About ten days ago, the University of Buffalo released a peer-reviewed study - or so it described it at that moment - which seemed to cast a positive light on the way regulators were able to managing the risks of the controversial method of gas extraction known as fracking.
The researchers at Buffalo's Shale Resources and Society Institute had analyzed fracking in Pennsylvania and found that increased regulation was, indeed, making it safer. They cited a pattern of fewer environmental "events" under the new rules. The finding, the authors suggested, could be considered positive in light of some ambitious fracking proposals for New York's Marcellus Shale.
And certainly most of coverage emphasized that apparently positive outcome. In the local paper, The Buffalo News, the story by David Robinson was headlined : "Fracking 'Risks' Found To have Been Diminished".
The outlook was similarly upbeat in some 100 other stories (according to a Google News check) that followed the announcement. The Associated Press coverage (shown here in The Washington Post) said the report found that "State regs reduce impact of gas drilling in Pa., will also work in NY". At Forbes, the headline was "Fracking Safety Improves Dramatically, Says Independent Study."
Still, even in this early coverage there were signs of caution. As Robinson noted in the Buffalo News story, study's lead author, Timothy Considine, of the University of Wyoming, had been consistently funded by the drilling industry. The head of the institute had done some consulting for the gas industry also. The story quoted the Public Accountability Initiative, an activist group, which believed that the report had understated the more damaging findings.
On Thursday, the group released its own accounting of the Buffalo report. It reanalyzed the same data and found the authors seemed to have cherry-picked the environmental events. This second look at the numbers indicated that fracking related problems had actually been on the increase. And they pointed out that the report didn't actually seem independent in nature: The report lifts entire passages, without proper attribution, from an explicitly pro-fracking report released last year by the conservative Manhattan Institute and written by three of the four authors of the UB study.
Further, the university was incorrect in describing the report as a peer reviewed study. In fact, the University of Buffalo ended up posting a corrected press release in order to clarify that this was a report, not a study that had gone through the kind of meticulous scientific analysis expected from peer review. group also emphasized this was, as the university not a scientifically peer-reviewed study. Here is a link to the corrected press release.
After this, the coverage wasn't quite so upbeat.
From Sharon Kelly at Grist: "Check the Math: Study Reporting 'Safer' Fracking Reveals Oil Industry Ties to Academia."
From Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones: "Frack-friendly Report Debunked."
"Bad Science? Peer Reviewed Study Promoting Fracking Was Not Peer Reviewed" from Victoria Bekiempis at the Village Voice.
"University of Buffalo backpedals," reported Joseph Spector at New York's Democrat and Chronicle. Farther afield, at the International Business Times, Pierre Bertrand wrote: "When a university is accused of misrepresenting its own data, that makes understanding the controversial drilling technique known as fracking even more challenging."
And back at the Buffalo News, Robinson outlined the criticisms in careful detail in a Friday story, which focused on the advocacy group's conclusions: "The evidence does not support the notion that fracking is becoming any safer." Shortly later, the university responded to the growing chorus of criticism - largely by distancing itself from the researchers: “Faculty members are free to conduct research on any topic, including controversial ones, and to disseminate their findings without prior review or approval by the university,”
I've told this chronologically because I think the chronology very nicely illustrates a process at work here: 1) University press office over-enthusiastically reports a report. 2) Positive stories result, especially in business oriented publications like Forbes 3) Advocacy group releases its own report 4) Critical stories result, especially in publications more sympathetic to the group's viewpoint, such as Mother Jones. 5) University responds by promising investigation which will eventually lead to new press release.
In the end, I forecast that only the Buffalo News will really cover the results of that investigation, which is after all, a local story. And in the end, the local paper, with its detailed, old-fashioned reporting of all sides of this story, did the best job of capturing the politics, the tensions, and the underlying cynicism of the official process.
It's a reminder that old-fashioned journalistic fundamentals still work - and are definitely still needed in the days of new-fashioned university research.
UPDATE: And here's an excellent follow up from Kevin Begos at Associated Press, taking a closer look at the lead researcher on that University of Buffalo study and finding a history of industry conflicts.
--- Deborah Blum