Gas Industrial Complex Series: Speech suppression against scientists becoming standard operating procedure

By Andrew Schenkel

For more than a year the gas industry has been at war with those raising concerns about the hydraulic fracturing process. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as many know it, is a process where large quanties of a water/chemical mixture are injected at high pressures into the ground to get at previously inaccessible gas pockets. For nearly a year the Checks and Balances Project has reported on several individuals whose reputations and careers have been put in jeopardy following studies that reflected poorly on the gas industry. Many of these individuals have gained national attention for their findings.

Dr. Conrad Volz, -former University of Pittsburgh Professor who resigned after the school pressured him to be quiet.

 

 

 

 

In the spring of 2011 Volz, a public health expert with the University of Pittsburgh testified before a congressional hearing on hydraulic fracturing in Washington, DC. In that hearing Volz was the lone voice for concern after the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s Director led congressional members to believe that water contamination from fracking had never happened in Colorado. During that same hearing Volz presented findings of a two-year study he led at the University of Pittsburgh. That study found that that the huge amount of chemicals from fracking waste water that had been dumped into Pennsylvania’s waterways had caused the deaths of wildlife.

A month later Volz brought that same study of the Marcellus Shale Commission’s hearing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where those raising concerns about hydraulic fracturing were treated much differently than those supporting industry. It was at this hearing that Volz spoke with Checks and Balances Project Director Andrew Schenkel who asked if geologic pressures against fracked wells could cause wells to break down allowing for chemicals to travel into public drinking water supplies. Volz’s answer, which can be seen in the video below, directly contradicted the rhetoric of the gas industry, whose leaders had repeatedly said water contamination from hydraulic fracturing was a complete impossibility. “They are going to leak because the cement will shrink and when the cement shrinks it pulls away from the geological layer that it is sealed from, and then it serves as a conduit straight up into ground water aquifers,” said Volz.

 

By the end of July, Volz was the subject of an NPR story that compared his treatment by the University of Pittsburgh to the treatment of a pro-gas professor at Penn State University. While the Penn State professor had been awarded millions and grant money from the gas industry, Volz told the reporter that he had decided to retire from the University of Pittsburgh following pressure from his superiors. The report revealed that Volz was specifically told to not talk about cancer clusters in refineries and that he was going to ruin the university’s changes of landing grant-funding from gas industry leaders Range Resources and Chesapeake Energy. “I quit immediately. I’m 60 years old with a c complete career,” said Volz.

Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, -The University of Wyoming Professor was out of a job at the Colorado School of Mines after one of his study’s found fracking chemicals in a Colorado River.

 

 

 

 

The West Divide Creek Study is often mentioned as one of the clearest examples of chemicals from hydraulic fracturing wells making their way into local waterways. At the time Dr. Thyne was both a professor at the prestigious Colorado School of Mines and the county geologist for Garfield County, Colorado. He was asked to do the study after residents noticed gas bubbles popping up in the West Divide Creek.

The study aimed to find the cause of the bubbles, and the findings suggested a connection to the hydraulic fracturing taking place in the area. “The conclusion of the study was that there was a possibility that it was from deeper sources from the drilling activities. That combined with the fact that we were seeing very high chloride levels was found to be significant,” said Thyne when Schenkel interviewed him in early 2011. When Schenkel asked him why that was significant Thyne replied,

“The water found in these hydrocarbons) used in fracturing) is often very salty and we had samples of that water and had its chemical signature. And we started to see this co-occurrence of high natural gas combined with these high chloride values. So suddenly by process of elimination the most likely source became the gas wells and that opened peoples eyes.”

The study did open eyes. The possibility of groundwater contamination in one of the most heavily hydraulically fracked areas in the nation drew the attention of both the gas industry and Thyne’s superiors at the Colorado School of Mines. In the video below, Thyne explains how almost immidetly after the study gained notoriety he began hearing from superiors at the School of Mines, which was hoping to secure more grant funding from the gas industry. “Various political pressures were brought and I was told to stop the research, which I will say was very unusual,” said Thyne.

 

Following the West Divide Creek study Thyne said his roles at the Colorado School of Mines were marginalized and diminished at a steady rate. For two years, Thyne said he was essentially told he’d be, “better off someplace else.” His contract with the Colorado School of Mines was not renewed. He has since been hired to teach geology at the University of Wyoming.

Dr. Robert Howarth, -weeks after releasing a study about carbon emissions leaking from natural gas pipelines, the Cornell University professor found himself the target of a discreditation campaign.

 

 

 

 

Dr. Robert Howarth and a team of scientists from Cornell University released a study in the spring of 2011 that suggested that methane gas leaking from pipelines could be much more harmful to the environment than previously thought.

Howarth, who was the lead author of the study, traveled around the country with two other researches to present this research. As the study gained interest the attacks on Howarth’s image began. “All you have to do is google my name,” said Howarth during an interview with the Checks and Balances Project this spring. Howarth was referring to a Google advertisement sullying Howarth’s reputation that was paid for by the American Natural Gas Association (ANGA). The advertisement became and remains the first thing that comes up when you search for the professor’s name. “They are trying hard in their pushback,” said Howarth in the video posted below. He added, “Quite frankly their comments and criticisms are way off base.”

 

Unlike Thyne and Volz, Howarth still teaches at the same institution as when he began his research. But the smear campaign against him remains in tact. One of Howarth’s co-researchers, Tony Ingraffea, who has also been part of gas industry attacks, said he is not the least bit surprised by the attacks on Howarth. “For the industry to take an approach that attacks Bob and indirectly me, my name is mentioned, is not a good way to conduct a scientific response to what we think is a scientific inquiry. So I am disappointed but not surprised,” Ingraffea said.

But wait there’s more…

Beyond the campaigns against academics, the industry has developed quite the track record of buying influence, and suppressing concerns about hydraulic fracturing around the country. In Garfield County Colorado, big time influence over small town politics has resulted in three pro-gas politicians infiltrating the Board of County Commissioners. That same county has seen several other private citizens, as well as public employees become the targets of anti gas campaigns. Pennsylvania the Checks and Balances Project has reported several times that the gas industry’s influence over the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission has resulted in citizens struggling to get their voices heard during public comment sessions.

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