We wrote a preview of Friday's meeting of the State Building Commission Executive Subcommittee for this week's issue; the meeting will determine whether the University of Tennessee can lease its land in Morgan and Scott Counties to oil and gas interests, ostensibly to study the effects of hydraulic fracturing.
UT says its proposed research initiative would provide "baseline data to advance industry-specific best management practices specific to extracting natural gas and petroleum resources from the Chattanooga shale formations common throughout East Tennessee and the Cumberland Plateau region" and would "seek to answer critical research questions regarding the relationships between the development of gas and oil resources through a process called fracking and water quality, air quality, terrestrial ecosystems, geological formations and best management practices."But in order to come up with this data, UT would actually lease around 8,000 acres (out of 11,600 acres at the site) to a yet-to-be-determined energy company. The company would drill for gas, sell it, give UT some of the proceeds, and scientists would study how badly the drilling does or doesn't affect the land around it. UT would offer a five-year lease with the option of three renewals for up to a 20-year period, and revenues would benefit the AgResearch Center. ...UT points out that other schools, like Ohio State, Penn State, and the Universities of Texas, Alabama, and Kentucky, have already entered into similar agreements. But one program at the State University of New York, Buffalo, was shut down after the watchdog Public Accountability Initiative, discredited its research. The same group also found conflicts of interest between the head of the Energy Institute at Texas, Chip Groat, and the oil and gas industry; the university retracted a study Groat led that found no link between fracking and groundwater contamination, and Groat resigned. Critics of UT's plan fear something similar happening here.
Now comes a report from Nashville's News Channel 5 that raises questions as to whether UT's plan is really about the research or whether it's more about the estimated $3 to $5 million it could receive annually from the sales of gas on the land.
You really should read the whole story, because it's important. And then, if you can, get yourself to the meeting on Friday in Nashville at 2 p.m. CDT, Hearing Room 12, Legislative Plaza.The e-mails show in 2012, the university launched a public relations campaign, giving UT officials "talking points" saying "this is first and foremost a research initiative."The university promised much needed, independent, research on the environmental impact of fracking.But the e-mails also raise questions about the independence of research.UT's chancellor of agriculture tells one oil company representative we will "need help getting industry feedback on the research questions."He then received list of "research options" from the company."I don't see how you get good research results out of that," said Parker.Consol Energy even hired a political consultant who worked on Governor Bill Haslam's campaign.Bryan Kaegi told university officials that he has spoken with the Governor's administration and state officials.He said the oil company's research and development would be willing to "review plans.""The University of Tennessee is our state university. Is this transaction and research something that's going to reflect well on the university?" Parker asked.The e-mails show that while Gov. Bredesen had concerns about the project, Gov. Haslam apparently does not.Notes from one meeting indicate "Haslam will not stop us!!"Other notes from a meeting with state officials from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation in October 2012 state, "Be prepared for the worse (sic) from the environmental community -- but their actions will not sway the governor's office resolve/support."Gwen Parker worries the state has already decided to move forward before hearing from the public."It looks like the decision has already been made and the public hasn't had a chance to weigh in," Parker said.