Fracking and academic freedom

Fired researcher paints pattern of pressure from oil and gas industry

Geoffrey Thyne

A former researcher who says he left the Colorado School of Mines due to pressure from the oil and gas industry has now lost his university job in Wyoming after an industry association complained to his superiors about comments he made about fracking.


It appears to be one of several examples of faculty around the country experiencing blowback from the powerful oil and gas industry after releasing research exposing the possible health hazards associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and other extraction processes.

What makes Geoffrey Thyne’s case distinctive is that he claims he and his university employers have caught heat from the industry more than once.

Thyne, who began working at Mines as a research faculty member in 1996, made some controversial remarks about fracking in 2005. He was reviewing the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2004 report on hydraulic fracturing at the request of Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project, and he says the EPA study’s conclusion was essentially that because there was no data on water impacts from fracking, there was no threat of contamination.

“Absence of proof is not proof of absence,” he says.

Just as Thyne was about to begin a research project to provide some of that data, he criticized the EPA report in interviews, and media outlets around the country printed his quotes. Thyne says the head of the Mines institute where he worked warned him to be careful, because his comments made it seem like he was representing the school. It was a sensitive political climate, Thyne says, as fracking was about to become exempted from the Clean Water Act and as the Ward Churchill witch hunt was in full swing at the University of Colorado.

So when another of Thyne’s controversial quotes about fracking appeared in the media a short time later, he says “the tenor of the conversation changed” and his boss told him he was getting “pushback” from alumni and members of the board of trustees. Then, Thyne says, a vice president told him to drop the fracking research project he was starting, or else his contract would not be renewed. So he dropped the project.

He says he learned later from a Mines secretary that it was the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), not just trustees and alumni, who had complained to school administrators about his comments. She reportedly told Thyne that she had scheduled the meeting between the trade group and Mines officials, and that she was asked to verify that he had dropped his fracking research project before the vice president would sign Thyne’s next contract.

He took a job at the University of Wyoming the following year.

“I kind of felt unloved,” Thyne says.

He kept his appointment at Mines for a period of time, but after an interview he did with National Public Radio angered Mines officials a third time, he was told he wouldn’t be reappointed, according to Thyne.

Mines officials and COGA President Tisha Schuller did not respond to requests for comment by press time. But Mines spokesperson Marsha Williams told the Colorado Independent in July 2009 that Thyne was never threatened with dismissal, but she acknowledged that the school had received “inquiries” about Thyne’s controversial comments.

“As a result,” she said in a prepared statement, “Mines officials phoned and emailed Dr. Thyne to inform him of the inquiries, and also to remind him of the university policy that people must be clear in public communications that the opinions they express are personal and do not represent institution positions — one way or another — on issues being discussed.”

In hot water again

Thyne says he faced similar pressure in Wyoming, where he was a senior research scientist at the Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute (EORI) — until his appointment was not renewed this year. According to materials on EORI’s website, it “assists Wyoming oil producers with recovery of Wyoming’s stranded oil” and depends at least in part on “industry collaboration and project cofunding.” Its governing commission and advisory board include members of the oil and gas industry.

In other words, it’s likely that when an EORI staffer says something that upsets the industry the institute serves, it’s a problem.

This time, it was an interview with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle newspaper in spring 2011 that got Thyne into trouble with the oil and gas industry.

He gave reporter Shauna Stephenson some figures on the amount of water used during a frack job: 48 million to 70 million gallons. While Stephenson’s May 4, 2011, article did include quotes attributed to Thyne, the newspaper did not attribute the figures to anyone, and cited them again in an editorial printed that day.

According to Thyne, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming (PAW) objected to the 70 million gallon figure, saying it was way too high, and contacted the newspaper to find out where Stephenson got her numbers. Thyne says that when PAW traced the information back to the university and Thyne’s institute, he got called into a meeting with a university government affairs officer, who told him he needed to meet with PAW members.

In that meeting, Thyne told PAW representatives Jonathan Ekstrom of Noble Energy and Jody Levin of Levin Strategic Resources how he got his figure. He based it on a calculation of the amount of water needed to frack an especially long well. Wells stretching horizontally for about a mile need to be fracked in up to 40 different sections, he says, using between 1 million and 2 million gallons of water for each section. Thyne offered to qualify his statements, but he says the PAW representatives wanted him to “say it’s wrong in writing.”

He says his boss at the institute told him to write a letter to the newspaper’s editor making it clear he was not speaking on behalf of the university, which he did, without retracting his number.

“This will continue to happen as long as you speak out on a subject like this,” Thyne says of the pressure he’s experienced. “Industry handled this about as badly as they possibly could have. This is totally my opinion, but I think they handed this off to PR people at some point, and they’ve chosen a strategy that’s going to fail. It has to fail.”

He describes it as a strategy to deny, cover up, avoid responsibility and discount industry critics.

Thyne says he knows of no other staffer whose contract has not been renewed in his six years at the institute, and when he asked why his was not, he says his boss told him, “We don’t have to tell you.”

He says, however, that university officials have acknowledged to him that “we get a lot of money from these guys.”

EORI responds

EORI Director David Mohrbacher counters the perception that Thyne’s dismissal was related to pressure from industry.

“The reason for not renewing his contract was not related to his participation with the press,” he told Boulder Weekly. “It was not related to that. It was based on EORI achieving their technical, strategic objectives. We chose a different way to go, and really that’s all I can say. … The input that I got regarding the direction of our research program came from many sources, our technical advisory board, our commission, and it wasn’t related to any of Geoff ’s public statements.”

Mohrbacher also downplayed the extent to which EORI is controlled by the oil and gas industry, saying the institute is funded primarily by the state, and that the “minor” amount contributed by oil and gas interests is used primarily for conferences.

“Usually, the harder questions come from special interest groups, environmental groups,” he says.

Finally, he says he worked with Thyne to answer questions about whether he used “the best data he could have to identify how much water is required for hydraulic fracturing. The way I helped was we looked at his literature search, which was fairly limited, and we looked at what others within the state have estimated, and Geoff was able to explain to the stakeholders that came foward why his numbers were representative. I mean, it was his work, not mine. I understood his method and I supported him in providing explanations.”

But he added that the “lesson learned” was that “when you do a literature search, you do a complete search and you’re able to explain the basis of your numbers and how they apply. So he used data from other regions, and how does that regional data apply in Wyoming?”

PAW’s Ekstrom, who attended the meeting with Thyne, says the 70 million gallon figure “seemed like a lot higher than what members of our committee had heard internally, and figures that we discuss, so we tracked down who that was. So we were asked to get to the bottom of it, and eventually we were able to track that figure back to Dr. Thyne, so we went and met with him and talked about it.”

When asked if they were putting pressure on Thyne and the institute to retract the figure, Ekstrom says, “No, I mean, we were having a conversation about it, and we felt like that was potentially misleading.”

John Robitaille, vice president of PAW, told BW that one concern with having an overly high water estimate in the paper was that area well owners who are considering selling their water to oil and gas companies (instead of for agriculture) might get the wrong impression of how much water the industry is buying.

“We didn’t want those figures to go out,” he says, “[because] when a landowner says, ‘Oh you’re going to buy 50 million gallons of my water for this well,’ the operator would say, ‘No, that’s a tremendous amount more than I need.’”

Robitaille says even the state engineer was perturbed by the figure because he monitors state water use.

“When we see numbers like this, he starts to panic a bit, and rightfully so,” Robitaille says. “These are gigantic numbers and grossly misinterpreted, so we felt it was necessary to correct those figures, which never happened.”

Robitaille explains that the newspaper never issued a correction and never printed Thyne’s letter.

He acknowledges initially contacting the editor who wrote the editorial, who referred him to the reporter, who referred him to the university institute.

“It was somewhat of a goose chase to find this,” Robitaille says. “But if the university is going to issue credible information, they should do so. That’s what we went to discuss. These figures are not correct, not credible, but they’re in a source that makes them credible. We can’t have a university like that, we can’t have those numbers just float out of the air, where it would send a rancher believing he’s going to sell 10 times more than he possibly can.”

Robitaille denies that anyone from PAW demanded that Thyne write the letter to the newspaper.

“Apparently he took it upon himself to write a letter to the paper detailing that fact,” he says. “That’s my understanding. I didn’t ask him to do that, and that was never published, either. … We never saw anything, and we just went about our business.”

Robitaille acknowledges asking the paper to correct the figure if it went forward with plans to reprint the reporter’s oil and gas series for distribution at Cheyenne’s Frontier Days, but he doesn’t think the paper ended up publishing the special issue.

“They could have handed out whatever they want, but it seems a little bit more responsible to report the correct information,” he says.

Tribune Eagle representatives did not respond to BW’s questions by press time.

Robitaille denied having anything to do with the fact that Thyne is no longer employed at the university.

“That’s a decision the university clearly made,” he says. “We have not had contact with the university nor with Dr. Thyne since that initial meeting. Whatever their decision is is their decision. We don’t have any reason to get into any of their personnel issues down there.”

When asked whether this incident may have had something to do with Thyne’s dismissal, Robitaille says, “I really don’t know, I’m not going to speculate on that.”

And in response to a question about what kind of sway the oil and gas industry has at the university, he says, “That’s strictly University of Wyoming policy, whatever they do, they do. That’s their decision, it’s how they choose to operate.”

If a major donor or funding source asked someone at the university to stop doing something, couldn’t that have a trickle-down effect?

“I don’t believe so,” Robitaille replies.

Other cases

Thyne says he’s not the only one who’s been subjected to undue pressure from the oil and gas industry. He says he knows of faculty around the nation who have been targeted as well, including an engineer at Cornell University who called for an outright fracking ban in his state.

“Industry did a bunch of nasty pieces on him, trying to make him look like a wild-eyed, pistol-waving lunatic,” Thyne says.

There was even one woman from the tiny town of Raton, N.M., who claimed she was being followed and harassed after complaining about her water well being contaminated by nearby drilling operations.

“This ain’t shit,” Thyne says of his own situation. “I’ve talked to people who’ve been shot at. … It’s a real sticky situation, because there are some people getting jobs in the community, because of the development, and they’re good-paying jobs, and this is changing our economy, so it’s all positive, and then you say, ‘Yeah, well, so-and-so screwed up my well, and they won’t compensate me for it, so I’m going to take them to court, or I’m going to make waves.’ And you’ve got your neighbors mad at you.”

In addition, taking a big oil or gas company to court isn’t a walk in the park.

“You’ve got to have really deep pockets, you’ve got to go to court for a couple of years,” Thyne says. “They’re going to push it back and push it back and push it back, and then they’re going to wait until the last second, literally, and they’re going to settle. And they’re probably going to simply buy your land for what you paid for it, and get you to sign a nondisclosure [agreement] and say bye bye.”

Thyne, who has worked in the field for three decades, including on an offshore platform in California, says this industry will eventually be forced to undergo closer regulatory scrutiny, like other industries have done.

“It’s a huge industry, and it’s not regulated, except by the states, and that’s kind of humorous,” he says, adding that at the very least there need to be stiffer monetary penalties for companies that don’t self-report spills and other mishaps. “Add another zero or two.”

Thyne has a three-part solution that would rein in Colorado’s oil and gas industry and address related health and safety concerns:

• Put all data online, as is now done in Wyoming.

• Put tracers in fracking fluid and other liquids used so that we can find out where it ends up.

• Create more accountability for companies by levying steep fines and making them clean up the messes they make.

Thyne says changes in the industry may take time, but at least the media has raised awareness about the issue.

“It’s definitely happened because of stories in the press,” he says.

As for his own ousters, perhaps shining light on the industry’s modus operandi for going after its critics will help as well.

“They don’t call you, they don’t call your boss,” Thyne says of their method. “They go as high up the food chain as they can get. It sounds like dirty pool to me.”

Luckily, Thyne says, he’s gotten a couple of job offers, so he won’t be unemployed for long.

But he says he’s not likely to work for a university again.

“Academia is not a good fit for any kind of involvement in this stuff,” he says.



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