Frackademics – the infiltration of the academic community

Frackademics – how the fracking industry and their PR machine have infiltrated the academic community

This new study commissioned by Talk Fracking, looks at the relationships between scientists, academics, policy makers and the industry.  This report undermines the foundations of the four reports, which the government and industry have relied on to support their case for exploiting shale gas in the UK.

These are:

1.  The Royal Society’s ‘Shale gas extraction’ report (2012),
2.  Public Health England’s ‘Review of potential public health impacts from shale gas extraction’ (2014)
3.  David MacKay and Tim Stone’s report for the DECC, ‘Potential greenhouse gas emissions associated with shale gas production and use’ (2013)
4.  Independent Expert Scientific Panel report on Unconventional Oil and Gas by the Scottish Government (2014).

Our report shows that the fracking industry and their PR machine have infiltrated the academic community and skewed the scientific arguments in favour of shale gas. For instance, the Mackay-Stone report manipulated input data and produced an estimate for emissions that is a quarter of what it should be.  This completely invalidates the credibility of this report.

Whilst David Mackay was chief scientific advisor to DECC from 2009-14 and Regius Professor of Engineering at Cambridge, the majority of Dr Tim Stone’s career has been in finance. The use of ‘scientists’ to represent the Government and industry case, and the reports they have produced to justify Government policy, raise questions of official bias within the use of science-based evidence. This is highlighted in the six case studies chosen for review in this report.

The report suggests the Task Force on Shale Gas, led by Lord Chris Smith, is an industry funded ‘astroturf’ PR exercise.  We have asked Chris Smith to publish details of all communications and correspondence from initial meetings with any PR companies, prior to and since the establishment of the Task Force on Shale Gas, We want to know why Edelman (who specialise in creating fake grassroots organisations for public relations purposes) are acting as the Task Force’s secretariat, when they were previously undertaking this role for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Gas and Oil?

Edelman’s clients have included the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s primary lobbying group, on a public issues campaign aimed at convincing Americans that the industry is facing severe challenges, even as its members pull in record quarterly profits.  In 2005, Edelman mounted an aggressive campaign against Robert Greenwald’s new documentary “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price”, emailing reporters press kits containing a point-by-point rebuttal of the film’s trailer, which Wal-Mart fought to have altered or removed from the website.

Leaked documents obtained by Greenpeace expose a plan by Edelman for TransCanada to launch an aggressive PR campaign to persuade Canadians to support a Canada-based alternative to the stalled Keystone XL pipeline to get controversial tar sands oil to refineries in eastern Canada for export.  But, according to the documents, this Canada-centric campaign would actually be run out of an office in Washington, DC. The digital campaign is being led by a right-wing American political operative employed by the world’s largest public relations firm. One of the identified tactics, pioneered by corrupt US tobacco companies, was Edelman’s recommendation that professors be identified and used as trusted speakers to advance the corporation’s point of view (while not disclosing that the academics had been recruited to do so or “armed” with corporate talking points).

In relation to the task force, we have written to all of the MPs who were members of the Environmental Audit Committee, responsible for reporting on the impact that ‘fracking’ will have on the UK’s environment.  The EAC’s report recommended that the Government should await the findings of the Task Force’s on-going research, and attached significant weight to their authority.  However, we believe this to be a mistake, as the task force is a PR front.  We have also written to the EAC criticising them for referring to the erroneous Mackay-Stone report lacking in credibility.

Our report also shows that the Science Media Centre is not providing a balanced view of the available evidence and uncertainties on the impacts of unconventional oil and gas. It is instead providing access to, and quotes from, academics who mostly support an establishment viewpoint, ignoring the whole body of evidence available on this issue from the USA, Australia and Canada.

We believe this behaviour will lead to a crisis in public confidence and trust, in scientific reporting and academia, and that the Science Media Centre will be significantly responsible for this.

A number of academics from UK educational institutes have been frequently cited in connection with pseudo scientific PR reports generated by the industry. Many of these Professors have clear conflicts of interest, which lead to questions about bias mainly because their research is funded by, or they are directly connected to, the industry.

An open letter, published in the Guardian on Wednesday 4th June 2014, signed by 50 scientists, was drafted by the North West Energy Task Force, a Lancashire based lobby group which is funded by Cuadrilla and Centrica.  The letter was clearly skewed toward the economic benefits of fracking but was signed by scientists rather than economists. The letter came in response to, and just a few days after an open letter from Talk Fracking signed by 150 celebrities, academics, business people and community groups, which called for a public debate on fracking. We have written to all of the individuals and educational institutions who backed the open letter, asking whether it is normal practice for Professors to engage in supporting PR exercises on behalf of the fossil fuel industry, lending their credentials and those of their institutions to support non-scientificarguments. We have also written to the Minster for Universities.

NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) and their Centre for Doctoral Training is Britain’s premier science research institute for thenatural environment. They are responsible for training the next generation of geoscientific and environmental researchers in oil and gas.

Our report asks why NERC lead projects which arguably could damage the viability of our future environment – through pollution, as well as through increasing carbon emissions as a result of developing a new source of fossil fuels.

We do not need to undertake research to find yet more fossil fuels – we already have more than enough proven fossil fuel reserves to breach climatic limits. In which case, why does the Government fund institutes to carry out research to discover or produce yet more fossil fuels? Given the ecological restrictions, fossil fuels production is an industry with no future. Why then do universities devote so much effort to supporting this research?

Read the ‘Frackademics’ report here: 

Case study 1: University funding and NERC’s CDT for Oil and Gas

Case study 2: Academic involvement in major shale gas studies

Case study 3: The Mackay-Stone shale gas climate impacts study

Case study 4: The Science Media Centre and the ‘seeding’ of articles

Case study 5: Guardian ‘open letter’ from academics

Case study 6: The interrelationship between the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Gas and Oil and The Task Force on Shale Gas

Appendix: Information sources for case study diagrams

Talk Fracking