Undisclosed Ties to Anti-Fracking Group Cast Haze Over UNT Smog Research

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A recent University of North Texas (UNT) study linking fracking and high ozone levels in Dallas-Fort Worth failed to disclose a previous financial relationship with Downwinders at Risk, an anti-fracking group that has spent years campaigning for tighter federal rules on ozone. An investigation by North Texans for Natural Gas uncovered the financial connections, which include at least $120,000 for research on the same subject, starting in the summer of 2014.

The authors of the UNT study, Dr. Kuruvilla John and Mahdi Ahmadi, have been researching ground-level ozone (or smog) in the Metroplex for several years. Their work has been covered extensively by the press in North Texas, but the reports never mentioned the researchers’ financial connections to local environmental activists.
 
Funded by Fracktivists
 
Downwinders at Risk is one of the more extreme groups fighting fracking in North Texas. Their blog has suggested natural gas drilling is akin to “being shat on,” and has attempted to rally drilling opponents with calls to action like “North Texas Fracktivists Unite!” The group has also staked out a decidedly anti-corporate posture, cheerfully claiming that branding “corporate out-of-towners as the villains” is something that will “unite voters.”
 
According to listings at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, UNT study co-author Dr. Kuruvilla John received $120,000 in funding from the Downwinders at Risk Education Fund from July 1, 2014, through June 30, 2015. The project work is described as the “North Texas Ozone Attainment Initiative Study,” which Downwinders has teased on its blog on several occasions.
 
The Downwinders at Risk Education Fund’s 2014 990-EZ IRS Form also reveals a financial link with the ozone research team at UNT. The form shows expenses exceeding $25,000 for a project described as follows:
 

Administered the group’s Ozone Modeling Project with the University of North Texas and the Committee for North Texas Air Quality Modeling Project, including setting up and facilitating conference calls, meetings, and appointments, as well as seeking additional funding for the Project.

It’s unclear if the expenses described in Downwinders’ 990-EZ form are a component of the larger $120,000, as listed by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, or if they were given to supplement those funds.
 
Additionally, a project poster from March 17, 2015, by the same UNT research team outlines their work on a photochemical model of air emissions in DFW, including “oil and gas activities in Barnet [sic] Shale.” The record includes the following disclaimer: “Financial support for this work provided by the Downwinders at Risk Educational Foundation.”
 
A separate project poster for the 2015 Graduate Student Symposium of the Federation of North Texas Area Universities detailed work that the UNT team had performed that linked shale gas activities with regional ozone, the same subject as the peer-reviewed study published last summer. The researchers used those findings to push for regulatory changes, as the poster describes:
 
“[I]n order to effectively control ozone level [sic] to attain the national standard level it is necessary to include strategies and techniques to lower the emission levels of all shale gas production activities.
 
C:\Users\severle\Downloads\metadc699825_xl_FederationExhibition2015-DFWOzone.jpg
 
 
Jim Schermbeck, the head of Downwinders at Risk, as blogged frequently about UNT’s ozone research, providing a megaphone for research that Downwinders has financially supported. Schermbeck bragged in April of 2014 of what “Downwinders at Risk did this past week to make sure Thursday’s air quality meeting wasa [sic] success,” including heavy promotion of the UNT team’s preliminary ozone research:
 
1) Pressed for and got the UNT study linking fracking to smog on the meeting agenda after being told it would not be included.
 
2) Sent out releases to the media advertising the UNT presentation.
 
3) Sent out alerts to you and others to let you know about the new UNT study and the meeting itself.
 
Failure to Disclose
 
Despite the clear financial connections between the UNT researchers and Downwinders at Risk, the UNT team’s published paper includes no mention of their work with environmentalists who oppose shale gas development, including the $120,000 in funding.
 
The journal that published the UNT team’s latest paper, Science of The Total Environment, has a conflict of interest policy that states:
 
An undisclosed funding source that may pose a conflict of interest: neglecting to disclose the role of the study sponsor(s), if any, in study design; in the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the writing of the report; and in the decision to submit the paper for publication. Undeclared financial conflicts may seriously undermine the credibility of the journal, the authors, and the science itself.
 
In addition, the University of North Texas Code of Conduct, Policy Number 16.12.3.3, states:
 
It is the policy of the University of North Texas (“UNT”) that no proposed, awarded, or ongoing UNT research project shall be biased by a significant financial interest of any Investigator responsible for the design, conduct, or reporting of the research. The purpose of this policy is to assure objectivity in research.
 
So, what constitutes a significant financial interest? As the UNT Code explains:
 
“Financial Conflict of Interest” means a Significant Financial Interest (SFI; as defined in the UNT conflict of interest procedure relevant to the funding entity) that could directly and significantly affect the design, conduct, or reporting of research. 
 
But does $120,000 constitute a “Significant Financial Interest”? According to the UNT Code, yes it does:
 
With regard to any non-publicly traded Entity, a SFI exists if the value of any remuneration received from the Entity in the twelve months preceding the disclosure, when aggregated, exceeds $5,000.
 
At $120,000, the amount of money that Downwinders at Risk contributed to the UNT team’s ozone research is 24 times larger than what their employer considers the minimum amount for a significant financial interest. In addition to not appearing in the paper, the funding is also not disclosed on any of Dr. John’s faculty pages.
 
It is possible that the published study is separate from the research projects that Downwinders funded. The study analyzes data from 2000 to 2013, whereas the photochemical models described in the research posters that thank Downwinders for their funding examine ozone levels in the future, based on hypothetical emissions scenarios.
 
But even if the money that Downwinders gave to the UNT team was technically for a separate project, it was still financial support to research the same activity (shale gas drilling) as it relates to the same subject (ozone) in the same region (North Texas) as the team’s published study.
 
Moreover, as the publishing journal’s policy also notes, such a distinction would hardly be a sufficient defense, since conflicts of interest are not limited to financial connections. Merely being affiliated with a group that has advocated for more regulations on ozone (as Downwinders has done) is a potential conflict:
 
“Some considerations that should be taken into account include: whether a person’s association with the organization interferes with their ability to carry out the research or paper without bias; and whether the relationship, when later revealed, make a reasonable reader feel deceived or misled.
The journal’s policy further advises:
 
Full disclosure about a relationship that could constitute a conflict–even if the person doesn't believe it affects their judgment–should be reported to the institution's ethics group and to the journal editor to which a paper is submitted. All publishers require disclosure in the form of a cover letter and/or footnote in the manuscript.
 
A journal may use disclosures as a basis for editorial decisions and may publish them if they are believed to be important to readers in judging the manuscript. Likewise, the journal may decide not to publish on the basis of the declared conflict.
 
The journal did not publish the researchers’ connections to Downwinders at Risk, meaning the researchers either failed to comply with the journal’s policy, or the editors concealed the information from the public.
 
A Disturbing Pattern
 
The apparent conflict of interest comes amidst an unfortunate and growing trend of environmentalists attempting to manipulate what should be an objective scientific process.
 
Earlier this year, it was revealed that environmental activists had unduly influenced the scientific review process behind the state of New York’s fracking ban. At least one of the studies cited by the state’s health officials had been funded, written, and even peer-reviewed by opponents of fracking.
 
The peer-reviewers included Sandra Steingraber, the co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking. All three reviewers had publicly opposed gas drilling but refused to disclose their affiliations to the publishing journal, violating a number of codes of scientific conduct. Asked by Fox News why she concealed that information, Steingraber said people “can’t be neutral” on natural gas drilling anyway. Elsewhere, Steingraber has suggested that the only women working for the energy industry are hotel maids and prostitutes.
 
Last month, the activist group Friends of the Earth released a report that it claimed was “peer-reviewed,” even though it had only been read by one other environmentalist and was never even submitted to an academic journal.
 
In 2012, a PR firm hired by New Yorkers Against Fracking began pitching research that presumably linked gas drilling to low birth weight. The paper, which had not been peer-reviewed, was authored by Elaine Hill, a graduate student at Cornell University who later regretted that she had publicized her work before the scientific process had been completed. Experts called Hill’s work “highly suspect” and said it included “outrageously unsupported claims.”
 
Downwinders at Risk promoted Hill’s report when it was released in 2012, and defended Hill’s research again in a blog post last year.
 
Influencing Policy
 
Last month, one of the UNT researchers, Mahdi Ahmadi, advocated for new regulations on oil and natural gas development during a U.S. EPA hearing in Dallas, which was held to discuss the agency’s proposal to regulate methane emissions from oil and natural gas. Ahmadi cited his “recently published peer-reviewed research” on shale gas and ozone formation as evidence for why “there must be strict controls” on oil and natural gas activities in North Texas.
 
A local environmental activist filmed Ahmadi’s presentation and published it the same day on YouTube:
 
“This is why we should support this new EPA proposal,” Ahmadi said at the hearing.
 
Other organizations have also cited the UNT team’s research to advocate for stricter controls on energy production. A resolution under consideration by the Dallas County Commissioners, for example, references the UNT team’s research on ozone as part of its call for retrofitting coal plants with expensive new technology or retiring them altogether. The Texas Medical Association has also passed a resolution citing the UNT team’s work:
 
“That TMA reject the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's (TCEQ's) 2015 State Implementation Plan (SIP) report and advocate for development of a new SIP report that conforms to the scientific, peer reviewed modeling methods developed by UT Southwestern and University of North Texas experts. TMA advocates for implementing reasonably available control measures at the state level capable of meeting national ozone standards, based on the UTSW and UNT validated models.”
In April, Downwinders at Risk and the Sierra Club submitted comments on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s air quality plan for the Dallas-Fort Worth region. The groups advocated for significant new restrictions on oil and natural gas development. To make their case, Downwinders and the Sierra Club leveraged the UNT team’s research linking DFW ozone levels with natural gas drilling.
 
Transparency Needed
 
In 2012, a study from the University of Texas at Austin “found no direct evidence that fracking itself has contaminated groundwater.” But one of the co-authors had failed to disclose the fact that he served on the board of an oil and natural gas company, which generated a firestorm of state and national media coverage.
 
The researcher insisted that his affiliation with the company had “no bearing on the results of the study,” especially since money from the University – not energy companies – financed the research.
 
Reporters and drilling critics were not convinced, though, because even the affiliation went undisclosed.
 
Adam Briggle, the former president of Frack Free Denton and under whose direction Mahdi Ahmadi is completing his doctoral dissertation at UNT, wrote that the “lack of full disclosure has tainted the study.” Another North Texas anti-fracking activist, Sharon Wilson with Earthworks, blogged about the controversy at UT as it was unfolding.
 
Would the press and other groups who claim to advocate for “disclosure” and public accountability have provided the same level of scrutiny if the researchers had been financially connected with an environmental group that advocated for the same things that were published in the paper?
 
Perhaps we’ll find out.
 
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