Big Oil Pays the Bills at Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research

Dr. Jeremy Boak, Director of the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research (COSTAR) has been working hard this past year, trying to downplay fears about oil shale’s impact on western water supplies. And, while Dr. Boak has plenty to say, he fails to mention that the companies experimenting with oil shale fund his program. This sort of corporate sponsorship for academics isn’t new, but it’s the sort of thing people should know when considering his opinions. After all, the saying “don’t bite the hand that feeds” could be seen to apply here.

COSTAR is a program at Colorado School of Mines, which was started in 2008 with funding from three oil companies – ExxonMobil, Shell and Total Exploration and Production. According to a Colorado School of Mines press release, COSTAR is a $900,000 per year research center.  COSTAR’s website lists corporate money first among its funding sources. So, we think Dr. Boak has a pretty strong incentive to see oil shale speculation and experimentation continue.

The Guardian published a story last week on a similar situation, but with fracking instead of oil shale. According to the article, the gas industry has been buying up academic research so that data will show only the benefits of hydraulic fracturing, not the risks. After all, academic institutions have long been trusted sources for independent, third party research. Some might say, it’s hard to remain independent when the industries institutions studying are paying their bills.

The Guardian calls it “frackademia,” and sometimes the result of these relationships can be pretty obvious. Take this example:

Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat took early retirement from the University of Texas at Austin after his financial ties to the industry became public. The researcher, whose study had concluded that there is “no link between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination”, sits on the board of Plains Exploration and Production Company, a Houston-based fracker. Groat has received over $2m in cash and stock options from the company since 2007.

We don’t know what, if any, financial ties Dr. Boak has to oil shale companies, other than that they subsidize his paycheck as Director of COSTAR. In 2012, Dr. Boak spoke at an API-sponsored briefing on oil shale in Washington, D.C. Was he paid to appear and speak there? Who paid for his plane ticket or hotel room? Did the Colorado School of Mines have to foot the bill for his API press conference appearance? These are questions only Dr. Boak can answer, and maybe he should.

At the very least, the fact that Dr. Boak’s income is funded by oil companies should be mentioned whenever he’s quoted and he shouldn’t be listed as an “academic” source. When Dr. Boak gives his opinion, he’s cashing a check made possible by the same companies promoting oil shale.

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