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UB report on 'fracking' draws fire of watchdog Groups blast study as grossly misleading

A Buffalo-based corporate accountability research group Thursday criticized as "seriously flawed and biased" last week's study from the University at Buffalo that said stronger regulation was leading to an improved safety record among drillers in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale.

The new report from the Public Accountability Initiative disputed the conclusions of the study by UB's new Shale Resources and Society Institute, which reported that the rate of environmental violations -- both major and minor -- were declining at Pennsylvania's Marcellus wells.

The new study said both the rate and total number of violations have increased at horizontal wells drilled with the controversial technique called hydraulic fracturing, also known as hydrofracking or, quite simply, "fracking."

"The evidence does not support the notion that fracking is becoming any safer," the new study said.

The new report also criticizes the UB study's authors for having close ties to the oil and natural gas drilling industry and noted that previous research in 2009 by two of the authors was funded by a natural gas industry group known as the Marcellus Shale Coalition and issued in association with Penn State University, which later backed away from the initial version of the report because it did not disclose its funding source.

The new report also criticizes the UB study for copying entire passages, without proper attribution, from a pro-drilling report three of the four authors wrote last year for the Manhattan Institute.

"While masquerading as independent, academic research, the report's errors all point in the direction of heavy pro-industry bias and spin," the Public Accountability Initiative study said.

The Public Accountability Initiative has been involved in several local issues, from releasing a report critical of the proposed Bass Pro project on the waterfront to research criticizing National Fuel Gas Co. for not spending more to aid low-income customers.

The Public Accountability Initiative's funding for the latest report came from the 11th Hour Project of the Schmidt Family Foundation, which supports efforts "to advance the creation of an increasingly intelligent relationship between human activity and the use of the world's natural resources."

While the Public Accountability Initiative criticizes the UB report's authors for their ties to the drilling industry, the 11th Hour Project has links to prominent opponents of hydraulic fracturing. Among the 11th Hour Projects partners listed on its website are fracking opponents such as Food & Water Watch and Frack Action.

A UB spokeswoman said the university might have a response today.

The UB report examined nearly 3,000 reported violations at almost 4,000 Pennsylvania natural gas wells between January 2008 and August 2011, and concluded that during 2008 there were slightly less than 3 environmental violations for every 5 wells drilled, or 58.2 percent. In the first eight months of 2011, there was a little more than 1 environmental violation for every 4 new wells drilled, or 26.5 percent -- less than half the 2008 level.

The Public Accountability Institute report, however, used slightly different data from the UB report that looked at the 845 "unique incidents" during the nearly four-year period, as opposed to the 1,144 total violations the UB researchers used in their calculations.

Using that different data, the rate of major environmental violations had increased from 5.9 per 1,000 wells in 2008 to 8 per 1,000 wells in the first eight months of 2011, the Public Accountability Institute said. The actual number of violations also increased as the pace of drilling accelerated.

"Data in the report undermines one of its central claims, that the risk of major environmental events has decreased," said Kevin Connor, the Public Accountability Initiative's co-director. "Actually, it has increased, according to their data and methodology, but they state the opposite in the report."

Connor also criticized the UB institute for touting its study as an unbiased look at the controversial issue when the reports authors all have close ties to the industry, repeating a criticism he levied in The Buffalo News immediately after the study was issued.

The UB report also is being questioned for its initial claims that it had been subject to a peer review. UB has since backed away from its earlier claim that the report had been "peer reviewed," adding an editor's note to its original news release detailing the study.

"This description may have given readers an incorrect impression," the editor's note said.

Peer-reviewed studies generally are subjected to a thorough critique by independent experts before publication in a scholarly journal. The revised UB news release said drafts of the report "were viewed by several individuals with expertise in related areas, who provided comments to the authors." One of those experts is the co-director of UB's shale institute.

Furthermore, another one of those reviewers, Scott Anderson of the Environmental Defense Fund, distanced himself from the UB report in a blog posting the day after it was issued.

Among his criticisms of the report was its classification of the rate of environmental violations during the first eight months of last year as being "low," when issues were found at 26.5 percent of the wells drilled. He also took issue with the UB report's conclusion that current regulatory efforts are effective because of the decline in the rate of violations per well, as defined in that study.