The Daily Pulse:

Environmentalists 1, UT 0: Research Forest Fracking Dead (For Now)

A week ago at this very same time, 3 p.m., representatives of the University of Tennessee opened bids for their RFP to drill oil and gas (and, you know, conduct "research") on the university's research forest out in Scott and Morgan Counties. There was one bidder, we were told: CONSOL Energy. This totally was not a surprise, as CONSOL had been in talks with UT for a decade about getting a similar project going.

Then, just over an hour later, we got an e-mail. That "bid" from CONSOL? It was actually a letter explaining their reasons for not bidding. (You can read it right here if you want: UT Letter of Interest.pdf.) And since then, the university's been in a state of limbo, with no one saying whether they'd re-bid the RFP or write a new RFP or give up on the project entirely. Yet with it set to go before the State Building Commission and then the UT Board of Trustees this fall, it was clear that a decision would have to be made soon.

This morning we talked to Kevin Hoyt, the Center Director for the UT Forest Resources AgResearch and Education Center, after we learned that next week's meeting of the research project advisory council had been cancelled. He said he honestly had no idea when a decision would be made and that it was in the hands of people about his pay grade. 

That was at about 10 a.m. At 1:19 p.m. we found this in our inbox:

UTIA gas and oil research initiative to be put on hold
Future of project to be evaluated by UTIA 

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture has decided to place its gas and oil research initiative on hold after receiving no bids from potential industry partners. Last week, UTIA received a "no-bid" response letter from CNX Gas Company and its subsidiary CONSOL Energy, citing that the project would not be economically viable for the company under the terms outlined in the Request for Proposals.

"While we are disappointed in the outcome, we are going to look at the feasibility of continuing this innovative research," said Kevin Hoyt, director of the Forest Resources AgResearch and Education Center. 

UTIA had sought an industry partner to conduct the drilling component of a research project designed to evaluate the environmental effects of natural gas extraction in Tennessee. The study was designed to investigate the potential impacts of oil and gas extraction on water quality, air quality, geology, flora and fauna. The research findings were to be peer-reviewed and published in scientific journals, independent of the potential industry partner. The proposed scientific investigation was a response to calls for additional research into the oil and gas extraction process and its environmental impacts. 

A website providing background on the research was designed to keep interested parties informed about the project as it moved forward. As a result, a number of questions were received and answered by UTIA. The questions and answers were posted to the website to encourage dialog about the project. 

Throughout the process, UTIA sought to engage the input of a diverse array of stakeholders including landowners, state agencies, elected officials, and industry and environmental groups through the formation of an advisory council. The advisory council met with UTIA researchers to develop a series of potential research questions, pending state approval of the project. As a result of advisory council and additional faculty meetings, UTIA faculty were in the process of developing white papers to outline future research projects. 

"I appreciate the efforts of the stakeholders who worked so hard on the project," said Larry Arrington, UTIA chancellor. "Our faculty are also to be commended on their innovative proposals for this much needed research for the state of Tennessee," he said.

The research initiative was to be a topic of discussion at the upcoming UT Board of Trustees meeting in October, and award of a lease was to be considered by the State Building Commission, pending receipt of one or more industry bids. The item has been removed from both agendas. 

"We continue to hear concerns from the public about the environmental impacts of gas and oil extraction," said Bill Brown, dean of UT AgResearch. "We're looking forward to continued work with our stakeholders regarding possibilities of moving the project forward," he said. 

The UT Institute of Agriculture provides instruction, research and public service through the UT College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, the UT College of Veterinary Medicine, UT AgResearch with its 10 AgResearch and Educations centers and UT Extension offices in every county of the state.

At 2 p.m. there was a conference call with Hoyt and Dean Brown, in which they elaborated on the press release. Will the project come back? "We don't really have a time frame," Brown said. "If this continues to be a need for the public, then the opportunity may arise in the future to take another look at it." 

Did environmentalists help kill the project? "From our perspective, the pressure from environmental groups really played no role," Brown said. What about the increased public scrutiny after the e-mails with CONSOL surfaced? "You'd have to ask the oil and gas companies," Brown said.*

One thing that likely did play a role -- both in the lack of bids on the RFP and the squelching of the project in general -- is the very low price of natural gas right now. If and when prices go back up, could we expect to see the project back on the table? "There's just no way to tell at this point," Brown said.*

The project is dropped from all agendas this fall and everyone is moving on with their lives as if it hadn't happened. If it does come back -- which admittedly seems quite feasible, given that they've already spent 10 years trying to make it happen -- it'll be a while. We imagine there will be quite a celebration at the Fracktivist Conference this weekend.

Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry will continue to funnel funds into the university in support of its industry. Just yesterday UT announced the creation of a new Miller Energy Fellowship for a graduate student studying petroleum geology. The grant is funded by Miller Energy Resources, which has been drilling in East Tennessee since the 1960s -- and was one of the energy companies initially interested in submitting a bid to drill in the research forest.

*We are pretty sure Brown said this, but it might have been Hoyt. By the end of the conference call, it was hard to keep track, since both men sound very much alike over speaker-phone on a mediocre cell connection. 

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