UT-Austin appoints gas industry insider to lead probe into fracking study conflicts

The University of Texas at Austin recently came under fire for releasing a study of groundwater contamination from fracking that it promoted as independent of industry when the principal investigator was in fact a board member of an oil and gas company heavily involved in fracking.

This week the school appointed a panel of experts to review that fracking study -- but the panel will be chaired by a gas industry insider.

Norman Augustine served for nearly 20 years on the board of oil and gas giant ConocoPhillips and its predecessor company, Phillips Petroleum. During that time, he was awarded millions of dollars in stock and cash compensation. He's now retired from the board but continues to receive annual payments of deferred compensation. Augustine is also the retired chair and CEO of Lockheed Martin.

Steven Leslie, the university's executive vice president and provost who convened the panel, said Augustine's "credentials are impeccable" -- but the nonprofit watchdog group that originally exposed the problems with the study disagrees.

"Unfortunately, the university's choice of Mr. Augustine throws the independence of this review into question before it has even begun," says Kevin Connor of the Public Accountability Initiative.

Connor points out that ConocoPhillip's 2009 proxy states that Augustine elected to defer $3.1 million in stock awards to a Vanguard account, which was to be paid out in 10 annual installments beginning in 2009. (For details on that compensation, see the footnote on page 62 here.)

"Mr. Augustine's relationship to the gas industry is strikingly similar to that of the original study's author, Chip Groat, who has earned close to $2 million as a director of drilling company Plains Exploration and Production," Connor says.

Connor also notes that ConocoPhillips is a major donor to UT's Energy Institute, which released the controversial study. It gave the institute a five-year, $1.5 million grant for energy research in 2010.

Based in Houston, ConocoPhillips is the world's fifth-largest private sector energy corporation and the largest producer of natural gas in North America. Nearly 90 residents of Panola County, Texas recently sued the company over claims that its improper disposal of fracking waste contaminated their groundwater.

(Image from Public Accountability Initiative.)