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'Frackademia': Climate Science for Sale

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The Well Next Door: Andrew Rosenberg

If you live in Los Angeles, you may have noticed the slogans on the side of Metro buses announcing that they're part of the "nation's largest clean-air fleet," or in Culver City, that they are "powered by clean natural gas." The slogans look official, and seem to reflect the position of each city that natural gas is good for the environment. In truth, the safety and "cleanliness" of gas is still very much up for debate.

The term "Clean Natural Gas" is itself an oil and gas industry contrivance, and a misnomer for what is primarily methane -- a potent greenhouse gas. "Pound for pound," states the EPA, "the comparative impact of methane on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2." (So if those bus slogans were truthfully public service announcements, they might read: "This bus runs on fracked gas -- a major contributor to global warming!")

Unfortunately, this is just one example of an octopus-like propaganda campaign to convince Americans that fracking is safe for public health -- the biggest arm of which runs right up and into some of our most trusted universities.

At MIT, a fracking study failed to disclose that one of its authors had joined the board of a consulting firm with oil and gas ties -- to the tune of $300,000 in compensation. At SUNY Buffalo, an investigation of oil industry bias at the Shale Resources and Society Institute resulted in its closure, and at the University of Texas at Austin, the results of a fracking study were called into question when the lead researcher turned out to be on the board of a gas driller.

While the average person may recognize the above as examples of blatant conflict of interest, to some academic insiders "frackademia" has become disturbingly common. Andrew Rosenberg of the Union for Concerned Scientists (watch him in the above video), a clearinghouse for independent science with over 400,000 members, says that "in too many instances, the oil industry is essentially purchasing the results it wants."

In one particularly high-profile example, USC published a study announcing that fracking would produce half a million jobs in California. That number was breathlessly repeated in the media -- with little mention that the study was funded by the Western States Petroleum Asssociation. Deborah Goldberg, a leading attorney for Earthjustice, points out that "there are far more jobs in renewable energy than there are in fossil fuel development -- no question!" But without the cash that Big Oil puts behind fossil-friendly studies, the economic advantages of renewables simply get less media play.

Recently, an all-out media war between frackademics and independent scientists has broken out over one particular fracking fact which could have massive implications for human health.

The oil and gas industry has historically tried to downplay fracking's connection to water contamination, air pollution, and earthquake clusters with the argument that fracked gas is a cleaner greenhouse fuel than oil and coal. However, independent scientists have recently begun to question that assertion in earnest.

Methane, which has an exponentially greater ability to warm the planet than coal, as cited above, also has a tendency to leak at various points of the drilling, capturing, and transportation process. Like any gas, methane is nothing if not an escape artist, which is why so many homes near fracking wells end up with flammable tapwater.

"Methane leakage, combined with its fossil fuel emissions, mean that natural gas will ultimately NOT help us make a significant reduction in global warming," says Andrew Rosenberg, "especially when we have renewables as an option." This assertion has been echoed by leading climate scientists, and was recently summarized in a New York Times op-ed which called natural gas a "gangplank to a warm future."

Culver City buses use the phrase, "Powered by Clean Natural Gas..." | Photo: Courtesy Tim Long

Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has tried to focus the fracking debate exclusively on the rate of fugitive methane emissions -- a number then can manipulate with the help of pliant academics.

In 2011, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) announced that "unless leaks can be kept below 2%, gas lacks any climate advantage over coal." Then in May of this year, a study by the Environmental Defense Fund found that fugitive methane emissions were now under 1 percent -- well beneath the bar. The industry celebrated...until nearly 70 environmental groups lambasted the study as not only financed by the oil and gas industry, but shaped by it.

As detailed by Cornell ecologist Robert Howarth in his official response to the study, the EDF scientists allowed the industry to cherry-pick which wells were examined. In addition, they measured emissions from only 190 wells total. This is an inadequate sample size, considering there are more than 500,000 fracking wells across the U.S. -- a number that grows every day; 25,000 new wells were drilled last year alone. Most egregiously, said Howarth, the EDF team took methane measurements only at the drilling pad -- failing to measure pollution that escapes during compression, processing, storage, transmission, and distribution -- i.e., the very points at which it is known to escape.

Meanwhile, independent scientists have been measuring fugitive emissions using methods without such bias. For example, emissions can now be quantified using imaging technology deployed from airplanes flying over a driller's oilfield -- whether or not they are aware of it -- and the results have been markedly different:

In his own study at Cornell, Howarth found that the total methane emissions generated during the life of a gas well could be as high as 7.85% percent. Another independent study by the American Geophysical Union reported a rate of 9 percent, and one by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found an eye-popping rate of up to 17 percent. (Summaries of the latest independent science on fracking, as well as climate change, can be found on the Union of Concerned Scientists website.)

So why are some of our top universities -- and even trusted entities like the Environmental Defense Fund -- so susceptible to oil industry financing and influence?

The answer, says Dr. Miranda Schreurs, an expert on international environmental policy, has to do with a robust anti-environmental movement driven by conservatives. Within the fossil fuel industry, a handful of companies stand to suffer significant financial losses if Americans gain the political will to curb climate change. So as a self-protective measure, they have pumped enormous amounts of money into denying its very existence. As revealed in a congressional review by Senator Al Franken, outfits such as The Heartland Institute, the Institute for Energy Research, and the American Enterprise Institute have been paid handsomely for this very purpose. The Koch brothers alone have given over $67 million to groups denying climate change since 1997.

This campaign to manufacture passivity is working, at least in some areas of the country. Today, eight Republican senators -- on the Environment and Public Works Committee, no less -- deny that climate change is real. In the general population, 58 percent of all Republicans believe that global warming is a hoax, compared to only 11 percent of Democrats.

Because of these attitudes, continues Schreurs, U.S. federal funding of climate change research -- including the impact of fracking -- pales in comparison to many European countries. Those coffers have been further drained by the economic crisis, and the oil industry has happily volunteered to fill the void.

Independently of one another, all three experts interviewed for this article -- Rosenberg, Goldberg, and Schreurs -- said that reforms can only come if American citizens get more politically vocal. In Europe, says Schreurs, "protesting is considered a family affair involving picnics and wine -- and it happens on a monthly, even weekly basis."

"We, as members of a democracy, need to demand better funding for environmental protection," said Goldberg, "and we need to elect a president who is willing to embrace renewables and buck these oil industry players."

Until our government more generously funds climate change research and prevention, it will be difficult for universities to study fracking without oil industry financing. However, when nothing less than the health and safety of humanity hangs in the balance, universities must firmly and resolutely dictate the protocols of those studies to the fossil fuel industry -- not the other way around. In the meantime, perhaps it's best to approach all statements about "clean natural gas" -- whether they're on the side of a bus, in an academic journal, or even an environmental blog -- with a healthy degree of scrutiny.

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