Former chancellor resigns over fracking scandal

Taken by Bryan Tuttle
Taken by Bryan Tuttle

Raymond L. Orbach, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin and former UCR chancellor, and geosciences professor Charles “Chip” Groat, have both resigned in the wake of a controversial “fracking” study.

The Public Accountability Initiative, a watchdog group, revealed that Groat, the head researcher and author of the study, held a spot on the board of directors of a natural gas and drilling company, Plains Exploration and Production. For the duration of the study, Groat received nearly $1.5 million within the last five years as a member of the board.

Groat did not disclose his affiliations to a drilling board as a conflict of interest, which violated the university’s research procedures. Amidst the controversy, Orbach took responsibility and resigned from his position on Nov. 30—the same day the findings were released—in a statement by UT Austin.

“I maintained that my role [on the board of Plains Exploration and Production] would not influence results and that I did not do so,” stated Groat to National Public Radio (NPR).

According to the National Public Radio (NPR), Orbach stated that he found no evidence that Groat displayed an unprofessional bias in the overall findings of the study.

Overseen by a three-person independent panel, the university’s review revealed that there was no “intentional misrepresentation” by Groat, but whom they state demonstrated “very poor judgement.”

Due to his affiliation with the drilling company’s board of directors, Groat’s lack of disclosure placed both his credibility as a researcher and the results of the study at risk. The findings of the review identified Groat as having a clear conflict of interest.

On Dec. 6, the UT Austin withdrew the environmental study due to the scandal and implemented recommendations provided by the review committee. Those recommendations included a systemwide audit of research management procedures, which involve reviewing the university’s conflict of interest policies and procedures.

Dr. Orbach remains at the university as a tenured faculty member, but is no longer employed at the Energy Institute. A search is underway to recruit new leadership at the Institute.

“Fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing, is the extraction of oil and gas from underground resources and is heatedly debated for potentially causing adverse impacts to the environment through groundwater contamination.

Entitled “The Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in the Shale Gas Development,” the study originally revealed that there was no association between fracking and water contamination.

According to Reuters, natural gas is known for being the fastest growing fossil fuel in the world. Current reserve levels are anticipated to grow at a rate of 2.1 percent by 2030, which is partly attributed to the process of fracking.

The story garnered significant national attention as a top link on the popular social site Reddit, self-described as the “front page of the Internet.” A post regarding the fracking controversy received over 1,400 comments from the site’s users.

The UCR science library, also known as the Raymond L. Orbach library, was dedicated to its namesake in 2009, due to his major contributions to the campus. During Orbach’s term at UCR, the student population doubled from 8,500 to 15,000—shifting UCR from a small to medium-sized campus. An additional one million square feet of research and teaching space, with the approximate cost of $250 million, resulted from Orbach’s leadership.

Steve Mitchell, the Raymond L. Orbach Science Reference Librarian, reflected on his past encounters with former Chancellor Orbach. “Under his watch at least, they developed a whole campus down here [at the University Village]. So he really grew UCR and made a special effort to reach out to so-called ‘minority groups’ at the time and promote cultural diversity,” he said.

After Orbach’s departure from UCR in 2002, he became the director of the Office of Science at the Department of Energy and the founding director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas in 2009.


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