Educational Fracking? UT Wants to Research Oil and Gas Drilling, But at What Cost?

The University of Tennessee in Knoxville is the flagship public research university in the state. So it makes sense that it'd want to invest in a longterm project to study the effects of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the oil and gas industry in the state.


Well, maybe not, say critics of UT's new plan to lease land at its Forest AgResearch and Education Center property in Scott and Morgan counties to oil and gas interests.

"As a resident of East Tennessee and a mother I am concerned about the environmental impacts of fracking on our watersheds. As a UT alumni, I feel that big oil and education don't mix, and this project damages the reputation of the University of Tennessee," says Beth Graves, a member of Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM) who lives in Grainger County. SOCM is one of a number of environmental groups, including the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Tennessee Clean Water Network, and the Southern Environmental Law Center, that have expressed strong opposition to UT's plan, the fate of which could be determined Friday.

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 currently leases 250 acres of the Cumberland Forest to Vinland Energy under an agreement in place since 1991—it generates approximately $6,700 in annual revenue—so this isn't a totally new idea, and the university has been working on the specifics of this plan for a decade. But it's the scope of the project that has critics worried.

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.

The State Building Commission was set to vote on the matter in January, but an outpouring of criticism sent the matter to a special called meeting, which will be held Friday afternoon in Nashville. The UT proposal is the only item on the agenda, and turnout is expected to be large.

For those who can't make it to Nashville, Richard Evans, the former director of the AgResearch Center (and of the UT Arboretum), will be giving a talk and then answering questions about the project over lunch on Friday at the cafe in Thompson-Boling Arena. Evans is retired but still assists with the Gas and Oil Research Initiative, so he's unlikely to be an unbiased source of information, but you might still learn something.

Friday, March 15

Hearing on approval of an RFP for disposal by lease of mineral rights with waiver of appraisals

State Building Commission, Executive Subcommittee

2 p.m. CDT

Hearing Room 12, Legislative Plaza, Nashville, Tenn.

UT Science Forum Brown-Bag Lunch

Richard Evans, "The Proposed UT AgResearch Gas & Oil Well Research Project"

12 p.m.

Thompson-Boling Arena, The Café in the Arena, Private Room C-D