On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times published an interview with Stanford professor of geophysics Mark Zoback in which he argued against a moratorium on fracking in California and lauded the oil and gas regulatory regimes in Pennsylvania and Texas. At the beginning of the article, Zoback is identified as “Stanford geophysicist since 1984, member of the National Academy of Engineering’s Deepwater Horizon investigation committee, personal ‘decarbonizer,’ [and] fracking expert.”
What the LA Times left off of Zoback’s CV is his role as an oil and gas industry insider. In addition to his position at Stanford and role on President Obama’s industry-stacked Natural Gas Subcommittee of the Energy Advisory Board, Zoback is a senior executive advisor to the oilfield services company Baker Hughes, the former chair the oil and gas consulting firm GeoMechanics International (purchased by Baker Hughes in 2008), and a director of the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, a federally funded think tank dedicated to “exploring, producing and transporting-to-market energy or other derivative products from ultra-deepwater and unconventional natural gas and other petroleum resources.”
In his interview, Zoback identified a need for good regulations and enforcement, while at the same time downplaying the environmental impacts oil and gas drilling have had in fracking states:
LA Times: Is any place doing [fracking] right?
Zoback: Pennsylvania has been very conscientious. They’re recycling the water so they use less and inject extremely small amounts. Texas last year improved its well-construction standards. Texas just hired a state seismologist.
[States] need a water plan. We need a plan for roads, for pipelines. We need a plan for air pollution. We have to talk about the impact on communities. Look at North Dakota: the economy is booming, the unemployment rate is low — it’s great times, but there’s also more bar fights, prostitution and strangers in town. There are so many issues at different levels.
Zoback’s praise of Pennsylvania and Texas’s fracking regulation came immediately after he blamed dysfunctional regulation for 2010’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico (“the regulatory system we had couldn’t have stopped it, and we know it didn’t”). In citing Pennsylvania and Texas as states that are “doing in right,” Zoback glosses over numerous incidents in both states that have lead to water contamination, sickness, and death.
We have covered Pennsylvania’s struggles to regulate fracking in a climate of regulatory capture on this blog as well as in our report “Fracking and the Revolving Door in Pennsylvania”. In fact, a large part the regulatory dysfunction to which Zoback assigns a large part of the blame for Deepwater Horizon was the coziness between the Minerals Management Service and the oil and gas industry.
At a critical moment in California’s fracking debate, Zoback appears to be using his academic cachet as a Stanford professor to sway public opinion without disclosing his ties to the fracking industry. Oil and gas advocates have employed this gambit time and again to influence the discourse on fracking, a phenomenon that has come to be known as “frackademia.” PAI has exposed industry ties and influence on a number of studies that aimed to vindicate fracking from the State University of New York at Buffalo, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Patt Morrison, the LA Times journalist who interviewed Zoback said in an email to PAI that Zoback’s industry affiliation was duly noted in one of his answers:
Zoback: Sunlight is a great disinfectant. The more information, the less paranoia there is. The industry benefits very little from keeping things proprietary. I work a lot with them; I’m a consultant, but I’m not an apologist or a spokesman for the oil and gas industry.
While this is a step in the right direction, it is not the same as fully disclosing that he is a senior advisor to an oilfield services company or that he is on the governing board of a group that researches fracking and ultra deepwater drilling technologies.
If Zoback truly believes that sunlight is a great disinfectant, then he should have been up front about his industry ties and made more than a passing reference to work as “a consultant.”