The state Department of Environmental Protection has approved a $150,000 grant earmarked in the state budget for “independent research regarding natural gas drilling” to an industry-backed nonprofit organization.
The funding was approved on a non-competitive basis– other groups were not able to apply for the money.
The Pittsburgh-based Shale Alliance for Energy Research (SAFER PA) was formed as a partnership between industry and academia. Its board includes two representatives from Pennsylvania universities and five members from the oil and gas industry. SAFER PA’s president, Patrick Findle, heads the Pittsburgh office of the Gas Technology Institute– an Illinois nonprofit that conducts research for gas companies. In 2012 Findle also served as the research committee vice chair of the industry group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
Reached by phone, Findle declined to comment and refused to even confirm that SAFER PA was working with DEP. He asked that all questions for this story be emailed to him and did not respond to the email.
The DEP did not respond to repeated requests to comment.
“We frequently see this in the budget– line-items designed so only one entity is able to acquire it.” says Barry Kauffman of the government reform group, Common Cause PA. “Hopefully that’s not the situation here because we need unbiased research. One would hope this group was not selected because it would produce a predetermined outcome.”
SAFER PA describes itself as a way to, “proactively engage stakeholders and generate independent science to help fill the gap between environmental and industry constituents.” In 2011 the organization was mentioned in a report by Governor Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission as an academic effort that should be supported.
None of the university professors from the SAFER PA board– representing Penn State, Drexel, and the University of Pittsburgh– would comment for this story.
A Penn State spokeswoman says Dr. John Hellman, an engineering professor who is listed as the vice chair of SAFER PA’s board, left the group due to his busy schedule.
To date, SAFER PA has published one report on its website– a handbook for homeowners with private water wells. The booklet was written by Groundwater and Environmental Services, Inc. — an engineering company that does the majority of its business with oil and gas companies.
SAFER PA has a strategic advisory committee with several government and environmental groups. Davitt Woodwell heads the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, which is part of the committee. He describes his organization’s role as a sounding board, and says he was not involved in obtaining the DEP grant but adds he supports SAFER’s mission.
“The idea of pushing technology is a laudable goal and definitely worth it for us to be in this outer advisory capacity,” says Woodwell. “We are not involved in the day-to-day or decision-making part.”
Scott Anderson of the Environmental Defense Fund, which is also part of the committee, agrees.
“We thought it was a good project,” he says. “We just told them we wouldn’t be able to devote more than a day or two a year to advising them.”
In a 2013 PowerPoint presentation, Findle described SAFER PA as having a “seasoned team conducting PA appropriations efforts,” with plans to raise $8-$10 million per year for shale research– to be funded by the state and other sources.
Last year the DEP received $150,000 in the state budget specifically for “independent research regarding natural gas drilling.” The agency awarded the entire sum in a sole source grant to SAFER PA.
“The only known research organization”
Although the grant was approved by the DEP in May 2014, the organization has still not received the money, according to the state Treasury. As part of the approval process, DEP staff explained why the grant would not be awarded on a competitive basis:
“[SAFER PA] is the only known research organization that is comprised of both private and public entities, including three separate Pennsylvania-based research universities as well as industry organizations with a specific focus of conducting scientific research and development of shale related projects associated with Pennsylvania’s oil and gas resources.”
Emails obtained by StateImpact Pennsylvania through an open records request show the DEP appears to be on the verge of signing a contract, but at this point it’s not entirely clear what SAFER PA will do for the agency.
The group says it intends to track the waste generated by shale development and study potential human health impacts. It also plans to create an online training tool about erosion and sediment control related to oil and gas activities.
The emails also show the governor’s office checking in with DEP on the status of the grant– once in March and again last month. Governor Corbett’s press secretary did not respond to requests to comment.