.

“No one had published any sort of study on what the greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas were,” he says of an energy source that had been widely touted as a clean fuel. “There was nothing, absolutely nothing. … People were perfectly content to have no studies.”

Howarth says he began circulating drafts of his study results in spring 2010, and those early reports showed that methane emissions from the extraction of shale gas were higher than they were from coal. (His ultimate findings were that while shale gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal or oil, when it comes to the much more potent greenhouse gas methane, shale gas has a larger impact than coal, oil or conventional gas.)

But his preliminary findings got distributed more widely than he had intended, resulting in inquiries from the press. In a message posted to his website, he announced that his research was not yet done, but he says his work continued to gain media attention. Howarth says even the White House took notice and directed the Environmental Protection Agency, which hadn’t updated its natural gas studies since 1996, and the U.S. Department of Energy to look into the matter. The EPA released studies showing similar increased gas emissions beginning in November 2010, he says.

His finished paper, co-authored by Cornell colleagues Renee Santoro and Tony Ingraffea, was not published until April 2011.

But it seems that someone got a copy just before the paper came out, judging from a story published in The Hill that described an earlier draft — a draft that a reporter said he got from industry insiders and that Howarth says was only available on his and his two co-authors’ computers. He’s not shy about suggesting that someone in the oil/gas industry stole it.

“That’s the most likely explanation, but I can’t prove it, and it sounds paranoid, right?” Howarth says. “I think they probably hacked into my computer, from the looks of it.”

And he says it didn’t take long for America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) to find people to debunk the research, funding an ad that to this day still shows up as the top sponsored link on Google searches of Howarth’s name.

The industry group’s list of bashers is titled “Howarth: A Credibility Gap.” The subtitle is, “Research on methane emissions from natural gas discredited by scientific community.”

The site claims that Howarth and his co-authors “make inaccurate and extreme choices far outside established science at virtually every turn. The result is a report that misleads the public about important facts involving natural gas production.” Among the more than 10 individuals and institutions cited by ANGA is one of Howarth’s own Cornell colleagues, Lawrence Cathles, who is quoted with his team as saying that Howarth and his coauthors “assume implausibly high leakage rates and fail to provide any clear evidence of methane leakage from shale gas wells during completion, or from all gas wells during handling, transmission, storage, and delivery of the gas, that would significantly increase the greenhouse impact of simply burning the methane. Moreover, they dismiss the impact of existing technology for reducing whatever emissions are now problematic.”

Howarth describes Cathles as a former oil/gas employee who doesn’t believe in climate change.

The ANGA site also says Howarth is an “evolutionary biologist,” who “is not credentialed to do the kind of chemical analysis required for this field of study,” even though he describes himself as an earth systems scientist with 35 years of experience who has chaired committees at the level of the National Academy of Sciences.

In addition, Howarth is targeted on the website for the data he uses, which he himself acknowledges as being deficient, due to the dearth of studies that have been done on the issue.

“The quality of the data is terrible because industry is very secretive and not very honest,” Howarth says.

The ANGA site also quotes the EPA’s Roger Fernandez, team leader for oil and gas climate change programs, who questions Howarth’s claims about the amount of methane emitted from shale gas extraction.

Howarth maintains that Fernandez’s comments were taken out of context at a panel discussion, and that Fernandez later acknowledged that Howarth’s figures were accurate.

“Five minutes later, he reversed himself and said I’m right,” Howarth says.

Despite the attack, he says there has been some redemption in the fact that most of the studies that have been conducted since his research has been published have upheld the basic tenets of his team’s paper.

“As real science comes along, I think it’s making our stuff look pretty good,” Howarth says.

And in December 2011 Time magazine named him and co-author Ingraffea, along with actor Mark Ruffalo, among the “50 Others That Mattered” in the publication’s “Person of the Year” issue.

But there have been consequences associated with his controversial findings. Howarth says that in addition to the ANGA critics, he saw a significant decrease in the number of graduate students who applied to study with him, for one thing.

“Industry is framing the debate by having that ad float out there,” he says. “So if you want to compare what’s happened to me with Thyne, I’m in a helluva lot better position, I’m hugely protected. I have highly respectful colleagues. I’ve had a huge number of scientists I’ve never met before who have contacted me, and we’re now working together towards increasing the quality of the science in this area. There’s a lot of positive stuff, but I’ve also come under a huge amount of attack, personal attack and professional attack, and it definitely colors how non-scientists see me or approach me.”

For instance, last spring, he says he was approached by a contractor for National Geographic about helping the magazine pull together the information on a graphic for an article. He says he provided a summary of where methane comes from globally, including both natural and human sources.

Earlier this month, he learned via a third party that the contractor had been told by an editor at National Geographic that “they perhaps should not use my work,” Howarth says, because the editor had heard from ANGA that his research had been “discredited.”

“I am still in discussions with the contractor and others at National Geographic, so I do not know how this will resolve,” he says, “but if they end up truly not using my work, I would think it newsworthy that an industry PR and lobbying group has that level of influence.”

And when asked whether his university superiors have pressured him because of the blowback?

“They wouldn’t, because it would be pointless, but they haven’t,” he says, citing his full professor status, endowed chair, tenure and continued funding, including grants from Cornell. “I’m certainly not being undercut by the university, and I’m probably receiving good support, I’d say. … I would be really surprised if industry has not spoken to some administrator here, I’d be very surprised, but no one’s told me that, and certainly I haven’t felt any of that pressure. I’d be surprised if it’s not there, but I’m buffered from it, and the structure of the university should buffer me from it. If there is pressure, the system is working as it should.”


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