By Steve Horn
On Friday, SUNY Buffalo's President's Office released a lengthy and long-awaited 162-page report upon request of the SUNY System Board of Trustees that delved into the substantive facts surrounding the creation of its increasingly controversial Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI). The report was published in response to concern among journalists, advocacy groups, "fracktivists," and SUNY Buffalo professors and faculty that the university is transforming itself from a center of academia to a center for "frackademia."
In the spirit of "best practices" of politicially-astute public relations professionals, the report came out late on a Friday afternoon, when few people pay close attention to news and reporters have left the office for the weekend. This tactic is known as the "document dump" or "Take Out the Trash Day," in reference to a title of an episode of The West Wing.
Buck Quigley of ArtVoice noticed the report is actually dated Sept. 27, meaning SUNY Buffalo's been sitting on it for roughly two weeks, giving the public relations office plenty of time to craft a response narrative to offer to the press.
In actuality, the report is only 13 pages. The rest is Appendices.
The Meat and Potatoes of the Report
Writing with regards to SUNY Buffalo's Academic Freedom and Conflict of Interest Policy, the President's Office stated,
To ensure transparency and adherence to rigorous standards of academic integrity, we focus on identifying and managing potential conflicts of interest. If the conflicts are determined to be unmanageable, UB will not accept the funding.
As with all research at UB, regardless of the source of the funding, it is [not] the role...of the funding source to dictate the conclusions drawn by faculty investigators. This core principle is critical to the preservation of academic freedom. UB recognizes that conflicts - both actual and perceived—can arise between sources of research funding and expectations of independence when reporting research results.
The report fails to discuss the Institute's long history of courting oil and gas industry funding. As we recently reported, the gas industry explicitly acknowledged that it targets universities as a key front for legitimacy in the eyes of the public in the ongoing shale gas PR battle within the Marcellus Shale basin. This was revealed at the same conference in which the industry acknowledged it was utilizing psychological warfare tactics on citizens.
Later in the report, the President's Office stated that it has "every expectation that the faculty will conduct their public and policy-related activities as professionals, basing their conclusions on rigourous evidence and methodology." Yet, the President's Office has little ground to stand on here, given the flawed methodology of the Institute's first report, ruthlessly picked apart in May by the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI).
Responding to PAI's report, the President's Office said, "No concerns were raised by the relevant scientific community about the data used in developing the report's conclusion." Given that the scientific community generally doesn't do rapid-fire responses to reports, it's not surprising that this is the case.
On the flip side of the coin, given that four of the five peer reviewers for that report were on the payroll of the oil and gas industry, it's also obvious SRSI had its conclusions made before the "study" was ever conducted to begin with. In other words, it was an exercise in propaganda for the oil and gas industry, rather than science.
In page seven of the report, the President's Office offers a revelatory nugget: SRSI has been in the works since 2007, predating what was then the looming rapid ascendancy of the North American shale gas boom. The Office wrote,
Beginning in late 2007, the first departmental discussions related to the potential for a research center focused on energy resources took place. This dialogue, which would continue over the course of the next four years, involved conversations of faculty members and experts in the field, in consultation with the department's alumni advisory board and the offices of the dean and department chair.
Importantly, the report also says industry insider and SRSI Director John Martin—owner of the consulting firm JP Martin Energy Strategy LLC - will serve in this capacity only until a tenured, full-time faculty member is chosen to direct the Institute and take his place. "This remains the ultimate intention of the Dean," explains the report. "[T]oward this end, the Dean is engaged in a process to identify and appoint a full-time UB faculty member as the Institute's lead director."
The obvious questions arise: Why wasn't this person chosen from the beginning, given a five-year head start to locate him/her? Why was there ever a need to bring in a non-faculty member and oil and gas industry insider like John Martin to run SRSI to begin with?
President's Office, Like Provost Charles "Chip" Zukoski, Says "No Industry Funding" for SRSI
The biggest whopper is located on page nine of the report, in which the President's Office stated, "To date, the University at Buffalo has received no industry funding for the [SRSI]. Its expenses, including the salary of its part-time director and co-director, have been paid entirely by the university's College of Arts and Sciences through discretionary funds."
This is, at best, a half-truth and pure technicality. Though, to date, SRSI—in its infancy—hasn't received oil and gas industry largesse, that doesn't mean it isn't seeking this funding and won't obtain this funding in the near future, as we explained in our latest report with regards to Provost Charles "Chip" Zukoski's parallel "no industry funding" statement:
Two key details raise serious immediate red flags about Zukoski's claims of recieving "no industry funding."
The first: in its initial call out for funding, the SRSI stated it was seeking three-year $1.14 million corporate memberships "to create a dynamic and impactful program." Corporate members also are given a spot on the SRSI's Advisory Board, "ensuring focused alignment of purpose and deliverables," according to the funding request form. Put another way, three-year corporate memberships would yield some sort of deliverable goods for oil and gas corporations—a quid pro quo, if you will.
Confirming this but leaving out all of the substantive details of how this will take place and from whom the funding will come from, the Chacellor's Office wrote that "SRSI will generate research support through competitive grants, philanthropy, and from the private sector." "Private sector," in English, means the oil and gas industry.
The second: on Sept. 13, Buffalo's ArtVoice released the fruits of a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. One of the documents, dated Aug. 7, 2011, read that a "funding plan for alumni and large corporations has been in the works for two years. A pitch to alumni and corporate interests in Houston is planned for October, following on two earlier meetings there in Spring, 2011." Houston serves as the headquarters for numerous oil and gas corporations, and is a great place to go in search of funding for "frackademics."
That same document also showed that the SRSI, as of Aug. 7, 2011, had already received money from IOGA of NY. It also states that SRSI has "good contacts with National Fuel, their wholly owned subsidiary Seneca Resources, and other resource companies involved in the [Marcellus Shale]." Beyond merely offering to fund the SRSI, IOGA of NY has also provided "organizational help," according to the document.
IOGA's Board of Directors has representatives from Shell, Chesapeake Energy, and many other players in the unconventional gas sphere. National Fuel/Seneca "operates approximately 2,500 wells located in western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania...[and currently] owns approximately 730,000 acres of fee minerals, 260,000 acres of leased minerals and 100,000 acres of surface and timber rights throughout the region," according to its website.
President's Office Conclusion: Remain Silent, Defend SRSI to the Death
The President's Office closes the report with a cleansing of its hands, saying it will take a laissez faire approach to the situation. The Office stated [page 12], "In the specific case of the SRSI, and as a general academic principle, it is not the role of SUNY, or any university, to dictate the conclusions drawn by faculity from their research, or the review faculty research before it is published."
This conclusion was offered despite the fact that it's obvious what the research will yield: "deliverables" for the oil and gas industry, as we exposed in our previous report.
Despite this set of circumstances, it appears SUNY Buffalo's leadership will defend SRSI to the death.
Stay tuned for DeSmog's continuing coverage of the SUNY Buffalo SRSI affair and a forthcoming investigation digging into, of all things, SRSI's connection to the forthcoming fracking boom in the state of California.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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