Panelist reviewing fracturing study has his own industry ties

Related Content
July 24,2012
UT study on hydraulic fracturing to be reviewed by outside experts
Feb. 16, 2012
Fracturing ‘has no direct’ link to water pollution, UT study finds


A retired aerospace executive – appointed to review a study on hydraulic fracturing after it was disclosed the study’s author has strong industry ties – has such ties himself.

On Monday, the University of Texas at Austin appointed Norman Augustine to chair a three-member panel charged by the university with independently reviewing a study that concluded hydraulic fracturing doesn’t harm ground water.

But Augustine “doesn’t pass the smell test” because he served on the board of Houston-based ConocoPhillips or its predecessor company from 1989 to 2008, said Kevin Connor, a director of the Public Accountability Initiative, a watchdog group in Buffalo, N.Y.

Steven Leslie, UT Austin’s executive vice president and provost, said Thursday that he considered Augustine’s board membership, and disclosed it when making the appointment earlier this week.

He selected Augustine because of his credentials and because three U.S. presidents have chosen him to examine some of the nation’s most important issues.

“I have a hard time imagining that anyone would question the impeccable credentials of Norman Augustine. He’s the perfect man,” Leslie said.

Deferred payments

Augustine still receives payments from ConocoPhillips that he deferred after retiring as a board member on May 14, 2008, according to the company’s 2009 proxy. At the time, he elected to defer more than $3 million to be paid over a 10-year period following his retirement, the proxy said.

As a director in 2007, he received stock and cash awards amounting to $545,645, according to the company’s 2008 proxy.

“It’s an unfortunate choice to pick a longtime oil and gas industry insider to review the study and act as an independent watchdog,” Connor added. “The university’s choice of Mr. Augustine throws the independence of this review into question before it has even begun.”

Efforts to reach Augustine at the several residences listed under his name were not successful.

The Public Accountability Initiative looks at a wide variety of government and business practices, and has been critical of the oil and gas industry and of hydraulic fracturing. The technology involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into oil and gas formations to release hydrocarbons trapped in tight rock.

Last month, the Public Accountability Initiative found industry ties to the author of the fracturing study, Charles “Chip” Groat.

Groat led the study by the UT Energy Institute, of which he is an associate director. He also is a director of Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production Co., where he held more than 40,000 shares of stock in May, worth more than $1.58 million, according to the company’s proxy.

‘Independent look’

As a result, the university decided to appoint a group of experts to review the study, saying the criticism warranted “an independent look” at the study.

Leslie said it doesn’t anger him that the Public Accountability Initiative has criticized Augustine’s appointment.

“It’s a legitimate concern that there’s a worldwide technology (hydraulic fracturing) that could adversely affect our environment,” Leslie said. “What we want is to find the truth so that the public will know.”

Leslie said the results of the task force’s review should be ready in a matter of weeks.

Augustine is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Under the Obama administration, he chaired a committee that examined possibilities for human space flight after the space shuttle program ended.

The two other members of the panel reviewing the fracturing study are James Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan, and Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation and former president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute.

Leslie said none of the three has direct ties to UT Austin.

In 2010, ConocoPhillips gave the university a five-year grant totaling $1.5 million for energy research to be administered by the Energy Institute – an award noted in a news release from the institute.

vvaughan@express-news.net