University of Tennessee Wants To Start Fracking
By Ben Hall
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.- The University of Tennessee wants to get into the fracking business.
It hopes to lease thousands of acres of University-owned forest land to an oil and gas company so it can drill for natural gas.
U.T. says it's a research project, that will help the state, but some environmental groups question whether money is motivating factor.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered the university had a contract with a gas company three years ago that allowed fracking on its land in Morgan and Scott Counties.
The contract was worth millions of dollars, but the project was stopped after former Governor Phil Bredesen raised concerns.
Now some environmental groups question whether the school is trying to sell the plan as a research project when the true aim is to make money.
Earlier this month people in Morgan County went to the Wartburg Community Center to hear about the University's plans for fracking on 8000 acres of forest land.
"We're doing this from a research project focus. We are going to be good stewards of the land," said Dr. Kevin Hoyt who is the University of Tennessee's Director, Forest Resources & Education Center.
Hydro fracking, or fracking as it's more commonly called, is a controversial process that involves shooting water and chemicals into the ground to break up shale and release natural gas.
The university says it wants to study its effects on the environment.
"We owe it to the state of Tennessee to investigate, and put good science on the ground," Dr. Hoyt said.
But the university seemed more focused on making money than research when the project was debated three years ago.
CNX Gas Company guaranteed U.T. nearly $2 million over five years, plus additional royalty payments for the right to frack on the property.
Minutes from the State Building Commission Meeting in April of 2009, show a state official said Governor Bredesen had concerns about the environmental impact of the project.
So, it never happened.
Attorney Anne Davis with the Southern Environmental Law Center questions whether money, more than research, is driving this new push to open the land to fracking.
"I am concerned about whether it's just a repackage and whether there is a true interest in research," Davis said.
"This is public land, and we understand it's very important to the wildlife in the area," Davis continued.
The 8000 acres involved in the proposal, was donated to the university by a coal company in the 1930s.
It is broken into two tracts in Morgan and Scott Counties, and is used for agricultural research projects.
"To me it's all a laboratory," said Martin Schubert who manages the U.T. Forest.
Schubert lives on the property with his family.
He thinks the fracking study is a good idea because there are other natural gas wells all around the property.
"It would concern me if the university didn't take it upon themselves to look at the environmental impact of oil and gas development," Schubert said.
But several environmental groups say it's not a laboratory, it's a forest, and question how U.T. can objectively do research on something making it money.
"There's a bit of a conflict in studying whether this activity, which is profitable to U.T., is harming the environment," Anne Davis said.
The university says the arrangement between industry and researchers is not uncommon.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "So you wouldn't be afraid to publish something bad about the industry?"
Dr. Hoyt responded, "The researchers are going to publish the findings, and we'll control the data so we'll be publishing what we find out there."
While the last contract stood to make the university millions of dollars, Dr. Hoyt said it was too early to guess how much it might make this time.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Is it unheard of to think, millions of dollars? Is that possible?"
Dr. Hoyt responded, "Not sure I can answer that."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed, "So it is possible you could make millions of dollars?"
Dr. Hoyt said, "I wish I could answer that. I don't know for a fact."
Some who live near the U.T. Forest worry that fracking might affect their livestock or drinking water.
Environmental groups are waiting to see if the proposed contract is more about money or research.
"We all just need to watch this very carefully as it unfolds, and see what the true purpose of this is," Davis said.
The university says it will follow the state's new fracking rules.
But those rules allow companies not to disclose chemicals they pump into the ground by claiming them as trade secrets.
Environmental groups hope U.T. will order any company that wins a contract to spell out what chemicals it uses.
That may make it harder for the university to get a contract.
The university is still working on its new proposal, and hopes to open bidding in the next three months.
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