May 08, 2013

At Revamped Energy Institute, Industry Partnerships Remain Key

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the source and type of the institute’s funding from the University of Texas.

By Matthew Stottlemyre
For Reporting Texas

The road to redemption from a debunked and abandoned study holds at least one more challenge for the University of Texas Energy Institute and its new guard of administrators. A conflict of interest policy that promised to prevent the past from repeating itself has been delayed by the UT System amid protests from faculty, and the institute’s interim director says industry partnerships will remain key to funding its research.

Since UT established it in 2009, EI had been riding high and awash in money aimed at projects to “alter the trajectory of public discourse.” Its first publication, released on Feb. 16, 2012, drew worldwide attention for proclaiming that the controversial drilling process known as fracking doesn’t contaminate groundwater.

And that’s when the trouble started. In July 2012, a watchdog group publicized undisclosed ties between the lead researcher, Charles “Chip” Groat, and the energy industry — namely a $413,900 position on an oil and gas company’s board in 2011. By December, an independent review had found procedural problems with the report, Groat had left the university for a job that he describes as an opportunity and not “an escape clause,” and institute director Raymond Orbach had resigned but remained on campus as tenured faculty.

Today, EI is working hard to make a comeback. Thomas Edgar, who was named interim director in February, said in an interview that the institute is focused on putting its house in order, but the new order will continue to involve industry support for its research.

Edgar said it hasn’t been easy. He’s received push back from researchers, from UT and elsewhere, he has tried to recruit for EI projects. By and large, he has found most people are willing to move forward because they realize the institute is working on new projects and has new people, Edgar said.

“I have a theory about our culture today, which is that most people are actually willing to forget things,” he said.

The Institute plans to publish its next report, which began under the previous leadership, this summer.

On April 1, mechanical engineering professor Michael Webber was named deputy director, replacing Charles E. Cooke, who, according to the university, resigned to rejoin EOP Group, a Washington DC-based energy think tank.

Despite the public scrutiny after the Groat study, the UT System has announced it will delay and reconsider its plans for new disclosure policies for all researchers. The policy would have required compensated and uncompensated activity outside the university and any gifts more worth than $250, among other disclosures, to be entered in a publicly searchable database.

Edgar said if anything, private companies will play a more central role in funding the Energy Institute’s research as sources of public funding shrink under political pressure. He said when he meets with industry representatives to discuss projects, he often finds one of his former doctoral students sitting across the table, which makes the process easier.

“You have to have a dialogue with industry,” said Edgar, a chemical engineering professor. He left an oil company to join the UT faculty in 1971 and has disclosed a continuing financial stake in the industry. He has served as an industry consultant, has investments in oil and gas properties and has been active in various trade and professional organizations.

“You develop a relationship based on a certain amount of trust — sharing information, being able to honestly discuss what the key research questions are,” Edgar said. He said the best way for that to happen is to involve experts already on campus.

“One of the things the Energy Institute could do more of is to try to influence policy, but then make sure whatever policy that does get implemented is well informed by science and engineering,” Edgar said. “I think it involves trying to get faculty involved as opposed to my saying ‘Let me just go out and hire a bunch of staff to do these studies.’”

Among the institute’s changes is an effort to improve communication among UT energy researchers — one of the institute’s original goals. Edgar said institute wasn’t able to cast a wide enough net over campus in its first years.

Edgar said the institute had started sending out a monthly newsletter so that the estimated 300 to 400 energy researchers on campus — and others who might be interested in doing related work — can be more aware of each other’s efforts.

“I like this idea about connecting different disciplines together,” he said. “There may be other mechanisms by which we can get people to start getting connected together, and that’s one of the things I hope to think about a lot more in the future.”

The proposed conflict of interest policy would have been a positive step, said Kevin Connor, director of the Public Accountability Initiative — the group that originally published Groat’s oil and gas ties. But Connor said systemic ties between academia and industry still cast doubt on much energy research.

He said a bigger issue than simply disclosing all financial interests is whether people with a stake in the oil and gas industry should conduct oil and gas studies intended to influence policy.

“Why not engage other researchers without a financial stake to conduct this research?” Connor said.

Connor said he doesn’t think industry partnerships should be done away with completely and that they can have mutual benefits. However, he said research institutions do not manage the partnerships closely enough. For instance, his organization recently reported that a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study had also failed to disclose conflicts similar to Groat’s.

According to the report, Ernest J. Moniz, director of MIT’s Energy Initiative and President Barack Obama’s energy secretary appointee, received hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies in the oil and natural gas industry in 2011, when the study was published.

MIT Energy Initiative spokeswoman Vicki Ekstrom said the researchers had followed all university policies and disclosed their outside professional activity internally, but the university does not release this information publicly.

“To my knowledge, the MIT administration is not planning on making any changes,” Ekstrom said. “Nor do I personally see any reason for them to.”

Regardless of whether the UT system adopts more stringent disclosure policies, Edgar said Energy Institute publications will go through a more rigorous internal review process than in the past. He said he is also considering a policy that requires any basic findings to be prominently attributed to individual researchers, with the institute serving more as an outlet for collection of information and publication.

Edgar is hopeful about the future. “Really the research is going on outside of the institute,” Edgar said. “We have a capability of being able to come in and say ‘Hey, let’s get a bunch of folks together and figure out how to work on this.’”

He said with such a broad knowledge base on campus, one former faculty member told him if UT can’t have a successful Energy Institute, then no one probably can.

“I’m making a tacit assumption that ‘I’m sure we have people here who are knowledgeable in this field,’” Edgar said. “We’re big enough. We’ve got enough going on that we can address almost any area. We don’t have a single area of energy not covered on this campus — basically.”