Fracking Industry Pays to Play with Pennsylvania Universities

(part 2 of 3) [Part 1: Lackawanna College, a two-year college in Scranton, Pennsylvania, accepted a $2.5 million endowment from Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. to strengthen that college’s programs and ties to the oil and gas industry.]

Two of the reasons Pennsylvania has no severance tax and one of the lowest taxes upon shale gas drilling are because of an overtly corporate-friendly legislature and a research report from Penn State, a private state-related university that receives about $300 million a year in public funds.

Opponents of the tax cited a Penn State study that claimed a 30 percent decline in drilling if the fees were assessed, while also touting the economic benefits of drilling in the Marcellus Shale. What wasn’t widely known is that the lead author of the study, Dr. Timothy Considine, “had a history of producing industry-friendly research on economic and energy issues,” according to reporting by Jim Efsathioi Jr. of Bloomberg News. The Penn State study was sponsored by a $100,000 grant from the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an oil and gas lobbying group that represents more than 300 energy companies. Dr. William Easterling, dean of Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, said the study may have “crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy.”

The Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research (MCOR), a part of Penn State, announced that with funding provided by General Electric and ExxonMobil, it would offer a “Shale Gas Regulators Training Program.” The Center had previously said it wasn’t taking funding from private industry. However, the Center’s objectivity may have already been influenced by two people. Gov. Tom Corbett, who accepted more than $2 million in campaign funds from oil and gas company personnel, sits on the university’s board of trustees; billionaire Terrence (Terry) Pegula, owner of the Buffalo Sabres hockey team, was CEO of East Resources, which he had sold to Royal Dutch Shell for $4.7 billion in July 2010.

Pegula and his wife had also contributed about $380,000 to Corbett’s political campaign. On the day Pegula donated $88 million to Penn State to fund a world-class ice hockey arena and support the men’s and women’s intercollegiate ice hockey team, he said, “[T]his contribution could be just the tip of the iceberg, the first of many such gifts, if the development of the Marcellus Shale is allowed to proceed.” At the groundbreaking in April 2012, Pegula announced he increased the donation to $102 million.

The Shale Technology and Education Center (ShaleTEC) program at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, a branch of Penn State, was established “to serve as the central resource for workforce development and education needs of the community and the oil and natural gas industry,” according to its website.

With an initial $15,000 grant from the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) planned to establish certificate and academic programs for workers either already employed by or intending to enter jobs that provide services to Marcellus Shale companies. In a news release loaded with pro-Corbett and pro-industry appeal, college president Stephen M. Curtis announced in November 2012, “The goal is to support the supply chain now serving energy companies and offer specialized career training that connects residents to the high-pay, high-demand career paths.” John Braxton, assistant professor of biology and an ecologist, said CCP “must not be used as a PR puppet for shale gas fracking companies,” accurately noting that the fracking industry “got a free publicity ride” by the administration’s hasty decisions. Within two weeks of CCP’s announcement, the faculty union (AFT Local 2026), which represents the college’s 1,050 faculty and 200 staff, condemned the decision to establish the Center “without the consideration or approval of the faculty, and with total disregard for established College procedures for instituting new academic curricula.” In a unanimous vote by the Representative Council, the faculty declared, “the natural gas drilling . . . industry and peripheral and related industries present unacceptable dangers and risks to public health, worker safety, the natural environment, and quality of life.” Curtis left CCP in Summer 2013; the proposed program was never developed, and remains unfunded.

In April 2011, Gov. Corbett had suggested that the 14 universities of the State System of Higher Education (SSHE) could allow natural gas drilling on the campuses that sit on top of the Marcellus Shale. The ensuing Act, passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, includes clauses to compromise the universities’ academic integrity. In exchange for supporting fracking, the new act allows the university where the gas is extracted to retain one-half of all royalties; 35 percent would go to the other state universities; 15 percent would be used for tuition assistance at the 14 state universities. California and Mansfield universities have already begun to profit from fracking.

In a secret negotiation revealed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Student Association of California University signed over mineral rights on 67 acres. The lease includes a confidentiality clause.

The Marcellus Institute at Mansfield University is “an academic/shale gas partnership,” designed to educate the people about the issues of natural gas production. The university holds summer classes for teachers and week-long camps for high school students to allow them to “Learn about the development of shale gas resources in our region and the career and educational opportunities available to you after high school!”

The university’s associate in applied sciences (A.A.S.) degree in natural gas production and services, begun in Fall semester 2012, was fast-tracked, submitted and approved in less than six months rather than the 12–18 months normally required for approval. The university “will take as many students as we can,” said Lindsey Sikorski, the Institute’s director, although only one new faculty position was approved. The SSHE administration encourages larger class sizes and fewer permanent professors. The program, Sikorski says, “is not one of advocacy for the industry, and all sides will be considered.”

walter braschThe program has not received any grants from the industry; Sikorski said she “doesn’t want there to be any conflicts of interest” that would “compromise the integrity of the program.” However, the reality is that energy companies and their lobbying groups may eventually fill a financial hole created by Corbett cutting higher education funding and the system’s chancellor refusing to protect academic integrity in the state-owned universities. (Neither Chancellor John Cavanaugh nor his successor, Frank Brogan, responded to repeated calls.)

The union that represents the state system’s 6,000 faculty passed a resolution in September 2013 opposing drilling on campuses, stating that the campuses “are not appropriate locations for [fracking] given the environmental and health hazards of the fracking process.”

Walter Brasch


  1. Jim Young says

    Apparently, a link I tried to send did not make it into my previous, incomplete, comment.

    Please look up “Corporate Partnerships with Penn State Sharing a Vision, Shaping a Future”

  2. Jim Young says

    A possible example of how Pay to Play seems to generate academic support?

    I attended a presentation, described as: “Public lecture by Sue Brantley, Distinguished professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, the fourth 2014 Science Lecture on “How Fracking Impacts Our Water: The Pennsylvania Experience.”

    I believe the information she presented may not have been specifically untrue, but seemed a best case for the way things should work if done by the best plans and actual practices that should occur in a well regulated system, and did describe some problems, interestingly (to me) about the lack of access to some important information such as baseline information before drilling, and possible impact on releasing post drilling or transitory event information that could impact homeowners property values that the homeowners, themselves might want to keep from being “misinterpreted” negatively. THAT LACK OF INFORMATION MAY BE CRITICAL, and is not helped by the attempted Cheney/Bush closure of the 10 Regional EPA libraries, and seemingly difficult access to that records there are in the agencies that are supposed to be using it in our interests. I’m also concerned by the private money solicited for universities when it may have some conflict of interests (even unintentional), when I look at things like

    The main problem I had with the presentation, though, was she described the supposed safety of drilling 10,000 ft wells, very different from our L.A. county wells, which I believe are only about 2,000 ft, and are heavily stimulated within a fracture zone that gave us; Baldwin Hills Dam (1963), Ross Dress for Less explosion and 3 days of flames (1985), and grossly under regulated Playa Vista development/Bollona Wetlands now used to store natural gas (with seemingly far too much leakage through even the existing orphan wells, natural fractures, say nothing of what happens with our next earthquakes).

    Compliance to best practices, vs actual practices? Videos of spraying waste (implied to be re-injected or taken to sacrifice zones in) into fields near the drill sites show it’s not. NBC4 did a series showing how bad the actual practices were (2006, I think), and now I hear veteran oil field workers describing even worse compliance, now that we seem to have no effective regulators left.

    I’m not at all surprised that independent researchers can find so much more potentially troubling information that the “official” regulators don’t (or at least don’t report).

    I’ve also encountered New York landowners that almost comically praise pro-fracking faculty at Cornell (Dr, Cathles, etc) while denouncing the anti-fracking faculty (Dr. Ingraffea, etc). (Reminds me of the 1996GoPac Memo, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.”)

    My lower tier friends in the oil industry would never claim such low methane leakage rates as Cathles (1 to 2%) and suspect the minimum flared off, released unburned, or leaked to be 29% (with some more like 35%. Field observations don’t seem anywhere near what the supposedly neutral (but obviously pro-industry) academics put forth, and seem even higher than the anti-fracking academics are willing to claim.

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