Critics Question Shale Gas Researcher, Schools

Kevin Begos      Associated Press      May 25, 2012

PITTSBURGH — A well-known expert on the natural gas boom is again facing criticism over his ties to industry and a lack of transparency in how he presents work to the public, fueling debates over research that’s been published by major universities.

Timothy Considine was lead author on a shale gas report recently issued by the University at Buffalo and a previous report from Penn State University. Critics say both reports presented research in misleading ways and failed to fully disclose funding sources.

Considine, now at the University of Wyoming, has gotten funding from industry groups such as the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Wyoming Mining Association, the American Iron and Steel Institute, and the American Petroleum Institute.

On Thursday, the Public Accountability Initiative, a Buffalo nonprofit, issued a critique of the UB study.

“Taken together, the serious flaws in the report, industry-friendly spin, strong industry ties, and fundraising plans raise serious questions about the Shale Resources and Society Institute’s independence and the University at Buffalo’s decision to lend its independent, academic authority to the Institute’s work,” the critique said.

Some say Considine and the University at Buffalo could easily have avoided the controversies over transparency.

“It sounds like a moral blind spot,” said Stephen Satris, a professor of philosophy at the Clemson University Rutland Institute for Ethics.

In 2010, Penn State administrators retracted the original version of a report on the economic impact of Marcellus Shale natural gas, noting that Considine and his co-authors made “a clear error” in not disclosing that the report was funded by an industry group, as well as “flaws in the way the report was written and presented to the public.”

This week, the University at Buffalo published a correction to Considine’s report on environmental regulations involving the Marcellus Shale, noting that an initial claim that it went through an independent peer-review process “may have given readers an incorrect impression.”

The University at Buffalo also said the report “was not funded or commissioned by external sources.” But Considine told The Associated Press in an email that the University of Wyoming paid him and two other lead authors.

Considine said the Wyoming funding was disclosed in a conference call with reporters, and that he was just doing work as a tenured professor. But that funding link wasn’t acknowledged in the actual published report.

Considine is the director of the UW Center for Energy Economics & Public Policy, and the group’s website includes a page called “Outside Organizations.” It contains links to the American Gas Association, the American Petroleum Institute, the Natural Gas Supply Association and the International Society for Industrial Ecology.

Asked about industry-funded research, Considine replied that “two plus two should always equal four, no matter who paid for the pencil.” He added that he doesn’t see how the shale institute “could provide any more transparency than it already has.”

Satris said the suggestion that more transparency wasn’t possible is flat-out wrong, adding that after the PSU experience, the researchers “should know better.”

The University at Buffalo didn’t respond to repeated requests from the AP for comment about the Wyoming funding.

Though some criticize Considine for accepting research funding from industry, that practice is widespread in academia. Wyoming spokesman Chad Baldwin said the school “does not prohibit professors from doing private consulting work” and wouldn’t have information on private contractual arrangements.

“I think that’s behind the times,” Satris said of the school policy, noting that the medical community has moved to embrace full disclosure of research funding after scandals over how the tobacco industry secretly funded pro-smoking studies for decades.

University at Buffalo administrators weren’t clear about the origin and status of funding for the shale institute. Artvoice, a local publication, first reported that the school said funding came through a separate foundation, whose donors aren’t publicly disclosed.

University at Buffalo spokesman John Della Contrada told the AP that “the funding is processed by the foundation, but the foundation is not the source of the funding” and that the school funds the institute.

Minutes from a May 15 faculty meeting at the school note that “funding is still slow and sponsors have not committed yet” to the institute. A new website for the institute says only that the shale institute “will receive funding from many private and government sources” and that it is hosted by “a diverse group of partners.”

On Friday, the University at Buffalo blocked public access to the shale institute website by requiring a password.

Martha McCluskey, a University at Buffalo law professor who was on an ethics committee there, said the new shale institute appears not to meet disclosure provisions and hasn’t gone through the standard process for faculty approval and vetting of new centers and initiatives to preserve academic integrity.

Daniel Wueste, director of the Rutland Institute for Ethics, said any research that might affect public policy should be held to an even higher standard of disclosure.

“You have special responsibilities,” he said.

Scroll to Top