Shale gas research pact with Penn State axed
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a natural gas industry group, canceled a research contract with Penn State University because two professors declined to participate.
The decision follows a formal academic complaint questioning a former professor's 2009 report on the economic impact of shale gas drilling. The first publication of that report did not disclose the industry funding.
The Responsible Drilling Alliance in Williamsport filed the complaint in September with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, claiming the report exaggerated economic benefits by projecting the industry could generate 175,000 jobs annually in Pennsylvania by 2020.
Michael Arthur, co-director of the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, said he and geoscience professor Terry Engelder decided not to participate in this year's study, and other faculty members expressed second thoughts about the project.
Engelder cited a heavy workload and concern that his research might become a focal point in the often contentious battle between anti-drilling groups and industry advocates.
“I think this shale gas revolution is incredibly important to the nation,” he said. “If there is any way I can help the nation take advantage of it, I feel I'm most useful if I'm perceived as in the middle of the spectrum between the industry and the anti-drillers.”
Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the study could not be done “without a full-time Penn State faculty member involved.”
Coalition President Kathryn Klaber said the North Fayette-based organization no longer needs to sponsor third-party research, “given the wide-ranging, readily available government data related to Marcellus shale production rates and the industry's economic impact across Pennsylvania.”
A spokesman for the industry group would not put a dollar figure on the canceled contract, calling that an internal matter. The coalition, which paid Penn State a total of nearly $150,000 for the initial report and follow-up reports in 2010 and 2011, said one potential Penn State researcher wanted a five-year funding commitment that the group was unwilling to make.
Timothy Considine, an economist who wrote the 2009 report “Emerging Giant” with retired Penn State professor Robert Watson, is now with the University of Wyoming.
Neither Considine nor Watson returned calls seeking comment.
Penn State professor Seth Blumsack, who worked on last year's report, could not be reached.
Powers said the university acted quickly in response to its critics, issuing a revised 2009 report within eight days that identified Considine's sponsors.
Many universities across the country accept industry money for research projects, but the accepted practice is to disclose all funding sources.
Jon Bogle, co-founder of the Responsible Drilling Alliance, said the damage is done.
Bogle, a retired Lycoming College art professor, said the group believes the initial report was little more than corporate cheerleading under a Penn State banner.
“They dropped it into Harrisburg when the severance tax debate was going on. It was part of the policy decision that was enacted in favor of the gas industry and against the best interests of the commonwealth,” Bogle said.
Powers noted that the academic complaint refers to something that happened three years ago.
“Any study produced by faculty is likely to draw a number of conclusions, which others may disagree with or consider unsupportable,” she said, calling that “part of the scientific process that helps society determine the most useful, reliable, data-driven solutions.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.