"Scientific Study" or Paid Advertisement for Fracking?

By Shawn Collins of The Collins Law Firm, P.C.

In March 2015, Syracuse University hydrology professor, Donald Siegel, and a team of other scientists published a fracking study in Environmental Science and Technology, the bottom line of which is, basically, "fracking is safe". At least that's the way that the pro-fracking forces are selling it.

Specifically, Professor Siegel and his colleagues concluded that drinking water wells in Pennsylvania had not been contaminated with methane from nearby fracking wells. And they went further. They stated that their study was more rigorous than other---anti-fracking---studies, and implied that their study should be trusted more than the anti-fracking studies. As Siegel bragged: "Our data set is hundreds of times larger than data sets used in prior studies"---which had connected fracking to well water methane contamination---and that "may explain the difference in prior findings compared to our own." 1

Turns out that there is something else which "may explain the difference" between Siegel's study and the anti-fracking studies---like who was paying Siegel to do his study in the first place.

Siegel and his colleagues initially declared on the face of their March 2015 study that they had "no competing financial interest"---i.e., meaning they had no financial interest which might be fairly viewed to influence how they did their study, or reached its conclusion.1

However, the following month, they revealed the truth. And the truth is that:

· Siegel's study was funded by a fracker. And not just any fracker, but a giant fracking company, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, the second-largest natural gas producer in the United States.

· As Siegel and his colleagues were forced to ultimately disclose in a "Correction" to their study, Chesapeake Energy "provid[ed] funding for the authors" of the study. Indeed, the "lead author [Siegel himself] was funded privately by Chesapeake" to do the study. That means that Chesapeake Energy didn't, for example, provide Siegel's employer, Syracuse University, a stipend to cover the study---no, it paid Siegel directly. And neither Siegel nor Chesapeake Energy has said how much he got paid "privately" to author conclusions so favorable to Chesapeake Energy.2

· Also, the "Correction" discloses that another of the study's five authors, Bert Smith, "is a former employee of Chesapeake Energy". In fact, during the very time that he was working on the study, Smith was "employed by" a company that was doing consulting work for Chesapeake Energy. 2

It's no accident that it was Chesapeake Energy which was the patron for the Siegel study. Chesapeake Energy had a sizeable financial interest in the study's fracking-favorable conclusions, given that it has:

· Been aggressively fracking in the very area of Pennsylvania which the Siegel study concerned; 3

· Paid millions in settlements to Pennsylvania residents who claimed that Chesapeake Energy's fracking contaminated their well water (though Chesapeake denies causing the contamination); 3 and

· Reportedly fought the federal EPA's effort to study the dangers of fracking.3

Stripped of its initial secrecy over Chesapeake Energy's financing, the Siegel study is now exposed as a fracker's naked attempt to use the credibility of seemingly serious scientists in order to support fracking. Were the seemingly serious scientists willing to be used for that purpose? Now that the truth has come out, I believe that the Siegel "study" will no longer be seen---if it ever was---as a serious contribution to the fracking debate, but rather as an advertising pamphlet for Chesapeake Energy and other frackers.

Had the study told the truth from the beginning---i.e., that the study was performed by people essentially on Chesapeake Energy's payroll---it probably would not have received much credit as a serious study. But, it lost all hope of being taken seriously when its authors evidently either tried to hide their financial ties to a fracking giant, or thought that the details and depth of their financial ties were something that readers of the study did not deserve to know as they decided how much to believe the study.

Either way, wrong. Dead wrong.

Especially galling are the excuses for the initial non-disclosure offered by Siegel's employer, Syracuse University, and by another of the study's authors.

A Syracuse University vice-president claimed with an apparently straight face that Siegel's initial statement---i.e., that he and his co-authors had "no competing financial interest" in the study---"is in compliance with our internal procedures regarding disclosure of conflicts of interest."4 Really? Syracuse knows that its professor's study might be used to make important scientific decisions potentially affecting lives and property, and yet does not require that professor to disclose that he is being "privately" paid by the very company that stands most to benefit from the study? That's either outright B.S., or slam-dunk proof that Syracuse needs new "internal disclosure procedures".

One of Siegel's co-authors forgave the initial non-disclosure by offering that "everybody would know we're using Chesapeake's database, so of course we're working for Chesapeake." 4 Two things here. One, use of a company's database does not mean you are working for that company. I'm a lawyer that sues polluters, and in just about every case of mine, I'm using the polluter's database to show the extent of the contamination it has caused. It would be idiotic to claim that my use of the database means that I am working for the polluter. Two, you just cannot reconcile the statement that "everybody would know we were working for Chesapeake" with the statement from Siegel and all the study's co-authors in the initial publication that they had "no competing financial interest" in doing the study. Once you say the latter, the thing people are most likely to believe is that you are not working for Chesapeake.

All of this is just the latest proof that the fracking industry would rather we not know the truth. But, if fracking is as safe as they'd like us to believe, why not insist on scientists to do the studies who are not on a fracker's payroll? Or, if they feel they have no choice but to have studies performed by fracking's pet scientists, have the guts to call it what it is.

1 Siegel, Donald I., et al. "Methane Concentrations in Water Wells Unrelated to Proximity to Existing Oil and Gas Wells in Northeastern Pennsylvania." Environmental science & technology 49.7 (Mar. 2015): 4106-4112.

2 Siegel, Donald I., et al. "Correction to Methane Concentrations in Water Wells Unrelated to Proximity to Existing Oil and Gas Wells in Northeastern Pennsylvania." Environmental science & technology 49.9 (Apr. 2015): 5840-5840

3 Huffington Post Green - "Fracking Chemicals Found in Pennsylvania Water Wells, EPA Hamstrung by Industry Meddling" (May 5, 2015)

4 Syracuse.com - "Scientific Journal: SU Prof Paid by Chesapeake for Pro-Fracking Study" (May 8, 2015)